President Clinton said Monday that he and Vice President Al 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 at all, and White House aides Monday 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 Monday 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.”
Many of the 36 have previously been queried by news media about whether Clinton solicited them for contributions. Of 27 called by The Washington Post, some have declined comment, while others have specifically denied receiving any presidential solicitation. Several others have not returned calls.
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 Monday 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 Monday 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 the calls were legal. Lanny Davis, a spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, said Monday that White House lawyers have not been able to confirm that Cutler gave the advice Ickes says he did.
Clinton’s response to questions Monday - 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.