On Tape, Clinton Links Lead in Polls, Issue AdsSusan Schmidt and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 16, 1997; Page A01
President Clinton can be seen on a newly released fund-raising videotape telling a group of major Democratic Party donors last year that a nationwide campaign of televised issue ads was boosting his standing in the polls. The tape seems to support assertions that the ad campaign was intended not simply to promote issues important to the Democrats but to strengthen the president’s reelection campaign and get around strict spending limits imposed on federal candidates.
"Many of you have given very generously and thank you for that," the president told party donors invited to the May 21, 1996 White House lunch recorded on the tape. "The fact that we’ve been able to finance this long-running constant television campaign . . . where we’re always able to frame the issues . . . has been central to the position I now enjoy in the polls," said Clinton. The ads, said the president, had helped him "sustain an unbroken lead for five and a half months."
Clinton’s comment to that group of Democratic National Committee donors was one of many fund-raising scenes to emerge yesterday in a 90-hour videotape archive discovered by the White House in recent days. The 66 videotapes and 121 audiotapes were turned over to the Justice Department and congressional committees in batches late Tuesday and yesterday.
The advertisements Clinton refers to in the tapes are a key component of the ongoing investigations into campaign financing because they were paid for by "soft money" funds that are supposed to be used strictly for party-building and not to promote individual candidates.
While the legal rules on the subject are murky, Clinton’s comments could add new fuel to arguments that the advertising was a blatant end-run around the spending restrictions and offer a sharp contrast to party officials’ repeated public statements that the advertising effort was not focused on Clinton’s re-election.
In other tapes made available to reporters yesterday,Clinton can be seen socializing with some of the central figures in the campaign finance controversy among them John Huang, Charlie Yah Lin Trie, Pauline Kanchanalak, James Riady and Johnny Chung. The DNC has had to return about $3 million in contributions, the bulk from Huang, Trie and Chung, because of concerns that the money was raised from foreign or other improper sources. The tapes show at least two instances in which Clinton acknowledged that some of the guests at fund-raising event were from foreign countries.
White House spokesman Lanny J. Davis said the videotapes show the president as leader of his party. "These events, all of them, confirm what we have always said: that these events were legal and appropriate."
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is examining the role of "soft money" and the extent to which it may have been used to boost Clinton’s re-election bid.
The advertising effort was done by the same media team that handled Clinton’s re-election campaign and was tightly controlled by Clinton and his chief aides.
Groups like Common Cause have long argued that the advertising campaign was an ill-disguised bid to insure Clinton’s return to office. They allege it was an illegal effort to evade the strict spending limits for presidential campaigns.
The DNC has defended the advertising campaign, which totaled $44 million in 1995 and 1996, as legitimate "issue advocacy" intended simply to educate voters on matters of public importance and boosting the Democratic Party as a whole.
In the videotape of the DNC dinner at the Hay-Adams hotel, however, Clinton makes clear he at least believed his campaign was benefiting from those ads. "In the last quarter of last year, I think Marvin [Rosen, DNC finance chairman] said, we spent about $1 million per week to advertise our point of view to somewhere between 26 and 42 percent of the American electorate," Clinton can be heard telling donors on the tape. "(These) markets had the largest number of persuadable voters. . .‚. The lead that I enjoy today in public opinion polls is about one-third due to that advertising."
In July 1995, polls showed Clinton and Republican Robert J. Dole in a dead heat, with 48 percent each. By the time Clinton made his remarks, he had a commanding lead of 20 percentage points.
Fred Wertheimer, the lead attorney representing Common Cause in its effort last year to get an independent counsel investigation of the issue ads, said he was uncertain what legal impact Clinton’s comments will have. "But," he said, "in practical terms it confirms the position we have long taken, that the TV ad campaign run by President Clinton and his aides were candidate ads, not political party ads and therefore were illegal," he said.
In other scenes from the videotapes, Clinton can be seen fraternizing with several controversial DNC fund-raisers who are now suspected of raising money from illegal foreign sources.
At an Asian American fund-raising event Feb. 19, 1996, at the Hay-Adams, Clinton refers to "my good friend John Huang," and thanks him for putting on the dinner. "I have known John Huang a very long time. . .‚. And when he told me that this event was going to unfold as it has tonight, I wasn’t quite sure I believed him, but he’s never told me anything that didn’t come to pass."
At a May 13 dinner, Clinton thanked Huang and then turned his attention to former Little Rock restaurateur Trie, who was seated next to the president. "It’s been 20 years since I had my first meal with Charlie Trie. At the time, neither one of us could afford a ticket to this dinner," joked the president. Trie has since left the country in the wake of allegations he helped funnel illegal contributions from China.
Clinton said his remarks were "to those of you here and those who have come from other countries to be with us tonight."
Also featured on the videotapes were California businessman Johnny Chung, who escorted six Chinese executives from state-owned and private businesses to the Oval Office to watch Clinton deliver his weekly radio address.
"Hi Johnny, how are you, good to see you," the president exclaimed.
James Riady, of the Indonesian Lippo Group, appears on the videotapes only twice, according to White House officials. At a radio address Sept. 10, 1994, before Clinton went to Indonesia for the Asian economic summit, Clinton can be seen having a lengthy but inaudible discussion with Riady and Huang. At a radio address on June 24, 1994, Riady, his wife, Aileen, and their four children are introduced to the president.
One videotape showed Clinton discussing foreign policy at a fund-raiser during a controversial July 30, 1996, dinner at the Jefferson Hotel. Two of the four wealthy Asian businessmen he dined with were not legal residents of the United States and therefore not able to make contributions. They were Riady and Taiwan insurance billionaire Eugene Wu. Clinton talked about his decision to send carriers into the Taiwan Straits after Beijing test-fired missiles near the breakaway island.
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta, Ruth Marcus and John E. Yang contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company