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Mark Fabiani

April 10, 2013
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Clinton Defender Cut Teeth in L.A.

Politics: Mark Fabiani honed attack skills as Mayor Bradley’s spokesman during ethics allegations. Now he lashes out at Whitewater critics.

January 30, 1996|GLENN F. BUNTING and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS
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WASHINGTON — Appearing on network television in defense of the president and first lady, the Clinton administration’s designated pit bull seldom misses an opportunity to attack the Republican chairman of the special Senate committee on Whitewater.

“You know, Sen. [Alfonse M.] D’Amato is a classic political henchman,” said Mark D. Fabiani, airing a favorite sound bite on a recent Sunday TV news show.

Fabiani has emerged as one of the White House’s most visible defenders. As special associate counsel to the president, he primarily is responsible for parrying the damaging allegations stemming from the Whitewater affair. It is a role he knows well. The 38-year-old, Harvard-trained lawyer honed his skills on behalf of Tom Bradley, the longtime Los Angeles mayor dogged by ethical troubles during his final terms.

At City Hall, Fabiani was widely regarded as a brash, sharp-witted “boy wonder” who was particularly adept at containing the fallout from Bradley’s legal problems. Bradley, now in private practice at a Los Angeles law firm, called Fabiani “an ideal person for this task. He is one of the most brilliant men that I have ever come across.”

Jane Sherburne, who heads the White House legal unit overseeing Whitewater, said administration officials knew that Fabiani had arrived “battle-tested” after several years of fighting unproven allegations against Bradley ranging from political corruption to insider trading.

Indeed, some of the same damage-control techniques that Fabiani employed as a hard-nosed “spin doctor” during his tenure in the mayor’s office are evident in his handling of Whitewater. But Washington is a far bigger stage than City Hall, and it remains to be seen whether Fabiani can help the Clintons ride out the latest waves of controversy.

His role has taken on increasing importance, with Senate Republicans proposing to extend Whitewater hearings well into the election year and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance Friday before a federal grand jury to answer questions about the mysterious discovery of long-sought billing records in the White House living quarters.

Aside from Whitewater, Fabiani serves as the administration’s point man in responding to questions about the travel office fiasco and other sensitive matters.

“He’s become the garbage disposal for all the garbage,” said an appreciative White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.

It is a thankless task that demands the personal trust and confidence of President and Mrs. Clinton. Yet Fabiani, drafted by the White House in April at a $92,000 annual salary–more than $10,000 below what he earned as deputy mayor–is hardly a close confidante of the Clintons. And it is unclear whether he participates in formulating strategy.

The administration’s Whitewater response team has been roundly criticized for its failure to address lingering questions and provide documents in a timely manner. Conflicting accounts involving the handling of files belonging to deceased White House lawyer Vincent W. Foster Jr. and the puzzling appearance of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s billing records have heightened suspicions of a possible cover-up.

In an interview, Fabiani described his mission this way: “The goal in this job is not to be quoted in the newspaper. So that, if there is ever a day when you’re not on TV and not quoted in the newspaper, that is a good day.”

By this measure, Fabiani has endured more than his share of trying days.

In recent weeks, his name has shown up regularly in nearly every major U.S. newspaper, and he has appeared on all three network evening news programs, “Nightline” and cable outlets ranging from CNN to Court TV.

He seems to relish his role as the administration’s rhetorical hit man. Fabiani frequently lambastes D’Amato as a “political witch hunter” for the way in which he has conducted the Senate’s Whitewater investigation. He has zeroed in on the New York Republican’s own transgressions–pressuring him to release records from his 1991 encounter with the Senate Ethics Committee–and ridiculed the senator’s dual role as chief Whitewater inquisitor and a top official in GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign.

Such naked partisan barbs are rarely hurled by chief presidential spokesman McCurry–who tends to hold himself above the swirling scandals during his news briefings at the White House. But Fabiani, operating next door out of a fourth-floor office in the Old Executive Office Building, has free reign to lash out at D’Amato and other administration foes, aides say.

“I have sometimes been surprised at how feisty he is–pleasantly surprised,” McCurry said. “He can be real combative.”

On occasion, critics say Fabiani has been rather quick to pull the trigger on Clinton adversaries.

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