Activity Escalates, Focus Returns to Alleged Affair
By Dan Balz and Ruth Marcus
At the White House, Clinton was denouncing the unauthorized release of the contents of his deposition in the Paula Jones case. His lawyers issued an even angrier statement, and by day's end, attorneys on all sides of the issue were pointing fingers at one another over who was responsible.
At the federal courthouse, close Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. concluded two days of testimony before the grand jury and emerged to say he had "fought a good fight . . . finished my course [and] kept the faith. And we will see what time will tell us."
Elsewhere at the courthouse, Lewinsky attorney William H. Ginsburg sparred with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr over the terms of his client's possible testimony. Ginsburg asked the court to enforce what he said was a formal offer of immunity that Starr made earlier in exchange for Lewinsky's testimony.
A week after Starr and the White House exchanged angry charges of leaks, smears, partisanship and obstruction of justice, the focus has shifted back to the difficult work of determining whether Clinton and Lewinsky had a sexual affair that the president, or Jordan, later tried to hide.
What the comings and goings added up to, however, is not immediately discernible. People argued over whether the contents of Clinton's deposition helped or hurt his case. They debated as well whether there were notable differences between Clinton's and Jordan's versions of how and why Lewinsky was offered help finding a job at a crucial time in her life -- and in the progress of the Jones lawsuit.
The longer the investigation has continued, the more clouded the public record has become. One week, Jordan, through informed intermediaries, seems to signal a widening gap between himself and the president. The next, he reaffirms the solidarity of more than 20 years of friendship with Clinton. One week, Lewinsky's story, privately conveyed to Starr's office but widely reported in the press, is that she and the president did, in fact, have a sexual relationship. The next, Ginsburg says his client stands by her sworn affidavit in the Jones case, in which she denied any sexual relationship with Clinton.
In this environment, appearances may be deceiving. The truth is, no one outside of Starr's office knows what evidence he and his prosecutors are amassing. They continue to appear confident that their investigation has made significant progress that will quiet the doubters whose voices were louder than ever last week.
The controversy moves along separate and conflicting tracks: public vs. private; political vs. legal. The president commands the public arena; Starr operates in the shadows of secret proceedings. The president's team wages a political war that immediately resonates with the public; Starr's team carefully constructs a legal investigation that is mostly oblivious to the political winds.
Yet at some point the political and legal tracks will intersect and the country will learn what kind of case Starr has been assembling. His actions remain under blinding scrutiny, his judgment under constant question. With help from Clinton partisans and political missteps by Starr himself, the situation has been transformed to an extent that, at times, it is as if Starr is under investigation as well. But in the end, the issue will be: What is Starr doing -- and why -- and what kind of political climate awaits him when he is finished?
A Leaked Deposition
On Thursday morning, The Washington Post stripped a bold headline atop its front page to banner a story detailing the contents of Clinton's deposition in the Jones case.
Some of the revelations confirmed earlier reporting on the five-hour question-and-answer session. But others highlighted in considerably more detail the president's version of events:
Clinton denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky under a definition of sex that covered almost all amorous contact except kissing.
Clinton said that he recalled seeing Lewinsky around the White House perhaps five times and that he may have been alone with her at some point, but he could not remember with certainty.
The president said the two had exchanged gifts: She gave him a necktie, he gave her souvenirs from Martha's Vineyard and, perhaps, a pin, a brooch and a book of poetry.
Clinton said he mentioned to Lewinsky the possibility that she might be drawn into the Jones case. But, he said, the conversation was in passing and in the presence of Betty Currie, his personal secretary.
The president said he had talked to Jordan about Jordan's efforts to find Lewinsky a job in New York upon her departure from the Pentagon. But Clinton said it was at Currie's initiative that Jordan began assisting Lewinsky.
Clinton denied having sexual relationships with a series of other women but admitted under oath a one-time affair with Gennifer Flowers, the former Arkansas state employee whose claim of a 12-year relationship during the 1992 New Hampshire primary nearly knocked Clinton out of the presidential race. When the controversy broke in 1992, he denied having any sexual relationship with Flowers.
Perhaps more importantly, Clinton's deposition raised anew questions that have made it difficult for him to put the controversy to rest.
Why would he exchange gifts with an intern he recalls seeing no more than five times? How does his recollection of seeing her five times while she worked at the White House square with White House logs that, according to informed sources, show that she made three dozen visits to the White House, often cleared by Currie, after she left for a Pentagon job in the spring of 1996? Why would he and Jordan talk about Jordan's efforts to find her a job if Currie was behind the request for assistance? What led him to raise with Lewinsky that she might be drawn into the Jones case along with a number of other women?
