Senators investigating 1996 campaign finance practices came face-to-face Tuesday with the man they believed stretched the law to help raise tens of millions of dollars for President Clinton.
What they got was an earful about how legal and proper the president’s fund raising was - and about the debt Clinton owed to Republican presidents for showing him the ropes.
“In having the White House actively involved in campaign matters, the Clinton White House merely followed well-established Republican precedent,” said Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff.
He lectured the senators about calls he said President Reagan made to contributors from the Oval Office and on weekly campaign meetings he said were held in the Bush White House, accusing them of pursuing partisan aims by zeroing in on Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Ickes’ testimony came as the furor intensified over the weekend announcement by the White House that it had videotaped dozens of White House fund-raising coffees during 1995 and 1996. The White House had previously denied that such videotapes existed, but committee Republicans said Tuesday there may be as many as 200 videotapes of fund-raising events involving the president and the vice president.
Republicans and Democrats on the Senate committee bickered for hours Tuesday over the importance of the videotapes, delaying the start of Ickes’ testimony until late in the afternoon. By then they only had time to hear Ickes’ prepared statement and called him back today for questioning.
Noting that the Senate committee had subpoenaed all records in connection with the White House fund raising months ago, Republicans accused the Clinton administration of seeking to stonewall the Senate investigation.
“I think we have a clear-cut obstruction in the White House,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. “How could they have not known about the tapes.” Both Specter and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Attorney General Janet Reno had botched her investigation of White House fund raising and ought to be replaced.
But Democrats - including the combative Ickes - said Republicans were more interested in scoring political points.
“The committee’s virtually exclusive focus on Democratic fund raising … serves a partisan, not public agenda,” Ickes told the committee. “If President Clinton and Vice President Gore had not won re-election, it is unimaginable that this committee, and its counterpart in the House, would be conducting these particular inquiries.”
Ickes, who ran the Democrats fund-raising operation from the White House last year, offered an unapologetic defense of the campaign, saying that the use of the White House to entertain donors was initiated by prior Republican administrations. He said Democrats adopted the practice so that they could try to raise as much money as the Republicans.
“To raise the funds to stay competitive, it was necessary and appropriate to involve the president and the vice president in fund-raising activities,” Ickes said. “I so advised them and I have no regret.”
Even with the use of the White House to entertain major donors, Ickes noted that the Democrats raised less than the Republicans for the 1996 election cycle - $336 million to $558 million.
Ickes said that Democrats played by the rules and challenged Republicans on the committee to change the laws if they don’t like them.
“Many of you on the committee don’t like the current system,” Ickes said. “I respectfully suggest that your complaint is with the law, not us. We played by the rules.”
Ickes testimony followed a bitter partisan debate between committee Republicans and Democrats over the course of the fund-raising probe.
Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said the White House was to “run out the clock” on the committee probe.
“There’s a clear pattern of delay, foot-dragging and concealing with regard to this committee,” Thompson said.
Earlier this year, Thompson issued a blistering attack on the White House for failing to disclose a series of visits to the White House by a Chinese real estate and gambling mogul. The committee heard testimony that suggested Ng Lap Seng of Macao had laundered contributions to the Democrats, but did not learn that he had frequently visited the White House until after the committee had finished that portion of its hearings.
On Tuesday, Thompson said the committee had asked the White House repeatedly since February whether there were videotapes of Democratic fund-raisers featuring the president and the vice president, and he said that the White House had denied any existed until last week.
As recently as last week, the committee suggested that the probe could be wrapped up by November. But Thompson, clearly furious that the committee only recently had learned of the existence of the tapes, held open the possibility that the hearings would continue straight through the Senate’s planned November adjournment and into December.
Committee members say they want to open a new avenue of inquiry into why the White House had failed to disclose the existence of the tapes until such a late date.
In a related development, Clinton’s special counsel, Lanny Breuer, was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury today “to explain our production of the tapes,” according to one senior administration official.