Once A Clinton Nemesis During Whitewater, Now A Clinton Supporter

Oct 6, 2016
Originally published on October 11, 2016 3:45 pm

It's hard to imagine a less likely Hillary Clinton supporter than Michael Chertoff.

Chertoff led the Republicans' 1990s probe into the Clintons' land deal, known as the Whitewater investigation — and that led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton would later vote against Chertoff for other key positions requiring Senate approval.

In a dramatic turnaround, Chertoff just came out in support of Hillary Clinton for president.

"The reality is ... it's a binary choice. This is not, 'What is your best outcome in the world,' " Chertoff tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "It is: You have two people, and which of the two would be better as president? And I think presented in that way, it was pretty clear to me that I should publicly take the step of saying that I would be planning to vote for Hillary Clinton."


Does he believe Clinton would do a good job protecting this country?

I think in terms of national security I think she's going to do a good job protecting the country. There are going to be things that I'm sure I'll disagree with, but for me the national security issue is the paramount issue, and I've had the opportunity to give her some advice during the last few weeks, and I also worked with her when she was a senator and I was Secretary of Homeland Security, and I found her in both instances to be well informed.

She exhibited good understanding of what the issues and challenges were, to be steady in terms of her approach and also interested in educating herself. And I generally found her to have good judgment. And in the area of national security, those kind of temperament issues and issues about being well-informed I think are critical tools for the next president at a period of time when I think our challenges to security are perhaps more acute than at any time since Sept. 11.

How does he square everything he knows about Clinton — including her handling of classified emails — with his decision to support her?

In the end ... I go back to Sept. 11, 2001, and I was on duty. I was the head of the Criminal Division and I was part of the immediate response to prevent that from happening again. In looking back on that I realized that in the '90s we spent an enormous amount of time pursuing issues involving the Clintons' associations back in Arkansas in the '80s, Whitewater and other things, and we didn't spend nearly the same amount of time on what bin Laden was up to and others were up to in the region. And it reminded me that — you know — the ability to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing small peccadilloes is a luxury we only have in a world at peace. In a world at war, you've got to focus on the top priority which is protecting the United States and protecting our friends and allies.

Could he ever have imagined that he would one day publicly support her for president?

Probably not, but then again I could never have imagined Sept. 11, 2001, and everything that happened afterwards. And if I come back to that again and again, it's to make the point that to me, as it is probably for many Americans but certainly someone who was literally pulled in to respond to that on that very day and weeks after, that it was a transformative event. And it really had me refocus my sense of priorities about what our leaders ought to be doing. And I think that what we face today reinforces the importance of focusing on security and steadiness as the key elements of leading the United States and protecting our people.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's hard to imagine a less likely Hillary Clinton supporter than former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. In the '90s, he was the lead Republican counsel on the Senate investigation into the Clintons' land deal that came to be known as Whitewater, part of what Hillary Clinton would call a vast, right-wing conspiracy. But times have changed. In August, Michael Chertoff signed a letter with dozens of other Republican national security veterans declaring that Donald Trump would be, quote, "a dangerous president who would put the nation's security at risk." Now he's gone even further, saying he will vote for Hillary Clinton. We reached Chertoff in Vermont.

Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be on the program.

MONTAGNE: What prompted you to take this step of publicly coming out in support of Hillary Clinton?

CHERTOFF: Well, the reality is, Renee, it's a binary choice. This is not, what is your best outcome in the world? It is you have two people, and which of the two would be better as president? And I think, presented in that way, it was pretty clear to me that I should publicly take the step of saying that I would be planning to vote for Hillary Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Was it reluctant support, though, on your part, as in it's much talked about, the Hillary Clinton being the lesser of two evils. Or do you actually believe that Hillary Clinton will do a good job protecting this country?

CHERTOFF: I think in terms of national security, I think she's going to do a good job. And there are going to be things that I'm sure I'll disagree with. But for me, the national security issue is the paramount issue. And I've had the opportunity to give her some advice during the last few weeks. And I've also worked with her when she was a senator and I was secretary of homeland security.

And I found her, in both instances, to be well-informed, to exhibit a good understanding of what the issues and challenges were, to be steady in terms of her approach and also interested in educating herself. And I generally found her to have good judgment. And in the area of national security, those kind of temperament issues and issues about being well-informed, I think, are critical tools for the next president at a period of time when I think our challenges to security are perhaps more acute than at any time since September 11.

MONTAGNE: Well, (unintelligible) turn now to make the point again to listeners of how remarkable your support for Hillary Clinton is. And it sounds like your support is quite sincere and you view her quite warmly. You, more than anyone, are familiar with what critics call the Clinton sleaze. How do you square everything you know about the Clintons' past and even current issues, such as Hillary Clinton's handling of classified emails, with your decision to support her? Does that not - none of that count?

CHERTOFF: Of course - listen, I mean, when you evaluate a candidate or a situation, you have to take everything into account. And obviously, as I think she's acknowledged, I think her handling of the emails was a mistake, probably reflecting maybe a lack of real understanding of the technology. She's also reflecting a time when the technology was a little less advanced than it is now in terms of being able to keep your private and your official things separate on the same device. But in the end, I'll tell you, Renee, I go back to September 11, 2001.

When I was on duty - I was the head of the criminal division, and I was part of the immediate response to prevent that from happening again. In looking back on that, I realized that in the '90s, we spent an enormous amount of time pursuing issues involving the Clintons' association back in Arkansas in the '80s, Whitewater and other things. And we didn't spend nearly the same amount of time on what bin Laden was up to and the others were up to in the region. And it reminded me that, you know, the ability to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing small peccadilloes is a luxury we'll only have in a world at peace. In a world at war, you've got to focus on the top priority, which is protecting the United States and protecting our friends and allies.

MONTAGNE: Well, I just can't resist asking one last thing. Back in the '90s when Hillary Clinton was in your sights as the top Republican counsel, could you have ever imagined that you would publicly support her in the years ahead for president?

CHERTOFF: Probably not. But then I could never have imagined September 11, 2001, and everything that happened afterwards. And if I come back to that again and again, it's to make a point that, for me, as probably for many Americans, that was a transformative event. And it really had me refocus my sense of priorities about what our leaders ought to be doing. And I think that what we face today reinforces the importance of focusing on security and steadiness as the key elements of leading the United States and protecting our people.

MONTAGNE: Michael Chertoff is former secretary of homeland security.

Thank you very much for joining us.

CHERTOFF: My pleasure, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.