Clinton was in no mood to answer any of these questions after the story about his deposition was published on Thursday. During a photo opportunity that morning, he ducked questions by denouncing the release of the deposition, which was covered by a gag order issued by the judge in the Jones case.
"It's illegal to leak or discuss it," he said indignantly. "I have nothing else to say. I'm going to do my job. I'm going to follow the law. That's what I wish everyone else would do."
The deposition was noteworthy for the amount of time Jones's lawyers spent asking Clinton about Lewinsky, a tip-off to the central, and circular, role Linda R. Tripp now plays in both the Jones case and Starr's investigation.
Tripp met with Jones's legal team the night before the Clinton deposition and shared with them the fruits of her secretly recorded telephone conversations with Lewinsky. Those were the same tapes she had taken to Starr earlier that same week, tapes that triggered Starr's current investigation. Now it is the president's deposition in the Jones case that Starr will examine to determine whether the president committed perjury.
The detailed questioning about Lewinsky also raised new questions about Clinton's meeting with Currie the day after his deposition. After returning to the White House on Jan. 17, the president placed a call to Currie and asked her to meet him the next day. On that Sunday, the two talked in detail about what Clinton had told the Jones lawyers about Lewinsky.
One version of events was that Clinton was simply trying to assure himself that he had provided accurate answers in the Jones deposition. What is not known is whether Clinton, after reflecting upon the questions that were asked in the deposition, became suspicious and sought out Currie to assure that his recollections became hers as well.
Currie is due back before the grand jury next week.
A Vow of Friendship
On the public stage last week, Jordan tacked back toward the president's side. In private, Starr moved closer to bringing Lewinsky in for questioning before the grand jury.
Jordan testified for 10 hours over two days, emerging at one point and declaring before the microphones: "As to those of you who cast doubt on my friendship with President Clinton, let me assure you that ours is an enduring friendship, an enduring friendship based on mutual respect, trust and admiration."
And then in perfect cadence, he added, "That was true yesterday. That was true today. And it will be true tomorrow."
At the White House, the president's advisers were gleeful.
However crucial Jordan's testimony proves to be, Lewinsky's words may be even more important. On Thursday, for the first time in weeks, Starr appeared to be moving toward a resolution of the tortuous negotiations with Ginsburg over the terms of her testimony.
Earlier, Ginsburg had submitted to Starr's office a written proffer outlining what his client was prepared to say under oath, if granted immunity from prosecution. It was in that document, said sources familiar with it, that Lewinsky was prepared to admit a sexual relationship with the president while being more circumspect about whether Clinton or Jordan urged her to lie.
After receiving the proffer, Starr sent Ginsburg a document that Ginsburg interpreted as a formal offer of immunity. Whether it was is a disputed matter, and that issue was at the center of the closed hearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson on Thursday.
The terms of Lewinsky's testimony represent perhaps the most critical question now facing Starr. Will Judge Johnson enforce the immunity agreement? If not, should Starr compel Lewinsky to testify under terms that protect her from having her words used against her? Or should Starr prosecute the 24-year-old in hopes of gaining her cooperation, even if that cooperation comes much later?
A 'Reservoir of Ill Will'
A year ago, Starr said, "My job ultimately is the exercise of judgment." Today, as never before, Starr faces criticism that he lacks the kind of judgment needed in such a politically charged investigation.
But those questions can only be answered by understanding the tangled history of the investigation and the aggressive mind-set of some of its senior prosecutors.
People who have worked closely with Starr portray him as someone who has become increasingly convinced, in words he has used in private, that he is dealing with a "culture of lies" that emanates from the highest levels of the Clinton White House. "There's no question that, over time, frustration builds if one doesn't feel that one is getting full, fair or accurate information or treatment," one former Starr prosecutor said. He added, "That's particularly true when the investigation involves issues related to perjury or obstruction of justice."
The attitude in Starr's office stems from a 3 1/2-year history in which Starr and his colleagues believe they have seen their efforts thwarted repeatedly by the White House and the president's allies. They point to documents that were turned over belatedly, and only after great effort. They cite examples in which the White House and others asserted various privileges that consumed months, if not years, of litigation.
"It's hard to overestimate the reservoir of ill will that has built up," said another former Starr prosecutor.
