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Once A Clinton Nemesis During Whitewater, Now A Clinton Supporter

Michael Chertoff, former Whitewater Committee special counsel and homeland security secretary, says "chasing small peccadilloes" like Whitewater in the 1990s "is a luxury we only have in a world at peace."
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Michael Chertoff, former Whitewater Committee special counsel and homeland security secretary, says "chasing small peccadilloes" like Whitewater in the 1990s "is a luxury we only have in a world at peace."

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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Corrected: October 5, 2016 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier Web version of this story mistakenly stated that Hillary Clinton voted against Michael Chertoff's confirmation as secretary of homeland security. In fact, she voted for that confirmation in 2005. Clinton did cast the sole dissenting vote when Chertoff was nominated to head the Justice Department's criminal division in 2001 and when he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in 2003.