Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 1997; Page A01
NEW YORK, Sept. 22—President Clinton said today that he and Vice President Gore "believed we were acting within the letter of the law" when raising funds for the 1996 campaign.
"I believed then and I believe now that what we did was legal," Clinton told reporters here in his first extensive response to Attorney General Janet Reno's opening last week of a 30-day review to determine whether Clinton made fund-raising calls from the White House, and if so whether they may have been illegal.
Reno's action is the first step in a process that could lead her to seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the president. Earlier this month Reno began an identical review of nearly 50 fund-raising calls that Gore has acknowledged making from his White House office.
Clinton has said repeatedly that he cannot recall whether he made any fund-raising calls, and White House aides today again insisted that any such calls by him or Gore did not violate federal election laws.
Democratic National Committee documents from the 1996 election cycle indicate Clinton repeatedly was urged to make personal calls to major donors. Four separate DNC memorandums to the White House obtained today by The Washington Post list the names and numbers of 36 contributors. Next to one is the handwritten notation "B.C. called"; on one memorandum cover sheet is noted "President has seen."
But Clinton said today, "I don't know what you're talking about on the memos, because I haven't seen them, so I can't comment on that."
Many of the 36 people have previously been queried by The Washington Post and other news media about whether Clinton solicited them for contributions. Of 27 called by The Post, some have declined to comment, while others have specifically denied receiving any presidential solicitation. Several others have not returned calls.
DNC spokesman Steve Langdon said today, "We don't have information to confirm that the president made calls to raise funds for the DNC."
On several occasions this year Clinton has responded defiantly to questions about his fund-raising, saying not only that his actions were appropriate but that he was proud of them. But today he retreated to a more cautious defense. "I am absolutely positive that we intended to be firmly within the letter of the law when we were out there campaigning and raising funds as we should be doing," Clinton told reporters here, before a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
Former presidential aide Harold Ickes, who coordinated White House involvement in Democratic party fund-raising activities, was deposed for a second time today by investigators on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
In his earlier deposition to Senate investigators, Ickes said he regularly pressed Clinton to make fund-raising calls based on DNC requests. He said he could not say with certainty that such calls were made, although federal election records show that some people targeted for calls from Clinton by the DNC did make contributions.
Ickes said in his deposition that then-White House counsel Lloyd Cutler ruled that such calls were legal. Lanny J. Davis, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, said today that White House lawyers have not been able to confirm that Cutler gave the advice Ickes says he did.
Clinton's response to questions today not asserting definitively that he and Gore had done no wrong, but repeating twice that he had tried to stay within the "letter of the law" appeared to reflect the feeling among White House aides that they cannot make a vigorous public response to the latest news.
One problem, several aides said, is that there could be a political backlash if Clinton is seen to be publicly pressuring Reno in her review. Another hindrance is that senior Clinton aides cannot even say with certainty what actions they are defending, since Clinton has said he does not think he made telephone solicitations from the White House, but that it is possible he made calls and does not remember.
These awkward circumstances have forced the White House to change tactics. Earlier this year, at a time when the DNC fund-raising controversy was at full boil, White House deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta and other advisers concluded the White House team was appearing too defensive. Instead of apologies or explanations for alleged excesses in the pursuit of money, the new approach was to have Clinton strike a confident pose.
When Clinton was asked at a March news conference about the frequent coffees he held at the White House for donors, events that were coordinated by DNC fund-raisers, he replied: "If you find the coffees offensive, I am personally responsible for that and I take full responsibility. Because I enjoy them enormously."
Asked today about Clinton's somewhat different "letter of the law" response, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said: "I think the president feels the spirit of the law is designed to provide a legal framework and process by which candidates raise money. . . . The system needs to be reformed, the law itself needs to be reformed. And the president is standing with those in Congress who are now close, we believe, to achieving reform."
The Senate will soon take up action on legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), which would ban the unregulated "soft money" of the sort Gore said he thought he was raising in his phone calls.
Some of that money, according to federal election records, was later improperly transferred by the DNC to "hard money" accounts, which go not for general party-building but aid specific candidates.
It was revelations of this transfer that prompted Reno to begin her review of whether a law was broken. Clinton and Gore lawyers say that no law was broken in any case, regardless of whether either man was raising soft money or hard money. The defense is that the people Gore called and Clinton may have called were not on federal property, so the law barring fund-raising on federal land was not broken.
But if Reno interprets the law differently, legal analysts say she may address the question of criminal intent: whether Clinton and Gore purposely violated the rules. Clinton's insistence today that "I believe what the vice president did and what I did was legal" seemed calculated to address this question of intent.
Staff writers John Mintz, Susan Schmidt, Roberto Suro and Bob Woodward, and researcher Jeff Glasser in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company