Clinton Led Move for Donors to Stay Night in White House
Moving the burgeoning fund-raising controversy directly into the Oval Office, documents released Tuesday show that President Clinton personally proposed inviting wealthy Democratic donors to stay overnight at the White House.
The more than 500 pages of newly released documents also show that Clinton quickly embraced a proposal to host private coffees for potential donors and suggested drawing up a list of potential invitees who already had contributed $50,000 and $100,000 or more.
Overall, the documents escalate the controversy by portraying Clinton as deeply involved in the decision-making that led to the Democratic Party’s high-pressure fund-raising tactics of 1996. Until now, the White House has sought to create the impression that the excesses were strictly the product of misguided decisions at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
By exposing the president’s role, the documents could cause Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to reconsider her earlier decision ruling out the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the Democrats’ fund-raising tactics.
Shortly before the documents were released at the White House, the president acknowledged that he had asked his aides to arrange for “some of my friends” to stay overnight at the White House. He also released the names of 938 people who have slept at the White House at his invitation since he became president in early 1993.
Among those on the list were Hollywood executive Dawn Steele, playwright Neil Simon, former MCA executives Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg, SKG Dreamworks founders Steven Spielberg and David Geffen and singer-actress Barbra Streisand. The White House said that those on the list slept either in the Lincoln Bedroom or in several other bedrooms set aside for guests, including the Queen’s Bedroom.
Also on the list were Orange County residents Dr. Robert Schuller, minister and spiritual leader of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, and Roger Johnson, former head of the General Services Administration in the Clinton administration. Neither could be reached for comment and it was unknown whether either made contributions.
“They were my friends and I was proud to have them here,” Clinton told reporters. “I didn’t have any strangers here. The Lincoln Bedroom was never sold.”
The White House attempted to bolster that point by noting that many of the 938 were not big donors but rather old Clinton friends from Arkansas (370 guests), public officials and dignitaries (128) and even friends of the president’s daughter, Chelsea (72).
But the documents also revealed Clinton’s direct role in making sure that big donors were invited for what he called “overnights” and other White House events.
The president made his wishes known to aides through notes he scribbled on a January 1995 fund-raising memo written by his campaign’s fund-raising chief, Terry McAuliffe. The memo and other documents were released by the White House after former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes surrendered them to congressional investigators in response to a subpoena.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, which requested the documents, said that the memo shows “the president was willing to sell access to places like the Lincoln bedroom for political contributions.”
“Unfortunately,” Burton added, “this flies in the face of what the president has said to the American people and I believe he owes them an apology. . . . At minimum, this is a highly unethical use of government property for political purposes.”
Prohibition of Law Noted
Kent Cooper, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan think tank that studies campaign finance issues, noted that federal law prohibits using any public room or building for soliciting or receiving political contributions. “I think this fits the description of soliciting contributions,” he said.
Referring to Clinton’s handwritten comments released Tuesday, Cooper said: “This is what I think Janet Reno will need to make a decision on appointing an independent counsel.”
In Clinton’s defense, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry emphasized that, while potential and proven donors were actively courted by the president inside the White House, they were not asked for money until a later date. The Times reported Monday, however, that DNC finance chairman Marvin Rosen methodically solicited contributions of as much as $50,000 in exchange for attendance at the White House coffees.
McAuliffe’s memo, which was written on Jan. 5, 1995, asked presidential aide Nancy Hernreich to reserve three dates over the next month on which Clinton could meet about 20 “major supporters” for breakfast, lunch or coffee. He suggested 10 people who might be invited, and added that the events could also include golf outings or morning jogs with Clinton.
“The purpose of these meetings would be to offer these people an opportunity to discuss issues and exchange ideas with the President,” McAuliffe wrote. “This will be an excellent way to energize our key people for the upcoming year.”
Hernreich, in turn, passed the memo along to the president with the handwritten notation, “Do you want me to pursue?” Clinton replied in his own handwriting: “Yes, pursue . . . promptly, and get other names at [$]100,000 or more, [$]50,000 or more. . . . Ready to start overnights right away.”
Fund-Raising Goal Notion Disputed
According to Ann Lewis, White House deputy communications director, the president’s request for names at the $100,000 and $50,000 levels meant that he wanted his staff to provide a list of people who had already made contributions of that size. She disputed the notion that Clinton was setting fund-raising goals for those to be listed.
In an interview, McAuliffe pointed out that he never suggested White House overnights for donors in his memo. The document shows, instead, that it was Clinton and Hernreich who used the word “overnight” in response to McAuliffe’s suggestion.
