Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Ashcroft's Pr Offensive

    When John Ashcroft was struggling to win confirmation as attorney general early this year, critics vilified him as a right-wing ideologue who would turn back the clock on abortion and civil rights. Now, the keenly political ex-senator is fighting his latest campaign--this time, a carefully choreographed effort to remake his image, especially among African-Americans. ...
  • An Unpaid Tab In Florida

    Few lawyers did more to help George W. Bush become president than Barry Richard. As Bush's quarterback in the Florida courts during last fall's bruising recount, the white-maned Tallahassee, Fla., litigator became a familiar figure to TV audiences. He got the GOP equivalent of rock-star treatment when he came to Washington last January for Bush's Inauguration. At one ball, recalls law partner Fred Baggett, a heavyset Texas woman lifted Richard off the floor and planted a big kiss on his cheek, exclaiming, "I love you for giving us our president!" ...
  • Funeral Case Targets White House Counsel Gonzales

    A nasty, long simmering lawsuit involving allegations of political favors and big money campaign contributions in Texas is threatening to ensnare one of the rising stars of the Bush administration: White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. ...
  • 'I Made A Mistake'

    The country's leading Jewish civil-rights organization acknowledged today that it had received a $100,000 grant from fugitive financier Marc Rich weeks after the group's national director became involved in efforts to secure Rich a presidential pardon. ...
  • Pardon Mess Thickens

    A new batch of provocative e-mails suggests that top advisers to fugitive financier Marc Rich first plotted nearly a year ago to send Rich's ex-wife, wealthy Democratic donor Denise Rich, on a "personal mission" to President Clinton-the first foray in an extraordinarily well-orchestrated pardon campaign that began long before lawyers for Rich have publicly acknowledged. ...
  • A Million-Dollar Pledge Raises More Questions For Clinton

    Beth Dozoretz, a major Democratic Party fund-raiser who urged President Clinton to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich, last year pledged to raise $1 million for the Clinton presidential library, NEWSWEEK has learned.The records detailing Dozoretz's previously undisclosed promise were turned over to a House committee today along with records showing that Dozoretz's friend, Denise Rich, the fugitive's ex-wife, had contributed $450,000 to the library. The documents surfaced even as a federal grand jury in New York-which is conducting a criminal investigation into the Rich pardon overseen by U.S. attorney Mary Jo White-subpoenaed records from the Clinton library along with all government records relating to the Rich pardon.The size and timing of Dozoretz's pledge is almost certain to intensify the interest of investigators in any connection between Clinton's last-minute pardons and the funds being raised for his library--a project the former president has portrayed as a vital monument...
  • A Pardon's Path

    Arthur Levitt Jr. didn't hide his feelings. On the morning of Jan. 19, the day before Bill Clinton left office, the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman got a phone call from a top White House official. The official told Levitt that the president was preparing a last-minute pardon for accused tax swindler Marc Rich. What did he think? After a quick check with his staff, Levitt called back. "The man's a fugitive!" he fumed. "This looks terrible." The administration official sheepishly agreed. "Yeah," he said. "You're right."Levitt wasn't alone in expressing early doubt at the idea of pardoning Rich, who was charged with evading $48 million in taxes and trading with Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. White House lawyers were concerned that the grounds for a pardon were shaky at best, and would only lead to trouble. In the end, Clinton ignored them all. But why? The former president, in New York exile, has insisted that he granted the pardon strictly on the "merits," after...
  • Why Keating Didn't Cut It

    Only a few weeks ago, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating had every reason to believe he'd soon be moving to Washington. Talk inside the Beltway had him topping the short list for attorney general. Having campaigned his heart out for Bush, Keating--an ex-FBI agent with a sterling law-enforcement resume--didn't hesitate to call Dick Cheney and volunteer for the job. "I don't think there's anybody who's better qualified to be attorney general," says the rarely bashful governor.Keating, of course, eventually lost out to defeated Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft. Just why he was passed over provides a revealing glimpse into the way the president-elect scrutinizes candidates for top posts. Bush demands three litmus tests of all his would-be advisers: unswerving loyalty, tight lips and a skeleton-free closet. As it turned out,Keating flunked all three.Keating's first mistake came during the campaign when Bush was swamped with questions about possible cocaine use. Instead of keeping mum, Keating...
  • Forward Into Battle

