The chairman of the Senate investigation into fund-raising abuses on Tuesday demanded President Clinton "step up to the plate and take responsibility" by requesting an independent prosecutor for the probe.
"Nobody wants this to go down looking like a successful coverup," Sen. Fred Thompson declared.Thompson angrily chastised the White House for this weekend's belated disclosure of White House video footage of coffees with donors - one showing Clinton meeting donors in the Oval Office.
Republicans said the tapes provided new evidence that government property was illegally used to facilitate Democratic fund raising. The Justice Department last week had said it did not believe Clinton or Vice President Al Gore violated any federal law with the coffees - but that was before the tapes came to light.
Airing months of personal frustration over delays in White House cooperation and criticism of his investigation, Thompson accused presidential aides of "trying to run out the clock on this committee" by withholding key evidence until the committee's year-end deadline passes.
"People leave the country; documents are destroyed" and "trails get cold," Thompson said.
Harold Ickes, the former White House aide who directed Clinton's fund-raising machine last year, wandered through the committee room at the outset of Thompson's statement but was escorted to a holding room.
In a prepared statement, he previewed what likely would be a brazen defense of the White House and its fund-raising practices.
"Much of the criticism that has been leveled at the 1996 presidential campaign is unwarranted and misdirected," Ickes said.
He accused Thompson's committee of trying to "tarnish the Democratic Party in general, and President Clinton, and more pointedly, Vice President Gore."
Thompson directed his appeal personally to Clinton.
"This committee has tried to be fair to you, Mr. President. I've taken an awful lot of criticism. Now I think the American people expect you to step up to the plate and take responsibility," he said.
Thompson demanded that Clinton request Attorney General Janet Reno to seek an independent counsel in the fund-raising probe, just like he did for the Whitewater investigation four years ago.
Fellow Republicans demanded Reno's removal from the criminal investigation. "I think we have clear-cut obstruction of justice in the White House. I think we have to look at a new attorney general," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said.
But Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey stepped to Reno's defense. "The criticism she has received, the threats made against her are the political equivalent of an obstruction of justice," he said.
One Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, suggested the committee should seek Senate permission to extend the investigation into next year because of the delays and failure of witness' cooperation.
Thompson opened Tuesday's hearing by airing the footage of Clinton with donors inside the Oval Office, and said if the video had been turned over earlier it might have affected the Justice Department's opinion on the legality of the coffees.