The White House this weekend turned over to Senate investigators what it described as belatedly discovered videotapes of 44 of President Clinton’s controversial coffees with campaign contributors.
Congressional sources said they have been told that freshly examined White House logs indicate that as many as 150 fund-raising events involving the president or Vice President Gore were also recorded by White House audiovisual crews.
The tapes of the morning coffees, showing only the start of the meetings, were ostensibly covered by Senate requests for documents relevant to campaign financing inquiries submitted to the White House as far back as last January and again in a subpoena issued last July 31.
One clip of interest to Senate investigators, who were reviewing the videos Sunday, dealt with a June 18, 1996, coffee with Clinton at which controversial Democratic fund-raiser John Huang is said by one witness to have appealed, at the outset of the meeting, for money to help re-elect the president. Other witnesses have said they did not recall hearing Huang make such remarks, but could not reject the possibility.
A Senate investigator said Sunday that there is audio for tapes of every one of the 44 breakfast meetings except the June 18 get-together. A showing at the White House Sunday evening for the press confirmed that.
“We may have a Rose Mary Woods problem here,” the investigator said, alluding to President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary, who claimed to have been responsible for an 18-1/2-minute gap on one of Nixon’s Watergate tapes. “This is a missing 60 seconds.”
White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis said he had “no immediate comment about audio problems on that particular tape. We are looking into it.”
The contents of the videotapes aside, said Paul Clark, a spokesman for the Senate investigating committee headed by Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., “this is just one more example of the White House seriously delaying our investigation.”
One committee member, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition” that “at this point, with the White House not turning over evidence again and again, I think you really may have crossed the line of obstruction of justice. First they don’t give us materials while we’re questioning witnesses. And now the tapes are turned over. If they’re innocent (recordings), why don’t we have them a long time ago?”
“We didn’t even know about them and that really bothers us,” Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of a parallel House investigation, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Davis said discovery of the videotapes was the result of “a good faith effort” by the White House to comply with congressional requests. “We’ve said we would conduct ongoing searches for new material and that’s what happened here,” he said.
“The counsel’s office became aware of the tapes (of the coffees) on Wednesday,” Davis said. “We informed the Senate committee about their existence on Thursday and we met with Senate staff members on Friday.”
The tapes were made by the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), a Pentagon unit that provides a steno pool for White House events, supplies the lecterns, flags and seals for White House media functions, and keeps what officials say is a 60-day record of operator-assisted phone calls placed by Clinton and Gore.
White House officials said they at first checked the WHCA database only by the names of the individuals named in Senate requests, such as John Huang, and came up empty. Then, a staff member checked again and “came across the word, ‘coffees,”’ an official said.
That led to discovery of the 44 tapes delivered to the Senate committee as well as to the Justice Department and House investigators this weekend. A Senate investigator said another, apparently more recent check of the phrase, “DNC fundraiser,” produced “150 hits.”
The committee has told the White House it wants the logs on those events and will request at least some of those tapes as well.
Asked about this discovery, Davis said only that “we are currently in the process of looking for other possible taped materials to determine the full universe of what the committee is seeking.”
The turning over of the coffee tapes was reported Sunday by Time magazine. In July, Thompson’s committee began checking into the possibility of their existence, largely as the result of newspaper inquiries about the activities of the WHCA, a secretive military unit that takes its day-to-day instructions from the White House but gets its annual $122 million budget from the Pentagon.
The agency’s audiovisual unit has a staff of more than 100 whose work, as a 1989 White House document described it, “covers all open and a majority of closed events.”
White House lawyers agreed at an Aug. 7 meeting with Senate staff members to look into the matter. When they did not respond by mid-August, the Senate counsel in charge of document production, Donald T. Bucklin, made a formal written demand of the White House for all WHCA records.
Within a week, according to a Senate staff member, White House lawyer Michael Imbroscio reported that the “events (the WHCA) videotaped were all public events, unless at the specific request of one of the principals, the president or the vice president, they were asked to record a closed event. He (Imbroscio) said he was told none of the coffees had been videotaped, but that there was a log of every event that had been videotaped.”
Senate demands for the logs and threats to depose the head of the WHCA were met with silence until Imbroscio called last week to report that he had checked the database itself against the word “coffees.”
A tape of the 44 morning coffee segments, shown to reporters at the White House Sunday, showed that some segments lasted only about 30 seconds, but most were three to four minutes. The WHCA crews recorded the president shaking hands and making small talk, then left the room as the meetings got underway.
Gore turned up on one of the videos, a Dec. 15, 1995, coffee. Another, on April 1, 1996, shows Clinton shaking hands with outspoken international oil financier Roger Tamraz and saying, “Good to see you again.” The June 18, 1996, session, the only one without sound, shows the president shaking hands with Huang.
Thompson’s committee also plans to pursue WHCA phone call records, particularly in light of the controversy over Gore’s fund-raising calls from the White House, now the subject of a preliminary Justice Department inquiry to determine whether an independent counsel should be appointed.
The committee has been told that WHCA routinely destroys its records of Clinton’s and Gore’s calls after 60 days, but wants to make sure. Investigators have DNC “call sheets” urging Clinton to make calls for campaign cash, but are still seeking evidence that he did so.