James Carville, one of the president's most voluble defenders, recently accused Starr of being obsessed with sex. But those who know Starr say he is morally offended not by allegations of sexual impropriety, but by what he sees as a misuse of high office and the denigration of the rule of law.
And to those in the middle of the investigation, Lewinsky is the latest variation on a long-standing theme. They see, for example, repeated efforts to obstruct justice by trying, implicitly or explicitly, to silence witnesses or bolster their resolve not to cooperate with the independent counsel.
Starr and his investigators view the Lewinsky allegations through the prism of their previous encounters with the White House. When Starr asked the Justice Department for authorization to investigate the Lewinsky matter, it was in no small part because of allegations that Jordan had encouraged Lewinsky to lie about her relationship with Clinton.
Earlier, Starr had focused on whether Jordan, among other Clinton allies, helped funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell to help buy his silence about the Clintons' role in Whitewater.
Other recent episodes have roots in previous experiences. In January, Starr's prosecutors subpoenaed White House aide Robert Weiner over whether he encouraged pressure on a local Maryland prosecutor to take action against Tripp for recording phone conversations with Lewinsky in apparent violation of Maryland law. Weiner denounced the summons as "Big Brother at its worst."
For Starr and his lieutenants, however, the episode hearkened back to an incident in Little Rock in which a local Democratic prosecutor brought charges against their cooperating witness, David Hale. Prosecutors suspected Clinton allies might have played a role in encouraging that prosecution.
Other episodes also cemented the attitude of Starr and his office. When Clinton was asked in September 1996 whether Starr was out to get him and the first lady, he responded, "Isn't it obvious?" Clinton's answer enraged Starr's prosecutors, who viewed it as a personal assault on their integrity.
"It was like a John Hirschbeck moment," a former Starr prosecutor said, referring to the umpire who was spit at by Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar. "He was spitting in our face, and there was nothing we could do about it."
That history of animosity put Starr in a tricky political spot. Last week, four former attorneys general from the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations offered a welcomed morale boost. Griffin B. Bell, Edwin Meese III, Richard Thornburgh and William P. Barr praised Starr's integrity and said he should be "allowed to carry out his duties without harassment by government officials and members of the bar."
But Starr is not operating alone. A former federal appeals court judge and solicitor general, he has no experience as a prosecutor and must rely heavily on his senior deputies for advice. After the recent departures of several trusted aides, Starr is now surrounded by what some lawyers describe as a circle of "high testosterone" senior prosecutors.
Some think that predilection toward aggressiveness goes a long way in explaining some of the controversial steps Starr has taken recently. Others have a different explanation.
Said one person familiar with the inner workings of Starr's office, "The past history and personal attacks make people less thick-skinned than they might be."
An Unfavorable Climate
Whether Starr can make a case against the president is not yet clear. But what is certain is the degree to which the political environment for taking strong action continues to erode. Fresh evidence came from three places last week.
The first was in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they believed Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky, the highest level to date in that poll. But asked what should happen if the allegations of a sexual relationship are proved true, only a third said Clinton should resign.
On another question, two-thirds said Clinton should be able to "withhold certain private matters" rather than be forced to give a full accounting of any relationship.
Almost three in five said Starr's team has "gone overboard" in pursuing the Lewinsky matter, and three-fourths said the media has too. But only a fifth said Clinton's defense team has gone overboard.
The second sign of trouble for Starr came from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). He urged the independent counsel to conclude his work as quickly as possible and speculated about the possibility of a congressional censure for the president, rather than impeachment hearings, if transgressions are proved.
Showing a willingness to accelerate the process, Lott said on CNN's "Evans and Novak," "He [Starr] needs to wrap it up, show us what he's got, indict, convict people. Or if he doesn't, close it out." Yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) countered that Starr should take whatever time he needs, but Lott's remarks underscore that there is impatience even among Starr's allies.
Finally, there was the Rev. Billy Graham, pastor to presidents and a revered spiritual leader. Appearing on NBC's "Today" on Thursday, Graham offered Clinton virtual absolution for whatever might have occurred in the Lewinsky matter.
"If he is guilty, I would forgive him and love him just the same because he's a remarkable man," Graham said. "And he's had a lot of temptations thrown his way and a lot of pressure on him." Later in the interview, Graham added, "I know the frailty of human nature and I know how hard it is -- especially [for a] strong, vigorous young man like he is. He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him."
Is it any wonder that Starr and his deputies are feeling isolated and in the bunker?
Staff writers Peter Baker, Toni Locy and Susan Schmidt and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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