President 'not sure' on donors Clinton says he can't rule out he requested donations from office

Higher standard advocated

Chief executive adamantly defends fund-raising methods

March 08, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton acknowledged yesterday that he, too, may have made telephone requests for political contributions while in the White House, something that Vice President Al Gore conceded this week he had done about 50 times.

"I simply can't say, 'I've never done it,' " Clinton said. "I'm not sure, frankly."

The president said he avoided raising money over the phone, but he could not rule out the possibility that he had called supporters from the White House and, in the course of the conversation, said, "Well, we need your help."

Federal law bars government employees from political fund raising, and it bans such activity inside the White House by anyone. Administration officials have pledged to reform their fund-raising procedures but insist they did not violate the letter of the law.

"I think we should be held to a higher standard than just: 'It is legal,' " Clinton said yesterday.

The president's remarks came at a White House news conference at which he was peppered with questions about Democratic fund raising. In response, the president delivered a spirited defense of his money-raising methods.

"I do not agree with the inherent premise that some have advanced that there's 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," he said.

Clinton's news conference came two days after administration officials acknowledged that the chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton had accepted a $50,000 donation to the Democratic Party in 1995 in the White House from a Chinese-American businessman.

The aide, Margaret A. Williams, took the check from Johnny Chung after telling him at an earlier meeting that he could give to the party but not directly to the Clintons. Williams forwarded the check to the Democratic Party.

Chung, a frequent visitor to the White House, brought with him five business clients who were allowed to watch Clinton deliver a radio address and were then photographed with the president.

"I believe both the vice president and Maggie Williams are highly ethical people, and I do not believe either one would knowingly do anything wrong," Clinton said yesterday. "Maggie Williams is an honorable person. She was put in a rather unusual circumstance, and as a courtesy she agreed to do what the relevant regulation plainly provides for."

Chung's lawyers have said that Chung understood that a large donation would essentially guarantee access to the Oval Office.

Clinton suggested that if there was a price tag put on access to the White House by Democratic fund-raisers, he was unaware of it and would not tolerate it. He said he became "upset" when he saw a Democratic National Committee flier in 1995 that promised access to him in return for $10,000 contributions.

Not good screening

The president said he was "livid" that DNC finance officers had not done a better job of screening donations; they have returned $3 million already. He expressed frustration, too, that visitors to the White House had not been better screened.

Clinton also defended his White House "coffees" with wealthy backers who were subsequently solicited for big donations. "I genuinely enjoyed them, and I don't think they were improper," he said.

The thrust of the president's defense was that money is part of politics and that presidential policies that benefit big contributors are not, by themselves, proof of wrongdoing. "I don't believe you can find any evidence of the fact that I had changed government policy solely because of a contribution," the president said.

His use of the word "solely" raised the question of whether a campaign contribution might be a factor at all in landing an appointment, a government contract or a coveted seat on a foreign trade mission. Clinton conceded that this was a delicate matter.

"Well, this is the nub, this is the difficulty," he said. "The people who help you, the people who try to help put your program in, you try to stay in touch with them," he said. "So you are more likely to know if they want to do something than you are people who didn't help you."


What he described is commonly defended in politics as guaranteeing contributors "access" but nothing more. The president seemed to acknowledge, however, that such access gives contributors a leg-up in their business dealings.

"The instructions I gave were, if someone who helped us wants to be considered for an appointment, they ought to be considered, but they shouldn't get it unless they're qualified for it. They shouldn't be disqualified because they had been a supporter of ours.

"That's the way I felt about the trade missions. If someone wanted to go on a trade mission and was qualified, then they ought to get to go. But if they would never get to go in a thousand years and the only reason they were going to get to go was because they contributed to us, I didn't think they should go."

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