McAuliffe said that the memo, which he described as “innocuous,” was written shortly after he was named national finance chairman of Clinton’s reelection campaign. He said that at the time he was looking for a way to prevent key Democrats “from bolting to someone else” in the wake of twin defeats for Clinton: the death of his health care initiative and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
“I wanted to show them the president was alive and well,” McAuliffe said. “There was a lot of anger about the vision thing, that he wasn’t leading the country. And a lot of donors felt they had not been treated properly. A lot of people were disheartened that they had not seen the president in four years, people who had worked their hearts out for him. . . .”
Among the documents released Tuesday was a January 1996 memo sent by Deputy White House Chief of Staff Evelyn S. Lieberman to Ickes and former Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, pleading with them to schedule more opportunities for Clinton to meet donors at coffees. In all, the White House hosted 103 coffees in 1995 and 1996 and many of the guests have caused embarrassment for the president.
Old Friend Brought Chinese Arms Dealer
At one such coffee, for example, one of Clinton’s oldest friends, Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie of Little Rock, Ark., brought along Wang Jun, a Chinese government arms dealer. He visited the White House shortly after the Navy confirmed that China had sold cruise missiles to Iran, a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations.
In her memo, Lieberman wrote that the political staff was asking Clinton to schedule 27 coffees between late January and April 1996.
Lieberman’s memo contradicts earlier statements by White House officials that the coffees were not intended primarily as tools of the fund-raising drive. She said that the coffees were necessary because “political fund-raising is critical.”
Ickes, the president’s deputy chief of staff until January, was involved intimately in scheduling events for Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. His files show that Ickes also tracked how millions of dollars raised at various events would be split between the state and national Democratic Party organizations.
According to the documents, Ickes periodically informed Clinton about fund-raising matters and relayed the party’s increasing demands for coffees as the campaign wore on.
In October 1994, Ickes helped organize Clinton’s Legal Defense Fund in the wake of the Senate Whitewater investigation. The documents show that as early as May 1996--six months before the election--Ickes raised questions about hundreds of thousands of dollars that were delivered to the defense fund by Trie.
Funds Returned After Election
Not until after the election did the White House announce that it was returning questionable contributions because the origin of the funds could not be established.
In small script, Ickes wrote in one of the documents that the bundles of money orders handed over to the legal defense fund by Trie had sequential numbers and were written out in the same handwriting, although each bore the name of a different donor.
A number of the money orders exceeded the $1,000-a-person limit set by the defense fund, the notes say, and people who wrote the checks said that they came “from relatives who didn’t have a checking account.”
The notes also include background on Supreme Master Chang Hai, a Taiwan-based religious leader whose followers, according to Trie, donated the money that Trie delivered to the defense fund. Ickes noted: “Buddhist leaders think of her as a fraud.”
Ickes’ files also foreshadow likely problems with DNC fund-raiser John Huang, whose forte was bringing in money from the Asian American community.
One page of handwritten notes--apparently by Ickes--is dated a month after an Oval Office meeting between Clinton, Huang, Lippo Group executive James Riady and White House counsel Bruce Lindsey. During the meeting, Huang, a former Lippo employee then working in the Commerce Department, asked the president if he could be transferred to the party’s fund-raising arm.
The note said that Huang “still lives in Calif.,” where 12% of the state’s population is of Asian Pacific heritage.
After news of Huang’s illegal fund-raising broke, Ickes penned the words “illegal,” and “slipped through the cracks.” Another notation reads: “Who is John Huang?”
Eventually, the DNC returned $1.2 million raised by Huang.
The documents also include internal back-and-forth over the Democrats’ plan to recruit donors through a number of different “membership councils,” each one set up for givers of a certain amount of money.
Ickes Submitted Lengthy Memo
In July 1995, Ickes submitted a lengthy memo to Clinton, Panetta and his deputy, Erskine Bowles, after the news media reported that brochures for the councils were promising specified perquisites--such as White House briefings--in exchange for contributions.
Ickes recalled that he and others had “raised serious questions” about using the brochures but that the DNC ignored their concerns.
Clinton agreed with the press criticism. “You need to get to the bottom of this,” Clinton wrote to Ickes. “It’s awful.”
Republican reaction to Ickes’ documents was swift and biting.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called for the appointment of an independent counsel. “There’s more than enough justification for one to be appointed and that should be done,” Lott declared.
Times staff writers Jonathan Peterson, Alan C. Miller and Robert L. Jackson contributed to this report.
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