    John Ashcroft knew how to bring the crowd to its feet. He finished his speech to the 1998 South Carolina Republican Party Convention by holding up two pictures of his grandson: one a sonogram of a fetus, the other a photo of the newborn infant. "If the Supreme Court had seen these pictures, had known about this 25 years ago, would they have said it was OK to destroy this grandson of mine?" he said, as the audience roared. "I say, 'No.' I say Americans must protect unborn children in the law." Ashcroft, with the help of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, won the convention's presidential straw poll, beating George W. Bush by a 2-to-1 margin. And though his White House aspirations dissolved for lack of funds, Ashcroft's stature in the party's right wing only grew. Bush, under pressure from conservatives to deliver a major cabinet appointment, has delighted them by nominating Ashcroft, 58, to be his attorney general.There may be other confirmation battles to come--environmentalists,...
  • The Truth Behind The Pillars

    Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband, John, a Washington lawyer, have long been comfortable on the cocktail and charity-ball circuit. So at an election-night party on Nov. 7, surrounded for the most part by friends and familiar acquaintances, she let her guard drop for a moment when she heard the first critical returns shortly before 8 p.m. Sitting in her hostess's den, staring at a small black-and-white television set, she visibly started when CBS anchor Dan Rather called Florida for Al Gore. "This is terrible," she exclaimed. She explained to another partygoer that Gore's reported victory in Florida meant that the election was "over," since Gore had already carried two other swing states, Michigan and Illinois.Moments later, with an air of obvious disgust, she rose to get a plate of food, leaving it to her husband to explain her somewhat uncharacteristic outburst. John O'Connor said his wife was upset because they wanted to retire to Arizona, and a Gore win...
  • Settling Old Scores In The Swamp

    It was a declaration that the man from the Bush-Cheney campaign might, at a calmer moment, like to take back, or perhaps phrase more delicately. But chaos and confusion can make petty despots of us all, and to any Bush supporter the scene in the Leon County Library must have looked like democracy unhinged. Amid a scattering of toys left over from a children's reading hour, a team of local judges was counting votes from Miami-Dade County--yet again. Would this time around put Al Gore over the top? Suddenly, mobile phones started ringing. There were press reports of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Chief Judge George Reynolds asked the clerks to find out what, exactly, was going on. That's when the officious middle-aged lawyer from Washington appeared, like a federal revenuer who had just discovered a still making moonshine. "I'm with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the vote," John Bolton proclaimed.The United States Supreme Court may bring some dignity and legitimacy to the...
  • War Of The Weary

    The clock had runout, and so had Judge Charles Burton's good humor. The head of the Palm Beach election-canvassing board had appealed for more time--just a bit, after, as he put it, "an awful lot of great people... had been breaking their behinds for about 20 hours a day the past two weeks"--to finish its manual recount. But the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris summarily denied the request. "I don't know what another two and a half hours would have meant, but why not?" Burton bitterly exclaimed. "We all want to finish the job we started to do."The judge wasn't the only one having a nightmarish weekend. "I know what they [the Republicans] are going to try to do," Bill Daley, Al Gore's campaign chairman, wearily told a NEWSWEEK reporter Saturday night. The son of Mayor Daley, who held back Democratic votes in Cook County in 1960 until he knew what John F. Kennedy needed to win, knows how these things can go. "They're going to 'find' some more votes at the last...
  • The View From The Courtroom

    Washington superlawyer Theodore Olson had barely begun to press his case for George W. Bush this morning when he got hit with a high, hard one. It came, surprisingly enough, from the right. "We're looking for a federal issue," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a usually reliable conservative. Why, Kennedy wanted to know, was Bush asking the highest federal court in the land to review how the Florida Supreme Court had interpreted state laws?It was, for many court watchers, the nub of the issue--and Kennedy's determination to raise it right away telegraphed the rough road ahead for Olson as he sought to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to rescue Bush from the legal onslaught of the Gore forces in Florida. The risks for the Bush legal team became quickly apparent as the normally smooth-talking Olson struggled under a barrage of skeptical questions from the justices.Had the Florida Supreme Court relied on some federal statute in reaching its decision to allow more time for hand recounts of...
  • Bush's Secret Strategy

