The White House found itself on the defensive Wednesday as spokesman Robert Gibbs tried to answer questions about a Washington Times investigation indicating that this White House – like those before it – rewarded big Democratic donors with access to the White House and its powerful players.
“During his first nine months in office, President Obama has quietly rewarded scores of top Democratic donors with VIP access to the White House, private briefings with administration advisers and invitations to important speeches and town-hall meetings,” wrote Matthew Mosk. With internal Democratic National Committee documents obtained by The Washington Times, Mosk wrote that high-dollar fundraisers were “promised access to senior White House officials in exchange for pledges to donate $30,400 personally or to bundle $300,000 in contributions ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.”
The document offers the most generous donors membership in the DNC's National Finance Committee or the National Advisory Board.
"Together with the National Finance Committee, the National Advisory Board meets four times throughout the year in Washington, D.C. to discuss current issues, policies, and strategies," one of the documents says. "They have an opportunity to meet senior members of the Obama administration and senior members of Congress, and to hear from political analysts and policy experts."
One donor was given a birthday visit to the Oval Office. UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf, the president’s top New York City “bundler” – a contributor who raises hundreds of thousands of dollars – golfed with him at Martha's Vineyard vacation in August. White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina gave briefings on health care reform to top donors in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Other big Democratic donors celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and the 4th of July at the White House; the White House has not released the names of those who visited for those celebrations at the White House.
“It’s just the same as everybody else,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. The story, she said, is “not suggesting a quid pro quo – it didn’t say Mr. Obama is offering regulatory help for donors. It says donors are getting meetings with White House insiders to tell them what’s going on. That’s not any different from what happens in Congress, where big donors get briefings with Barney Frank, or Barbara Boxer. Top donors always get access to politicians.”
Every White House has rewarded its wealthiest contributors with various insider access and perks. Some of Mr. Obama’s more idealistic supporters may have been under the impression that President Obama wouldn’t be eager to engage in such activities, which good government groups argue tarnished both the Clinton and Bush White Houses.
“They might have expected differently, but we saw it from day one when we saw who the ambassadors were,” Sloan said. For the most part, Sloan said, President Obama’s ambassador picks were big donors.
"We cannot let the rules of the game continue to be rigged against ordinary Americans,” President Obama said last June. “We need a President who will look out for the interests of hardworking families, not just their big campaign donors and corporate allies."
During the Democratic primaries, after Clinton donor David Geffen became a support of Obama’s, Gibbs invoked some of the Clinton-era controversies involving fundraising, saying, "It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom.” Beyond obvious issues over what the word “ironic” means, the statement was clearly meant to invoke some of the donor maintenance controversies from the Clinton era.
This White House emphasizes that some of the donors are also the president’s friends. Hasan Chandoo and Wahid Hamid, who attended a Ramadan banquet at the White House, each raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for the president. They were also college roommates of Mr. Obama’s. Three donors who watched a movie with the president at the White House movie theater, Eric Whittaker, Marty Nesbitt and John Rogers, are also friends.
At the press briefing today, a reporter asked, “Obviously, I know other White Houses, Democrats, Republicans have done things like this, but the president last year promised to clean this up. What — what went wrong?”
Gibbs said, “Well, I think understanding that what this president has done is institute the very toughest ethics and transparency rules of any administration in history. We're the first administration in
history that will soon provide a list of each and every person that visits the White House, something that's never been done before. The Democratic National Committee does not accept contributions
from registered federal lobbyists or political action committees and hasn't done so since President Obama became the party's nominee last year. “
Gibbs said that “contributing doesn't guarantee a visit to the White House, nor does it preclude it.” He added that “hundreds of thousands of people have visited this White House since the president came in. And I think the president has returned to a stance of transparency in ethics that — that hasn't been matched by any other White House.”
Last month the White House announced it had arrived at a legal agreement – settling lawsuits brought by the good-government group CREW – under which it would release the names of all visitors to the White House from September 15 on. The policy will begin at the end of December, and will not be retroactive for guests before September 15.
“This is something, again, that for the first time in any administration at any point in our history we've undertaken, releasing publicly those names.” Gibbs said, also noting that the DNC as opposed to the RNC does not accept money from political action committees.
Gibbs was asked about the fact that the DNC documents say those who raise $300,000 before the 2010 midterm election get quarterly meetings with senior members of the Obama administration.
“ I'd point you to the DNC on that,” Gibbs said.
“But they're with White House officials,” the reporter responded.
“I'd point you to the DNC,” Gibbs said again.
Another reporter asked why the White House doesn’t set a policy that says campaign bundlers and donors will have no more access to the White House campus for senior administration officials than the ordinary American.
Gibbs responded that “the president believes strongly in transparency, that people can determine whether who's here and why they're here and for what course of business. The transparency in that way is the best policy. There are people that gave money that the president has been personal friends with since they went to school. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to preclude somebody like that from coming here simply because they gave money. David Axelrod couldn't work here, if that were the case. He's a donor.”
Sloan said the “real problem is our campaign finance system. If we want to change it we need to change that politicians need the money. Then we’ll see politicians spending less time currying favors with large donors.