Tables Turn as Starr Faces Questions
By Dan Balz
No more. Last week, there were again more questions than answers. But this time they were focused not on Clinton and Lewinsky; they were aimed directly at the independent counsel's office. What was Starr doing? Where was he going? And would he ever get there?
In the early weeks of the controversy, Starr appeared to be directing the investigation in a logical and urgent manner. He subpoenaed relevant documents from the White House. He called before the grand jury top White House officials and others who might have seen the president and Lewinsky together. He carried on negotiations with Lewinsky's attorney, William H. Ginsburg, and seemed close to offering Lewinsky immunity in exchange for testimony that sources said would confirm a sexual relationship with the president.
Last week, the investigation spun out in unexpected directions. The week began with the White House on the defensive, facing sharp questions about the role of private investigators hired by the president's personal legal team. It ended with Starr on the defensive for subpoenaing a White House aide to ask about his contacts with the press and for subpoenaing two private investigators hired by a supermarket tabloid.
It was a world turned upside down, and there was no better symbol of this reversal of fortunes than presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist unpopular with many of his former colleagues, who appeared before the grand jury on Thursday. Starr had called him to account over reports that he had been spreading false and malicious information about some of Starr's prosecutors. The independent counsel decried an "avalanche of lies" that he said was deluging his office and that appeared to be a deliberate attempt to sabotage his investigation. It was, he said, potential obstruction of justice.
Blumenthal approached his grand jury appearance like Brer Rabbit at the briar patch. He couldn't wait. After more than two hours of questions asking for the names of reporters with whom he had spoken and the kind of information they had exchanged, Blumenthal emerged to denounce the independent counsel's tactics. He sounded defiant; he appeared buoyant.
The week revealed just how much the long-running conflict between Starr and the president had turned intensely personal. The frustrations of months, even years, boiled over as never before. Each side had grievances; each was prepared to argue them as much in the court of public opinion as in the court of law. Neither seemed fully prepared to move the investigation closer to its endgame.
Amid the partisan clamor, the answer to the central question seemed to slip farther and farther away: What happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?
Starr was appointed as the independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation on Aug. 5, 1994. He came to the post with no experience as a prosecutor, but with a distinguished record as a top Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, a federal appeals court judge and solicitor general in the Bush administration. "I have no preconceptions at all," he said upon his appointment.
He was conservative, but not known for excessive partisanship. When the Senate Ethics Committee needed a discreet and impartial arbiter to determine which portions of former Oregon senator Bob Packwood's taped diaries could be used in a sexual harassment case against him and which should remain private and confidential, Starr was the choice. There were no accusations of leaks.
Democrats immediately protested Starr's appointment as Whitewater independent counsel -- he was named after Robert B. Fiske Jr., whose tenure was not extended by a three-judge panel -- but the White House, despite private misgivings among many on the staff, voiced even-handed approval. "We have no reason to doubt the fair-mindedness of Ken Starr," then-White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler said at the time.
The pretense of politeness long ago disappeared, and this past week saw perhaps the most significant turn for the worse in the relationship between the independent counsel's office and the White House. If words were weapons, not much of Washington would have been left standing by week's end.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart accused Starr of "a clear abuse of power." James Carville, the president's ally whose efforts to attack Starr days after his appointment in 1994 had been muzzled by Cutler, predictably went much further when he appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"Mr. Starr wants to indict everybody for everything," he said. "They have to keep him in check. We have an out-of-control, sex-crazed person running this thing. He [has] spent $40 million of the taxpayers' money investigating people's sex lives."
Starr's subpoena of Blumenthal proved to be a major misstep in the eyes of many lawyers and former prosecutors. One called the independent counsel's move "incredible bad judgment." A prominent Washington attorney initially willing to give Starr the benefit of the doubt said, "Even if there were a deliberate attack on him, he's played right into the hands of the attackers."
The subpoena of Blumenthal spared the White House further embarrassment over the news that the president's personal legal team had hired a firm of private investigators for purposes it said were entirely appropriate but would not describe.