    George W. Bush long has tried to avoid questions about the days when, as he puts it, "I was young and irresponsible." Before last week one of his closest shaves came in September 1996, when he was called for jury duty in the Travis County Court of Law--a jurisdiction with a heavy docket of DWI cases. Bush suggested he was raring to go. "If you're going to live in a democracy... you need to participate," he told reporters.Privately, Bush's legal team was worried. A few days before his appearance, NEWSWEEK has learned, staffer Patricia McDaniel was called to a meeting with Bush's chief counsel, Al Gonzales. What sort of questions would Bush face as a potential juror, he wanted to know. McDaniel had worked for years as a defense lawyer on DWI cases. In court papers filed in an unrelated case last year, McDaniel said she was asked to give "legal advice regarding the possible exposure of the Governor in answering personal questions about his background."Bush almost certainly would have...
  • A New Fight For Arab Votes

    Not long into last week's debate, George W. Bush made a brief, cryptic remark in response to a question about racial discrimination. "Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called 'secret evidence'," he said. "People are stopped, and we got to do something about that." The line probably flew right by most viewers. But to many Arab-Americans, it was the most dramatic moment of the campaign. "Within a few seconds I got 31 calls on my cell phone," says Osama Siblani, publisher of an Arab-American newspaper in Michigan. "People were excited."It's not hard to see why. For years, Arab-Americans have been virtually invisible in presidential campaigns. In 1984 Walter Mondale returned campaign contributions from Arab-American leaders to avoid alienating Jewish voters. In 1996 Bob Dole canceled a meeting with Arab-American activists for similar reasons. But in this year's tight race, Arab-Americans are reveling in newfound power. Their votes could prove decisive in key states like...
  • The White House E-Mail Trail

    The 1996 e-mail to Vice President Gore raised a ticklish issue. Carter Eskew, Gore's long-time friend and political consultant, wanted to send the vice president a memo. But should Eskew mail them directly to Gore's computer at the White House? "Reminder," wrote a helpful aide on Feb. 22, 1996, about Eskew's request. "All Internet e-mails are recorded on the White House computers ... The only way not to have your e-mails backed up on government computers would be to get a Clinton/Gore computer in your office and set it up for private e-mails. How do you want to proceed?"As it happens, that e-mail--written by a Gore staffer named Jose Velasco--was backed up on government computers. And last week, more than four years after the fact, it was finally turned over to Congressional investigators, creating a new layer of mystery to a dispute about the fate of hundreds of thousands of long-missing White House e-mails. Republicans have contended for months that the White House-and Gore's...
  • The Bush Clan's Donor Problem

    A. Glenn Braswell, a Florida-based mail-order magnate who once served seven months in federal prison for perjury and mail fraud, has contributed $220,000 to Republican causes during the past two years--including $25,000 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial re-election campaign in 1998 and another $125,000 in "soft money" donations to the Florida Republican Party, federal and state records show.During the same period of time, Braswell has gotten some unusual promotional help for his health care business-from Jeb Bush. A recent edition of the Journal of Longevity--a monthly magazine that serves as an advertising vehicle for anti-aging formulas, sex-drive enhancers and other Braswell health products--featured an article that ran under the byline of the Florida governor.Moving quickly to quell any controversy about the relationship between Braswell and the Bush family, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Bush told NEWSWEEK today that Bush's gubernatorial campaign is returning the $25,000...
  • Into The Sunshine

    Every Saturday morning Sylvia Lee and her children would pass through the metal detector and take their seats by the glass partition in the bleak room where maximum-security prisoners meet visitors. A door would open and Wen Ho Lee, diminutive and soft-spoken at 60, would shuffle in flanked by two FBI agents. Lee's legs were shackled, his hands manacled and the handcuffs chained to his waist. "It was just so horrible," his daughter, Alberta, says now. "They were treating him like an animal." The Lee family time began--an hour of stilted togetherness with the FBI taking notes on every word. Seeing her father in chains, and knowing he was being held in complete isolation, frequently reduced Alberta to tears. Reading was one of his only escapes, and every week she brought him something new. His favorite was the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "One Hundred Years of Solitude."Wen Ho Lee's term of solitude ended last week in the collapse of the most highly publicized espionage case since...
  • A Question Of Profiling

    When it began nearly two years ago, the U.S. government's inquiry into Edward T. Fei's security status seemed routine if slightly puzzling. Fei has long been one of the Energy Department's top experts on nuclear proliferation--a senior if relatively anonymous official who traveled the globe monitoring weapons programs in countries like Iraq and North Korea. So when a security officer grilled him about a seemingly innocuous e-mail, Fei figured his inquisitor was simply looking for some extra work and quickly forgot about it.Fei couldn't have been more wrong. Like Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist facing life imprisonment for allegedly downloading nuclear secrets onto his home computer, Fei has been targeted by the government's security apparatus. Both men are Chinese-American and their cases--while quite different--raise similar charges of bias against Asian-Americans. "There has been a systematic, calculated pattern of singling out Chinese-Americans for investigation of security...
  • A Case Based On Race?

    As federal prosecutors told the story last year, there was no greater threat to the country's safety than an unimposing former Los Alamos physicist named Wen Ho Lee. Indicted on 58 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets, Lee was arrested at his home and placed in solitary confinement. In testimony before a federal judge, an FBI agent conjured up the prospect that a commando unit might swoop down on helicopters and spirit Lee away to a foreign country if he were allowed to walk the streets.Last week Lee seemed on the verge of gaining partial freedom. With key elements of the U.S. Justice Department's case seeming to dissolve in open court, U.S. Judge James A. Parker ordered Lee's release from jail--with a $1 million bail--pending trial. Government lawyers scrambled to appeal, and on Friday won a brief reprieve when an appellate court temporarily blocked Parker's order from taking effect. But the prosecutors still face setbacks on other fronts. In a highly unusual move, Parker ordered...
  • The Perils Of Romance

    One of Attorney General Janet Reno's top troubleshooters at the Justice Department engaged in "egregious misconduct," including improperly using his position to obtain a visa for a Russian woman with whom he was having an "intimate" relationship and then lying about it to investigators, according to a department report.The 450-page report, released to Congress today by the Justice Department Inspector General's office, found that the actions of veteran official Robert Bratt-who quietly resigned last month-"left him vulnerable to blackmail." Investigators also concluded that his conduct represented a "security concern" in his capacity as overseer of a key Justice unit that coordinates training for foreign police agencies. And the report finds that Bratt's conduct was only part of a pattern of serious security failures within the same unit, including leaving highly classified documents unsecured on desks, sending classified information by email over an unsecured computer system and...
  • Another Jury For Clinton

    When the news broke within hours of Al Gore's acceptance speech last week, outraged Democrats smelled something rotten in the independent counsel's office: once again, prosecutors seemed to be playing politics with leaks about the Monica Lewinsky case. This time the news was simply that Robert Ray, Kenneth Starr's successor in the still-unfinished investigation, had convened a new grand jury last month. But Democrats in Los Angeles immediately cried foul and Clinton saw the story as evidence of Ray's malicious intent. "He has believed they would have a regular schedule of these leaks," an aide said. "His reaction was along the lines of 'I told you so'."But the leaker wasn't Ray and the motive, as nearly as anyone could tell, wasn't political. In fact, the story resulted from some quick work by an Associated Press reporter and a bit of indiscretion by a federal appellate judge, Richard D. Cudahy. Cudahy, who was appointed by Jimmy Carter, is a member of the three-judge panel that...
  • A New Front In The Drug War

    California's voters may be in revolt again. The folks who have to foot the bill in the state with the highest ratio of imprisoned drug offenders in the country--134 per 100,000 people, compared with 49 in Texas--may have had enough. This fall they will vote on a sleeper ballot initiative, Proposition 36, that would effectively end jail terms for possessing any illegal drug--including crack cocaine and heroin--and substitute drug treatment instead. Last week Prop 36 was ahead by 10 points, and antidrug warriors were in an uproar. The real objective, they said, was a well-financed national movement that would stop short of nothing less than decriminalizing drug use.Prop 36 is drawing supporters from across the ideological spectrum: from civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson to Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell, who says the drug war amounts to "Jim Crow" justice for minorities. Financier George Soros and two other wealthy businessmen have pledged $3 million to push the cause. They...
  • A Bush Mystery In Alabama

    As he barnstormed through Alabama in late June, Texas Gov. George W. Bush wanted the press to pick up on his issue du jour, soaring gasoline prices. But in Tuscaloosa he was blindsided by reporters asking picky questions about a little-known chapter in his past--three months of reserve duty with an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery, Ala., in 1972. The crux of the matter was that no one could find any record that Lieutenant Bush had reported for duty. On the defensive, Bush insisted he was "proud of my service in the National Guard" but stumbled when pressed for details. "I can't remember what I did," he said. "I just--I fulfilled my obligation."Bush's advisers had anticipated that his military record would be scrutinized closely, but they didn't foresee this curve ball. More than two years ago the Bush camp launched a secretive research operation designed to scour all records relating to his Vietnam-era service as a pilot in the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the Texas...
  • A New Bump In Al's Road

    April 29, 1996, was another marathon day on the campaign trail for Al Gore. He left his Naval Observatory residence at 6:30 a.m. to board Air Force Two for a flight to Los Angeles and would not return until 5 the next morning. After a speech to the National Cable Television Association, he settled into the back of his limousine and caught his breath. "I took out my notebook and flipped to the next event," he told Justice Department investigators earlier this spring. "And my immediate impression was, good... they were able to work out this visit to the Hsi Lai Temple; this ought to be interesting. Little did I know."At least one senior Justice official still thinks Gore may know more than he's ever told. Word leaked last week that Robert Conrad, chief of Justice's Campaign Financing Task Force, had recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special counsel to investigate whether Gore lied to investigators about the temple luncheon and his other 1996 fund-raising. Trying...
  • Race, Death And The Feds

    Pristine and green-tiled, at first glance it could be confused with a hospital operating room. Except for the gurney in the center of the space, which is fitted with restraining straps. And the mechanical injection machine, calibrated to deliver a deadly cocktail of sodium pentathol and potassium chloride. After four years of planning and construction, the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., will soon be open for business. On Aug. 5, Juan Raul Garza, a convicted drug dealer and murderer, is scheduled to be the first prisoner executed by the federal government since John F. Kennedy was president.In the last few weeks, the Justice Department has been working to finalize plans for Garza's death. But officials are doing so quietly--operating, as one put it, "below radar." These days, no one in the administration--least of all Al Gore--wants to invite too much attention to the death penalty. While George W. Bush has endured endless questions about the fairness of Texas executions...
  • A Very Close Call For Al

    Charles Uribe, chairman of A.J. Construction Co. in New York, got an unusual phone message on Feb. 2, 1996. "The vice president is on the line," his secretary said. "Vice president of what?" Uribe barked. "The vice president of the United States," she said. Uribe immediately took the call, and other executives in the room listened curiously to their boss's end of the conversation, a string of "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs." When Uribe got off he explained. "We need to raise $50,000 for the campaign," he said, according to an account a colleague later gave the FBI.It was business as usual for Gore. Dubbed "solicitor in chief" for his aggressive fund-raising, he placed 71 calls from his White House office. Legal questions about Gore's dialing for dollars led Attorney General Janet Reno to consider--twice--appointing an independent counsel to investigate. Both times she declined, drawing bitter criticism from Republicans and even some of her own senior prosecutors.Just how close did Gore...
  • The Secret Money Chase

