09/24/97 - 01:43 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Clinton moves to fight calls for prosecutor

WASHINGTON - President Clinton and his political team launched an aggressive campaign Tuesday to defend his fund-raising activities and blunt Republican pressure for a special prosecutor.

After days of caution and carefully worded statements, a combative White House:

The new strategy, adopted after a series of tense meetings over several days, reflects growing concern at the White House that Reno will take the next step toward seeking one or more new special prosecutors.

The Justice Department has begun a 30-day review to determine whether a formal investigation should be opened on the question of seeking a special prosecutor for Clinton and Gore. The vice president has hired two private defense attorneys.

The new White House strategy is not without risk: Aides struggled to avoid appearing heavy-handed with Reno.

"We have confidence she will resist political pressure and make her decision on the merits," White House special counsel Lanny Davis said. "However, it is nothing short of reckless for the Republican Senate leadership, including the chairman of the senate Republican Campaign Committee, to threaten the attorney general with impeachment unless she does what they tell her to."

Press secretary Mike McCurry said that "as opposed to being badgered by editorial writers and by Republican members of Congress ... people should just give her the space to look at the law and make the right decision."

Yet it was clear the White House wanted to make sure Reno heard from Clinton's side. His aides laid the groundwork for why a special prosecutor should not be named.

"We are ... willing to state our clear position on the law," Davis said. "And that is that phone calls from federal property to a private individual not on federal property are clearly lawful, and have been interpreted to be lawful for almost 100 years and we don't have any doubt about that."

At issue are telephone calls made by Gore, and possibly Clinton, to potential donors in the 1996 presidential campaign. The president says he can't remember if he made any such calls, but a White House memo dated Oct. 18, 1994, suggested that he made a fund-raising call to a wealthy California businessman who then contributed $50,000.

"I am absolutely positive that we intended to be firmly within the letter of the law when we were out there campaigning and raising funds, as we should have been doing," Clinton said Monday, giving the first hint of a new public relations strategy.

Until now, the White House only offered a vague argument that Gore and Clinton were exempt from the law. There was "no controlling legal authority," the vice president argued months ago.

In a shift of strategy, McCurry and Davis said memos that suggest Clinton called donors are immaterial. Even if he made the calls, they said, the "judgment of the courts" is that the donor's location is the only thing that matters.

The donors were not in the White House when they were reportedly asked for money, so it was not illegal, the aides argued.

"The spirit of the law was to prevent Bill Clinton from walking down the hall into my office and shaking me down for a thousand dollars," McCurry said. "It should not be illegal for the president and vice president of the United States to raise money."

"It should not be reduced to absurdities," he added.

Is it absurd to forbid the president and vice president to raise money in their offices?

"I think they should be allowed to raise money in the fashion that they have raised it," McCurry said, adding that he was not confirming that Clinton actually made any donor calls. However, Gore had said he would not raise money through calls from the White House again.

The threat to call lawmakers into a special session, made in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, was designed to build pressure for acting on campaign finance reform legislation endorsed by Clinton.

Delaying the reform bill "is nothing short of a vote to maintain the system that favors special interests over the public good," Clinton wrote.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office sarcastically suggested that lawmakers could use the extra time to focus on scandals in the Clinton administration.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.