- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Until Thursday night, President Clinton kept a low profile in the battle over Elian Gonzalez, leaving Attorney General Janet Reno on the front lines as he did during the siege at Waco.

But Thursday, Mr. Clinton said the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor should be handed over to his father, Juan Miguel, while the courts sort out the issue.

"I think he should be reunited with his son," Mr. Clinton told reporters at the White House Thursday evening as he began a meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

"That is the law. And the main argument of the family in Miami for not doing so has now been removed," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Clinton referred to Wednesday's decision by a federal court in Atlanta that the boy must remain in America during his court case.

"The court has now said he shouldn't go back to Cuba. The Justice Department agrees to that, and he has agreed to that," Mr. Clinton said.

"So there is now no conceivable argument for [Mr. Gonzalez] not being able to be reunited with his son," Mr. Clinton said.

The boy and his father "should be reunited in as prompt and orderly a way as possible."

Earlier Thursday, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart gave no indication that Mr. Clinton will assert a more public role in the case.

Mr. Clinton "will continue to be briefed by the attorney general and the appropriate agencies," Mr. Lockhart said when asked whether Mr. Clinton has a sense of frustration about the case.

He would not say whether Mr. Clinton is directing Miss Reno or merely taking a passive role.

"The president has been briefed appropriately throughout the process, and I'm just not going to discuss further what that process is."

Mr. Clinton told newspaper editors in Washington last week he has "done everything I could to stay out of it" because he does not want to further politicize the case.

Mr. Clinton and Miss Reno are wary of heightening tensions in Miami, and Mr. Clinton also does not want to antagonize Cuban-Americans, a key voting group in a state with 25 vital electoral votes.

Some of Mr. Clinton's fellow Democrats are urging his administration to act and reunite Elian with his father.

"The attorney general unquestionably has the legal authority and the moral obligation to implement her original decision to place Elian in the care of his loving father," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.

Mr. Clinton met with Miss Reno for 45 minutes Wednesday on Air Force One as they returned from dedicating a memorial to victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Mr. Clinton received a briefing about the court ruling and discussed the case with Miss Reno, but the president did not ask Miss Reno to resolve the dispute quickly, Mr. Lockhart said.

"The president believes the attorney general has moved forward in a deliberate way, which he believes is appropriate, allowing all sides their chance to have their say," Mr. Lockhart said.

Miss Reno, 58, won broad public approval two months into her tenure as attorney general when she defended her decision to end the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas.

Eighty-six persons, including 24 children, died when a fireball engulfed the compound after the FBI injected a chemical irritant into several buildings. Miss Reno, who took office 13 days after the Waco siege began, said she accepted responsibility for the deaths and offered to resign.

Mr. Clinton initially distanced himself from blame in the siege but later after polls showed Miss Reno had won public support by accepting responsibility said he supported her efforts.

Vice President Al Gore, campaigning in Fort Lee, N.J., Thursday, told reports that Elian's family should meet "without government officials or lawyers" to resolve the case. He declined to criticize the Clinton administration's handling of the case.

"I'm not going to get into that," Mr. Gore said, according to the Associated Press. "I respect the way they're going about this, and I hope we'll be able to get the family members together."

Mr. Gore later said custody should not necessarily be decided in favor of the father.

"That decision ought to be made according to what is in the boy's best interest," he said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "Usually a family court … gives tremendous weight to the views and preferences of a surviving parent, but not always if there are other factors involved."

He did not say what other factors should carry any weight.

Mr. Lockhart sounded irritated as reporters pressed him about Mr. Clinton's role.

"The attorney general is, because of her position at the Justice Department, empowered to move forward with this process," he said.

• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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