    Trent Lott was angry, and he got right to the point. Early last month the Senate majority leader called in a group of high-tech lobbyists and made a blunt pitch. He said he was outraged over a series of "vicious" attack ads airing in Michigan against Spencer Abraham, a fellow Republican senator considered one of this year's most vulnerable incumbents. Lott, a participant recalls, wanted the lobbyists to pay for hard-hitting counterattack ads. The lobbyists --who knew they were going to need Lott's help to push an upcoming tech bill through the Senate --got the message. "My sense," one wrote in an e-mail later that day, "is that the companies in the room will take care of it."In hardball Washington, Lott's appeal itself was hardly unprecedented. (The senator's spokesman says the meeting was "not intended to pressure anybody.") But instead of instructing the lobbyists to send the money to Abraham's campaign or to the Republican Party, Lott gave them the phone number and mailing...
  • High Noon On The Hustings

    There are plenty of reasons for Al Gore and George W. Bush to take the gun issue seriously. Pat Thomas is one of them. In 1995 her son Jerome was at a party at a friend's house when a group of rowdy young men started bullying his friends. Jerome stepped in to calm them down. Instead, they pulled out guns and shot him in the leg. When he fell to the floor they stood over him and fired twice more into his back, killing him. "The thought of it still knocks me to my knees," says his mother. Pat O'Keefe knows the feeling all too well. Her 18-year-old daughter Michelle was shot and killed last February in a parking lot near her Palmdale, Calif., home. The tragedy "pushed us over the edge," O'Keefe says." A gun owner, she's now for gun control.Thomas and O'Keefe were among the throngs of women who descended on Washington Sunday for the Million Mom March, the brainchild of a suburban New Jersey mother whose goal was to show Congress--and the presidential candidates--the power of a grass...
  • The Microsoft Primary

    Bill Gates didn't take the bait. Last April the Microsoft chief paid a quiet visit to the Texas governor's mansion for his first-ever meeting with George W. Bush. Over a dinner of stuffed quail, the two chatted breezily about the digital revolution and the future of the Internet. Then, according to a Microsoft executive who attended the dinner, Bush made a passing comment about the "rough time" Microsoft was having in Washington, D.C. Gates didn't respond--and Bush quickly moved the conversation along. "Neither of them wanted to go there," says the Microsoft exec.Still, the unpublicized tete-a-tete was part of a delicate political dance between the software giant and the Republican Party. Each has something the other wants. Dollar signs in their eyes, GOP leaders covet big political contributions from Microsoft coffers. In turn, Microsoft execs, plagued by the Clinton Justice Department's lawsuit, hope that a Republican president and Congress might shut down efforts to punish the...
  • The Other Drug War

    Only last summer, the White House seemed wary of greater U.S. involvement in Colombia's vicious drug war. Republicans on Capitol Hill wanted to add muscle to Colombia's anti-drug forces, but administration officials favored more diplomacy. A top State Department official returned from a visit to Bogota and described himself as "sobered, but certainly not panicked." Then, two months ago, the president announced a stunning $1.3 billion aid package, including 63 U.S.-made helicopters and other military hardware. If approved by Congress, the massive program would be the largest single increase in drug-war spending since Bill Clinton took office. Critics--including some inside the administration--fear a nasty entanglement. "When I first saw this," says a veteran U.S. anti-drug official, "my reaction was, 'What, are they nuts?' "Why did Clinton suddenly change tack? The answer, according to a NEWSWEEK reconstruction, is a surprising Washington tale of the pressures that influence White...
  • The Happy Maverick Drives Into A Ditch

    John McCain seemed defined by his bus. While George W. Bush flew above in a jet named Great Expectations--or in a quiet charter bus surrounded only by aides--McCain rattled happily along in the Straight Talk Express. Instead of hiding with his handlers, McCain wolfed down jelly doughnuts and gabbed with reporters who, contrary to modern campaign stereotypes, were friendly and forgiving. McCain was having the time of his life, cracking jokes and making fun of his own staff, who seemed to be along mostly for the ride.Then the picture darkened. McCain seemed to retreat into something reporters and staffers called "the bubble," his traveling entourage. His inner circle of strategists turned out to be hard-bitten pols. Under fierce and sometimes underhanded attack, the candidate became more strident, even whiny, lashing out at his opponent for playing dirty. The press began to play the old "gotcha" game, catching McCain in "gaffes" that became three-day stories. On the last night, after...