Clinton's troubles: Cash inquiry senator rounds on the President

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Clinton has been caught out again. Videotapes showing White House coffee mornings - whose purpose may or may not have been to solicit campaign funds - burst on to the political scene this week. Mary Dejevsky asks whether this time the mud will stick.

The chairman of the Senate committee investigating the whole question of party funding, the Republican Senator, Fred Thompson, could not conceal his fury. Yesterday morning, before calling one of the key witnesses for a much-anticipated appearance - the man behind Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, his former deputy chief of staff, Harold Ickes - he let loose with a half-hour statement.

Outraged, he asked why it had taken so long for the existence of the tapes of White House coffee meetings with donors to become known. He accused the White House of showing "a clear pattern of delay, footdragging and concealing".

Focusing for the first time directly on President Clinton, he said there had been "a missing person" in most of the committee's discussions, and he was not talking about the attorney-general, Janet Reno, (who is investigating whether the President or Vice-President broke the law in their fund-raising activities), or about the Vice-President.

"Mr President," he said, "I would suggest this was your campaign, for your re-election, your supporters, your workers." And he called on Mr Clinton to assume responsibility, cooperate with the investigation and encourage White House staff to testify fully.

Less than 24 hours earlier it had been an unusually wary Mr Clinton who answered reporters' questions about the discovery of the tapes. After the role of the Watergate tapes in toppling Richard Nixon, tapes have an unnerving resonance for United States politicians: they need to be treated with care. He had also to deal with the possibility that many other tapes might be found.

"I think it was just an accident," Mr Clinton said of the delay in finding the tapes, which show him and his aides circulating easily with big donors to the Democratic Party.

He would not comment, however, on the fact that they show at least one meeting taking place in the Oval Office - despite earlier assurances that no such meetings had taken place. Nor did he comment on the special ease of his discourse with John Huang, one of the most controversial figures in the party-funding scandal because of his alleged ties with the Chinese government. Mr Clinton greets him: "Hi, John", sits next to him at table and pours him coffee.

In one aspect, however, Mr Clinton appeared vindicated. He is seen declining an offer of cheques - a clear acknowledgement that he knew the requirements of law and propriety.

Until the tapes came to light, Mr Clinton had seemed to be almost home and dry on the party-funding issue. Faced with claims that his fund-raising activities had broken the law, Mr Clinton had responded with a mixture of aggressive self-defence (he was only doing what the Republic Party did), brazen denials (he did nothing illegal), political savvy (as the tapes appear to show, he knew exactly where the line between legal and illegal ran) and his customary charm.

So successful was he, that Ms Reno, the government's chief law officer, had last week indicated in a letter to Republican senators that she had found no evidence that Mr Clinton had breached the law and it looked unlikely that she would extend her investigation beyond the initial 30 days. The same letter had explained her decision to extend a similar investigation into Vice-President Al Gore - a decision that could threaten his prospects of being elected president in the year 2000.

Mr Gore, hitherto seen as the administration's Mr Clean, has been accused of breaking the law by soliciting campaign funds from federal property (his White House office), diverting "soft money" contributions from general party funds to specific re-election campaigns, and attending events (the dedication of a Buddhist temple in California) as Vice-President, when the purpose was to raise party funds.

Less practised than Mr Clinton at parrying attacks, Mr Gore had looked defensive and diffident and, whatever happens, his reputation is damaged. With Mr Clinton - who will not be standing for election again - the belated discovery of the tapes could prove more damaging than the contents. And whatever Fred Thompson said yesterday, it could be Janet Reno's head that rolls - for insufficient rigour in her investigation - and not that of the President.