Scandal's Drip, Drip Soaks Clinton

Slow release of White House fund-raising videotapes gives appearance of wrongdoing, even if guilt remains unclear.

The grainy videotape isn't up to Hollywood standards. Its subject is nonetheless clear: A jovial President Clinton is addressing donors at a May 21, 1996, White House dinner.

Mr. Clinton thanks the assembled throng for its generous support. Then he throws in a cautionary note. Remember, he tells the crowd, "this thing could get away from us in a hurry."

He meant the upcoming presidential election. But today the line might serve as a comment on the effect of the fund-raising videos themselves.

The release of over a hundred hours of tapes, covering a wide range of White House fund-raising and communication activities, has clearly energized congressional campaign-cash investigations. The Washington debate over the tapes has quickly escalated from the question of whether Clinton aides covered up their existence, to whether the words and deeds frozen on VHS cassettes are proof that the Clinton reelection team broke campaign laws.

The laws in question, and their interpretation by the courts, are complicated enough that "proof" in these instances can be in the eye of the beholder. At the very least, however, the tapes' sudden appearance has turned into a public-relations debacle for the White House and allowed critics to draw uncomfortable parallels with Watergate and President Richard Nixon's Oval Office audio tapes.

The tape cache "locks up the contention" that Clinton's reelection effort broke federal campaign barriers, insists Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania.

The latest batch of White House videos was turned over to Senate investigators last Tuesday and Wednesday. They cover 157 events, 27 of which were at the White House proper. Among other things, they show the president in embarrassing, back-slapping proximity to Charlie Trie, John Huang, and other fund-raising figures accused of funneling illegal foreign money into the 1996 campaign.

The belated appearance of the tapes - months after a Senate panel subpoenaed all such White House information - has caused Republicans to question whether this White House is conducting a Nixonian-style coverup. Clinton aides continue to insist that mix ups, not concerted conspiracy, are the reason for the delay in making tapes public.

Indeed, the White House would probably be ill-served to try to conduct such a coverup in today's aggressive media environment, point out experts. The experience of Watergate - as well as Iran-contra and other recent Washington investigations - shows that "limited, modified hangouts," the term used by Nixon aides in the '70s, seldom work.

"It may be a natural human temptation to not release things, but it's better do it and then try to put the proper spin on the information," says Michael Genovese, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The "spin" the White House is putting on the videos is that they simply show pictures of activities that the administration had admitted all along. But Republican investigators insist that the pictures reveal subtle and important new information.

Perhaps the most controversial tape released so far shows a Dec. 7, 1995, meeting with donors. It shows Clinton boasting that a series of Democratic Party ads financed with largely unregulated "soft money" has increased his standing in the polls.

This comment is important because parties aren't supposed to use soft money to boost any particular candidate - whether that candidate is running for president or state representative. Instead, they're supposed to use this cash only for so-called "issue ads" that build the party generally.

Critics say this tape proves that the ad blitz had an illegal purpose. Senator Specter, in a broadcast interview on Sunday, called the Dec. 7 tape "the smoking gun or the smoking tape" in the whole campaign fund-raising affair.

In recent years the courts have taken a somewhat different view on this issue, however. In essence, they have ruled that unless an ad contains such magic words as "Vote for X candidate," it can be properly labeled an issue commercial. The Supreme Court declined to review a case on this question just this month.

Furthermore, the tapes released last week don't show Clinton explicitly asking for money while in the White House itself. Senate investigators had hoped for a snippet of such an appeal, which they believe would constitute illegal fund-raising in a federal building.

This is a gray area of the law, however, and it is not clear that the courts would find such an appeal illegal. The statute in question, the Pendleton Act, is almost 100 years old and has never been invoked to cover such circumstances.

More problematic for the president could be the evidence the tapes provide about the Democratic Party's connection to sources of foreign money. Mr. Huang, Mr. Trie, and others on the videos have fled the country or taken the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before the Senate. The tapes twice show the president thanking audiences filled with foreign nationals for their support. It's illegal to funnel money from other countries into US campaigns - and that's the charge that launched the Senate investigation into the '96 money race, many months ago.

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