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Commentary: Donorgate Isn't Watergate Yet

News: Analysis & Commentary: COMMENTARY


Fred Thompson has been there before. As a 31-year-old Senate Watergate Committee lawyer in 1973, his questions to White House aide Alexander Butterfield uncovered the existence of the infamous Nixon tapes. Now, as chairman of the Senate panel investigating '96 election fund-raising abuses, the Tennessee Republican is learning belatedly that as many as 200 videotapes of White House fund-raisers have been gathering dust in a warehouse. Asked if President Clinton lied when he denied knowing about the tapes, Thompson deadpanned: "I don't know what the President knew and when he knew it."

With its unprecedented abuses of Executive branch power and the resignation in disgrace of a sitting President, Watergate stands alone in the annals of Washington political scandal. But with the startling appearance of videotapes--even one with an audio gap (since restored)--the Donorgate scandal is beginning to take on some eerie parallels to the Watergate mess.

HYPER-TECHNICAL. True, there's no enemies list, no break-in, no dirty tricks, and no allegations that yet recall the broad abuses committed by Nixon & Co. What's more, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes, who testified on Oct. 7 and 8, proved to be no John Dean willing to hand over his boss. Quite the opposite.

And nobody in Donorgate yet fits the role of loyal Presidential henchman the way John Mitchell did. Mitchell, Nixon's Attorney General, resigned to run the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP). But Attorney General Janet Reno may be the next best thing. She has refused to turn over her department's investigation to an independent counsel even though her own task force seems unable to ask White House officials the tough questions. Case in point: The task force learned of two major disclosures, including the existence of the videotapes, from news stories.

Indeed, Reno's Justice Dept. investigators seem determined to avoid the big issues, such as trying to discover whether the White House planned a wholesale evasion of the election laws. Rather, they have focused on such hyper-technical questions as whether fund-raising phone calls the President and Vice-President made violated a 19th century law designed to protect civil servants from shakedowns by their elected bosses. Meanwhile, there's growing evidence that should prompt Reno to look into whether Clinton raised foreign money and sold access and policy favors.

The newly uncovered tapes may prove something Thompson aides have suspected. They figured that Indonesian landscape architect Arief Wiriadinata, who along with his wife gave the DNC $450,000, got the money from his father-in-law, a founder of Indonesia's Lippo Group, which is part-owned by the Chinese government. Sure enough, on the tape, Wiriadinata says to the President: "James Riady sent me." Riady, who is no longer a U.S. resident and therefore can't legally donate money, is the son of Lippo Chairman Mochtar Riady.

The videotape episode has angry Republicans coming close to alleging that Clinton is part of a cover up conspiracy, as Nixon was. Three times in the past six months, committee aides asked White House lawyers to hand over copies of the tapes. Three times the response was: "There are no tapes."

Senate Republicans are enraged about the timing of the tapes' sudden appearance. They surfaced on Oct. 1, but Justice wasn't notified until Oct. 4, a day after Reno told Congress she wasn't naming an independent counsel to investigate the President's fund-raising role. Questionable Presidential fund-raising, she said, took place in the White House residence, not in the Oval Office, which may be off-limits to campaign activity. Not so. One tape shows a May 1, 1996, Oval Office coffee, after which four of the five guests donated $100,000 apiece.

On Oct. 7, an enraged Thompson called on Clinton to "step up to the plate and take responsibility" by calling for a special prosecutor. "Surely no one wants this to go down looking like a cover up," Thompson intoned.

In the end, it's going to take far more than technical election-law abuses to ever give this scandal Watergate's weight. But nobody thought when the Watergate hearings began that revelations of wrongdoing by some Nixon loyalists bent on reelection might lead to the President's downfall. For history student Bill Clinton, that has got to be an unsettling thought.By Paula Dwyer

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