Last Sunday, White House press secretary Michael McCurry denounced as "blatant lies" charges that the president was employing private investigators to dig up dirt on prosecutors, reporters or Clinton's antagonists in the Lewinsky or Paula Jones cases. "No one at the White House, or anyone acting on behalf of the White House, or any of President Clinton's private attorneys has hired or authorized any private investigators to look into the background of . . . investigators, prosecutors or reporters," he said in a statement.
A day later, however, in an interview with The Washington Post, Terry F. Lenzner, a former Watergate attorney, revealed that his firm, Investigative Group Inc., had been "retained by Williams & Connolly," the law firm that has represented Clinton in the long Whitewater investigation and now the Lewinsky matter.
On Tuesday, faced with more questions about his Sunday statement, McCurry told reporters, "I think there's a difference between looking at what matters are on the public record, what's in the public domain, how people have used their positions of trust and authority -- whether they have misused those positions of trust and authority -- and personal derogatory information. I think there would be some distinctions there. I think it's a moot point because none of that type of work, to my knowledge and what's been conveyed to me by counsel, has been undertaken."
McCurry acknowledged that the White House had recycled previously published stories critical of Starr's team. Two of Starr's prosecutors, Bruce Udolf and Michael Emmick, had been involved in previous cases in which they were criticized -- Udolf was fined $50,000; a case of Emmick's was dismissed -- for overly aggressive tactics. Previously published information about Starr's lawyers, McCurry told reporters at his Tuesday briefing, "has presumably been faxed to everyone in this room. If not, I know who you can call if you want to get it."
To the White House, the practice of blast-faxing damaging information in the public domain about a political opponent was common practice. To Starr it was an affront, and he responded with indignation. "Our office in recent weeks has been subjected to an avalanche of lies," Starr told reporters on Wednesday, defending his decision to subpoena Blumenthal. "The First Amendment is interested in the truth. Misinformation and distorted information have come to us about career public servants. . . . The grand jury has a legitimate interest in inquiring into whether there is an effort to impede our investigation."
But whatever Starr's investigators may have learned from Blumenthal's testimony, the subpoena turned into a public relations disaster for the independent counsel.
Old friends defended him, but even they acknowledged that Starr was sometimes politically tone-deaf. "The White House is determined to wage war to destroy Ken Starr," said a friend of 25 years. "So they have made this a very, very political environment. He's having to deal with that, and I think he's trying to deal with [it] . . . by being scrupulously professional."
Then he added, "I suspect they [Starr and his team] didn't fully perceive how that action would be viewed by the press and the public. . . . There are lots of things prosecutors might do in a normal situation. But this is not a normal situation."
Hints of a Long Battle
Other signs last week pointed to the possibility of a long investigation.
The most significant was the continuing, closed-door fight over whether Clinton would invoke executive privilege to try to prevent Starr from questioning senior White House officials about certain conversations with the president.
At least two officials, Blumenthal and deputy White House counsel and Clinton confidant Bruce R. Lindsey, have declined to answer some questions pending a resolution of the dispute. Starr's team and White House attorneys have met in private with Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who oversees the Starr grand jury, to discuss the matter. Precisely where things stand remains unclear.
But if Clinton formally invokes executive privilege -- a step some of his political advisers believe would trigger comparisons with President Richard M. Nixon's Watergate White House -- the time needed to litigate the matter, which would probably go all the way to the Supreme Court, will be lengthy.
The other sign that Starr may have considerable ground to cover came from the parade of witnesses before the grand jury. Starr's team took testimony last week from several other current or former White House officials. They included Nancy Hernreich, director of Oval Office operations and someone whose responsibilities give her a unique perch from which to see who is around the president.
Others who testified were: Timothy J. Keating, a former White House official who was directly responsible for shifting Lewinsky from her job in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs to the Pentagon; Patsy Thomasson, a former White House deputy assistant for personnel; Jocelyn Jolley, who was Lewinsky's immediate supervisor in the Office of Legislative Affairs; and Jennifer Palmieri, deputy director of the White House scheduling office.
What they may have added of significance to Starr's investigation was not known. None, with the possible exception of Hernreich, appeared to be a prime witness at the center of the case, raising the question of why Starr waited until last week to call them before the grand jury.
