(CNSNews.com) - Just a few hours before congressional Republicans planned to question Attorney General Janet Reno about her federal raid on the home of Elian Gonzalez' Miami relatives, a White House spokesman made a preemptive strike Tuesday morning, appearing on national television to blast Republicans who have dared to criticize what the administration did.
Joe Lockhart also accused Republicans of playing politics with the Elian Gonzalez case - even as he played some politics of his own. Of all the criticism leveled at the Clinton administration, Lockhart specifically singled out that voiced by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- who's expected to run against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the US Senate seat from New York.
In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show, Lockhart said it's fine with him if congressional Republicans want to question Reno about her decision to send armed federal agents into the Gonzalez home in Miami before dawn on Saturday.
But, said Lockhart, Republicans should have asked questions first, before going public with their criticism of the raid: "I think over the weekend, without any information, they condemned this operation. In Washington...you make a judgement and then you try to get the information," Lockhart said.
The "information" that had everyone talking this weekend was simply a photograph - showing a helmeted, armed border patrol agent confronting the terrified Elian, as the child hid in a closet, cradled in the arms of the fisherman who rescued him at sea last November.
That photograph appears to have the administration on edge, although Lockhart did not specifically mention it Tuesday morning.
However, he did put the blame for what happened Saturday morning squarely on Elian's Miami relatives: "They had a very easy way out to avoid what happened on Saturday, which was to accept the legal principle that the father had legal custody. They never would accept it, they never were going to," he said.
Lockhart was not asked to clarify the "legal principle" he mentioned.
"Right from the beginning, the operation -- the three-minute operation -- was barely complete before the Republican leadership started criticizing - personal attacks on the president, personal attacks on the attorney general... It was well-coordinated, you had things like the mayor of New York calling law enforcement officers storm troopers - that's beyond the pale."
Matt Lauer asked Lockhart about criticism leveled by a Democrat -- Senator Bob Graham of Florida - who insists that President Clinton promised him several weeks ago "that there would be no taking of this child at night."
Lockhart said he talked to Clinton about Graham's charge of broken promises, and the exchange between the Lockhart and Lauer is noteworthy enough to be transcribed verbatim:
Lockhart: The President said that we didn't want to do this [forcibly seize Elian], that we didn't want to be forced to do this, but unfortunately we were, and he didn't make a commitment that we wouldn't have Elain removed....
Lauer: He didn't tell Sen. Graham, 'We will not take this boy out of the house in the middle of the night?'
Lockhart: He did not make a commitment.
Lauer: (Brief pause) Okay, so we're not splitting hairs here - "middle of the night" or "early pre-dawn raid?"
Lockhart: No, we're not splitting hairs, but I'll tell you, there's a difference between Sen. Graham and some of the Republican leaders who have come out [against the administration]. I have no doubt that he [Graham] firmly opposes this -- as the Senator from Florida, he has every right to do that."
Lockhart, after conceding Graham's right to be disgruntled, then criticized Republicans who share Graham's feelings. Lockhart accused Congressman Tom Delay of Texas of spreading "deliberate misinformation" about the administration's apparent failure to obtain a search warrant before breaking into the Miami house.
In fact, the Justice Department had obtained a search warrant, but as Lauer pointed out, information about that was slow to get out.
No matter, Lockhart told Lauer. "As you well know, a senior member of Congress - all he has to do is call up and ask the question rather than going on television and making wild accusations."
Lockhart said President Clinton does not plan to meet with the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez who have come to Washington in an effort to see the boy and his father.
"The president believes that this is a legal matter and that politics should be kept out of this. And I think the kind of media circus atmosphere that surrounded this has hurt the boy. And the President's number one concern here is that the law be upheld and that the boy be reunited with his father, and we're not going to do anything to contribute to the atmosphere that certainly does nothing to help the young boy."