President Endures Embarrassing Week
By Dan Balz
On Tuesday, a tall woman wearing a long strand of pearls climbed out of a van in front of the federal courthouse in Washington and strode inside to testify before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury. