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White House Says Obama Fundraising Appeal Not Illegal

White House Says Obama Fundraising Appeal Not Illegal

By Alexis Simendinger - June 28, 2011


President Obama appealed to supporters and donors in a videotaped message emailed by his campaign team to millions of people Monday -- a message filmed with the president inside the White House by a crew from the Democratic National Committee, according to a White House official who responded to RCP questions about the solicitation.

In the video, Obama tells supporters they can join him and Vice President Joe Biden for dinner if they win a contest offered by his campaign. "We're both really looking forward to it. Hope to see you soon," Obama says on camera. The script was written by the DNC.

The president's video is accompanied by a donor solicitation form in which supporters of the administration can check boxes donating from $5 to $700 to the Obama-Biden re-election effort. This may, or may not, constitute fundraising by a federal employee in a federal office building, a practice that is generally prohibited. Even if it is fundraising, the statutory barriers regarding the White House itself are vague.

In response to questions about whether the president and his political team had stayed safely on the legal side of the relevant statutes, White House officials made three arguments. First, they said, an open process for small donors to essentially win a raffle is not the kind of fundraising prohibited under the law -- and the president didn't make a direct appeal for donations, anyway. Second, they pointed to a longstanding advisory opinion from the Justice Department that differentiates between the residence portion of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- where the aide said Obama had been filmed -- and official rooms in the White House. Third, they said, Obama's approach is in keeping with the practices of his predecessors.

"It's no different than what happened under eight years of George Bush and eight years of Bill Clinton," the official explained, speaking on background.

This assertion appears to be half-true. Although the news accounts cited by White House officials do show that George W. Bush filmed political ads in the White House, they were not overt fundraising efforts. But directly raising money in the White House was indeed the context of the bitter controversy President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore provoked in 1995 and 1996 by aggressively raising millions of dollars in campaign funds during activities expressly designed to use the White House as a hook to attract donor interest.

Congress subsequently investigated Clinton's Pennsylvania Avenue courtship of donors, which included using the Lincoln Bedroom for donor sleepovers and offering intimate meetings and briefings with Clinton and other top officials inside the White House for the donors who could -- and did -- write big checks. Republican lawmakers, joined by some good-government advocates, howled that the president had sold White House access to raise money for his re-election.

Gore, who admitted that he solicited campaign cash from a telephone in his vice presidential office, famously argued during a West Wing briefing for reporters in 1997 that he had been operating within the law because there was "no controlling legal authority."

The Obama campaign video is a small part of an aggressive fundraising effort being undertaken by Team Obama. It also comes on the heels of criticism that the president, who campaigned to change the way Washington works, was instead participating in some of its more questionable rituals, including a March 7 meeting with Obama arranged by the DNC in the Blue Room of the White House residence. The meeting, first described in a June 24 Politico story about a list of attendees released by the White House, took place with business leaders who were former or current donors or fundraisers. White House press secretary Jay Carney told Politico the meeting was not "a fundraiser."

In the email message that accompanies Obama's Monday video, however, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina explains to supporters that a minimum $5 donation is required to enter the campaign contest: "Make a donation today and be automatically registered for a chance to have dinner with President Obama and Vice President Biden together. We'll cover your airfare and the meal -- all you need to bring is your story and your ideas."

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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