As Starr and the White House waged war with one another, Lewinsky twice appeared in public. Sporting a new hairdo, she had dinner at Morton's, a well-known steakhouse, a week ago yesterday. Then on Friday night, she dined at Red Sage, which features southwestern cuisine. She was accompanied both times by Ginsburg, her attorney.
Between those appearances, Ginsburg made a series of statements that seemed likely to complicate Starr's hope of resolving the investigation with clear answers.
It has become clear in the weeks since Ginsburg was asked by Lewinsky's father, Bernard Lewinsky, to represent the former White House intern that he is more than her legal adviser. He has known Monica Lewinsky since her birth and has become something of a surrogate parent, a personal protector.
Ginsburg told Time magazine, "I was there at the beginning. I kissed that girl's inner thighs when she was six days old. I said, 'Look at those little polkas.' I truly am the avuncular Mr. Ginsburg."
Ginsburg explained in an interview on Friday that the Yiddish word he used -- "polkas" -- is loosely translated as "drumsticks," and he said he was referring to the fatty portion common on a baby's thighs. "I have children of my own," he said. "I kiss all babies. I love them. I pick them up. I hold them tight."
In the first days of the investigation, Ginsburg publicly pleaded for Starr to give his client immunity so she could tell her story. Last week, in several interviews, he suggested that she already has -- in the affidavit she gave for the Paula Jones case. He also said, "I can assure you that she is not very friendly at this moment toward Mr. Starr and his efforts."
Last Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Ginsburg said, "You are to believe her affidavit. She stands by her affidavit." On CBS's "Face the Nation," he said, she "absolutely stands on the affidavit and everything that it contains." On Wednesday, on ABC's "Good Morning America," he said, "She stands by that affidavit and tells the world and is telling you and every one of your listeners that that is the truth. Her affidavit is factual." Asked whether it was now possible, because of Starr's handling of the case, that the truth would never emerge, he said, "You know the truth now. You know the truth from the affidavit."
Lewinsky's affidavit said, in part, "I have never had a sexual relationship with the president. He did not propose that we have a sexual relationship. He did not offer me employment or other benefits in exchange for a sexual relationship. He did not deny me employment or other benefits for rejecting a sexual relationship. . . . The occasions that I saw the president after I left my employment at the White House in April of 1996 were official receptions, formal functions or events related to the U.S. Department of Defense where I was working at the time. There were other people present on those occasions."
In her proffer to Starr detailing what she was prepared to say in testimony, Lewinsky indicated a willingness to confirm a sexual relationship with the president, according to sources familiar with the statement. Ginsburg said he would not talk about what was in the proffer.
Ginsburg's statements in last week's television interviews echoed comments from Lewinsky's father in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters that aired on Feb. 20, when he was asked what he thought when he heard that his daughter might have had a sexual relationship with the president. "I thought it was ludicrous. I do not believe it, and I don't believe it happened," Lewinsky replied. He acknowledged, however, that he had never asked his daughter directly.
Ginsburg's comments last week provoked considerable interest because in the early days of the investigation, as he was hoping for immunity for her testimony, he had said his client stood by the affidavit "at this time." On Friday, however, Ginsburg said people were reading too much into his most recent statements.
"I came to Washington as somewhat of an ingenue in terms of big-time press harassment," he said in an interview. "I learned new words like 'parse.' Everything I have said has been parsed. I made a mistake of using a simple suffix phrase, 'at this time,' when I meant she stands by her affidavit. . . . I've not changed my weighting, nor have I changed my position, although I certainly understand as a student of English you could see it that way. . . . I never intended to mislead."
Although he asserted that she has told the truth, he said he still fears for his client. "Where does she go from here?" he asked. "This is a 24-year-old woman. The Clintons will finish their term, receive their pensions, serve on boards. This will ultimately be a blip in the history of Clinton's eight-year presidency. Monica is just beginning her life."
Asked when his client might appear before Starr's grand jury, he replied, "There is no word on when Monica might appear."
Staff writers Peter Baker, Toni Locy, Ruth Marcus and Susan Schmidt and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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