Alternately defiant and contrite, President Clinton’s senior aide for his 1996 reelection campaign took responsibility Tuesday for fund-raising mistakes but insisted that he broke no laws and that Clinton’s courtship of donors did not differ from his predecessors’ practices.
Harold M. Ickes, the former deputy White House chief of staff, displayed characteristic intellect and profanity-laced intensity as he became the first White House aide involved in the campaign to speak at length on the record.
“Years and years ago . . . I handed out money, large sums of money, on election day,” said Ickes, recalling his first presidential campaign in 1968 working for Eugene J. McCarthy. “It was never reported. Now you got to report everything. Nobody can give any money without it getting reported.”
In his most extensive interview on the controversy engulfing the Democrats’ campaign, Ickes said that he should not have sought to steer a large contribution from a Texas donor to the Democratic Party. Government officials are not allowed to raise campaign funds or otherwise engage in partisan political activity. But Ickes said that his actions, which are under investigation, were not illegal because he did not solicit the money.
Ickes, who left the Clinton administration last week but is still a private consultant to the president, acknowledged that the White House staff failed to protect Clinton “to the extent we should have. This was on my watch. It was within my bailiwick. And I ain’t duckin’ it.”
While acknowledging that congressional, law-enforcement and media scrutiny of some campaign practices is justified, Ickes asserted that too much has been made of the perquisites provided to major Democratic donors, such as invitations to White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom.
His voice dripping with sarcasm, Ickes said that the press has made a “novel discovery” recently that “politicians raise money.” He added sarcastically, raising his arms for emphasis: “And the second great discovery that the Fourth Estate has made is that they don’t take people who have given them money out on Pennsylvania Avenue and cane them! They’re nice to them!
“I’ll bet Lyndon Johnson never did it. Richard Nixon never did it. George Bush never did it. Ronald Reagan never did it. . . . It’s a totally new phenomenon.”
Ickes said that he tried while on the White House staff to respect the “bright line” between his role as a public employee and the job of campaign fund-raising, which the law prohibited him from doing. Based on guidelines provided by White House attorneys, Ickes said, he could lawfully engage in a range of campaign activity, so long as he worked at least 40 hours every week on his government responsibilities.
But Ickes, expressing regret, conceded that he “went too far” when, just days before the election, he sought to consummate what would have been a blockbuster donation of money.
The episode began the night of Oct. 22, when a supporter informed Clinton at a fund-raising dinner that a friend of his was primed to give more than $1 million to the Democrats. Soon after the dinner, Ickes recalled, the president passed the offer to him.
“He [Clinton] said this guy made an offer of serious money. . . . I recall the president saying: ‘Serious money, in the neighborhood of a million bucks.’ And he said: ‘Will you follow up on it?’ I should have handed this off to DNC [Democratic National Committee] fund-raisers. No question about it.’
Instead, Ickes engaged the donor’s representative, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., export manager named R. Warren Meddoff, in a flurry of telephone conversations. In the final, exhausting days of the campaign, Clinton was fighting to win more than 50% of the popular vote. Ickes once even called Meddoff from Air Force One.
On Oct. 31, Ickes faxed Meddoff a three-page memo from the White House, telling him:
“If possible, it would be greatly appreciated if the following amounts [of money] can be wired to the designated banks.”
Ickes suggested that $500,000 be given to the Democratic National Committee and $540,000 to three tax-exempt organizations, including $250,000 to a group called Vote Now ’96.
Ultimately, Ickes and then-Democratic Chairman Donald L. Fowler said that they decided not to accept the money. The handling of the matter is already under examination by congressional investigators and by a separate agency that enforces the Hatch Act, the law that forbids certain federal employees from soliciting campaign funds.
Ickes said that he believes he complied with the law. White House lawyers advised him last week, he said, that they did not believe his actions amounted to soliciting the $500,000.
“It would have been the better part of discretion not to be involved,” Ickes said. But he added: “The question is, Did I solicit? There is absolutely no question in my mind, as a lawyer [that I did not]. Others can disagree. . . .
“First of all, this guy [Meddoff] made it abundantly clear to the president of the United States that he wanted to give serious money.”
However, Ickes acknowledged that he personally gathered and conveyed to Meddoff the bank account numbers of the Democratic National Committee and the tax-exempt groups. Ickes told The Times that he was well acquainted with two top representatives of Vote Now ’96 and referred several contributors to the group during the reelection campaign.
Ickes declined to speculate whether he remained an investigative target of Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who is investigating the Whitewater controversy and other matters. Referring broadly to the repeated testimony he has given to congressional committees and to grand juries since joining the Clinton administration in 1994, Ickes said that it has worn on him.
“What they’re trying to do is mousetrap you for a perjury charge,” Ickes said.