Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 8, 1997; Page A01
Offering his most sustained defense in the furor over Democratic fund-raising that has haunted him since the fall election, President Clinton said at a news conference yesterday he was forced to chase contributions by a system that is "out of whack." But he urged the public not to assume the worst about his motives and those of big-money donors.
"I do not agree with the inherent premise that some have advanced that there is somehow something intrinsically wrong with a person that wants to give money to a person running for office and that if you accept it, that something bad has happened," said Clinton, complaining that some people think "these transactions are between people who are almost craven."
The first 15 of 17 total questions he entertained in the East Room challenged his administration's ethics and fund-raising practices. Yet Clinton, who on other occasions has bristled at such inquiries, was relaxed and almost philosophical. "You can make your own judgments," he said, a phrase he recited several times.
Clinton acknowledged some lapses at the White House and Democratic National Committee. He said "in retrospect" that it "would have been a better thing" if the top aide to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had not accepted a $50,000 check for the DNC on White House grounds. And he said he was angry — "livid and stunned . . . it took my breath away" — that the DNC dismantled its procedures for checking the backgrounds of large donors, many of whom were hosted by Clinton at White House coffees and sleep-overs.
Clinton would not rule out that he ever personally made telephone solicitations from the White House, although he said he had no recollection of doing so. "I can't say, over all the hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of phone calls I've made in the last four years," he said, "that I never said to anybody while I was talking to them, 'Well, we need your help,' or 'I hope you'll help us.'‚"
But he insisted none of the recent disclosures about White House fund-raising activities "undermine the case" that his administration is the most ethical in history, as he pledged it would be upon taking office in 1993.
Vice President Gore's involvement in the fund-raising controversy deepened this week when he acknowledged he had make calls to donors from the White House. Clinton said he agreed with the vice president's promise not to do so again, but said Gore's activities were legal. It was one of several times in the 51-minute news conference when he resorted to highly technical defenses that his team had broken no rules, despite Clinton's assertion that "we should be held to a higher standard than just 'it is legal.'‚"
The vice president had not violated the law against fund-raising on government property, Clinton said, because the people he was calling were not at the White House. "The law is clearly that the solicitation is consummated, if you will, when the person is solicited and where the person is solicited," Clinton said.
Likewise, Clinton said his wife's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, had not engaged in fund-raising when she accepted a $50,000 DNC check from California businessman Johnny Chung on White House grounds. Williams was "completely passive," Clinton said. "She didn't ask someone to come in and give her a check."
Late yesterday, the Office of Special Counsel announced it would open a civil inquiry into Williams. The inquiry becomes the fifth investigation into Democratic campaign activities undertaken by the office, an independent federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act, which restricts political activities by government employees.
This was the fourth formal news conference Clinton has held since the election, all of which have been dominated by questions about whether he bent the rules or used poor judgment in raising the money to win. In the interim, the scrutiny—including a Justice Department probe and two major congressional inquiries—has continued to increase.
While Clinton said he finds some fund-raising uncomfortable, he said he enjoyed some of the very activities that have generated the most criticism. White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleep-overs help him break out of a "very isolating job."
"I get frustrated going to meetings . . . where all you do is shake hands with somebody or you take a picture—no words ever exchanged," he said. "You never have any real contact. I look for ways to have genuine conversation with people."
He said it would be "disingenuous for anybody in public life" to say supporters don't get special attention, but that he had never changed "government policy solely because of a contribution."
In several instances, Clinton presented facts at variance with records and statements of his associates.
As he has in the past, the president twice insisted "there was no specific price tag put on those coffees" at the White House. However, Clinton aides set goals for precisely how much money would be collected as a result of the coffees.
In a July 1996 memo turned over to congressional investigators, for instance, Clinton campaign manager Peter S. Knight established a $350,000 target for one coffee and a $500,000 target for another. Two Democratic fund-raisers also said in recent interviews that they repeatedly heard DNC finance chairman Marvin Rosen tell donors that if they contributed $50,000 they would be invited to a White House coffee with the president.
In defending Lincoln Bedroom sleep-overs for big contributors, Clinton maintained they were a "relatively small percentage" of overnight guests at the White House, "about one in nine."
But a Washington Post computer analysis of a guest list released last week showed that more than one in three gave money to the president's campaign or the DNC during the past two years. In his calculation, aides said Clinton subtracted donors he considered longtime friends.
On the propriety of Williams taking a check in the White House, Clinton said "she just simply did what the regulation explicitly provides for, which is to pass it on."
Yet no regulation or policy "explicitly" states that White House officials should knowingly accept contributions in person as long as they "pass it on."
Federal law makes it a crime to receive a campaign contribution on federal property, though regulations exempt "handling" such a gift with no definition of what that means. White House policy, drafted by Clinton's chief lawyer in 1995, flatly says employees should not receive contributions; the only exceptions envisioned were checks that come unsolicited through the mail, which employees were instructed to turn over to the White House correspondence department, which holds them until the DNC picks them up.
Clinton had few opportunities to talk about topics other than fund-raising. At the opening of the news conference, he announced new policies benefiting Persian Gulf War veterans suffering from mysterious maladies. As he previously suggested he would do, Clinton directed that service members be allowed to file compensation claims for undiagnosed illnesses until 2001, no longer cutting off their eligibility two years after returning from the Middle East.
Clinton defended his opposition to a ban on a procedure referred to by opponents as "partial-birth" abortions, despite a recent admission by an abortion rights leader that he lied about its uses and prevalence. The numbers don't matter, Clinton said, so long as even a few women need the procedure to abort fetuses that would die anyway but leave them incapable of conceiving another child.
"They are my only concern," Clinton said, adding, "I think you can make a very compelling case that for the small number of people I'm trying to protect, this is the biggest issue in their entire lives and that for them, my position is the pro-life position."
The president also said "I strongly believe I was right" to recertify Mexico as a cooperating partner in the war on drugs and discussed in philosophical terms Russia's persistent opposition to the expansion of NATO, the topic of his summit this month with Boris Yeltsin.
He said he wants to involve Russia in common security matters, modeled after the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, and expressed sympathy for the Russian "psyche" that makes it difficult to accept Eastern Europe's admission into NATO. "We were never invaded by Napoleon or Hitler, and they were," Clinton said. "So they're a little sensitive about the prospects of their borders."
Staff writers Stephen Barr and Sharon LaFraniere contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company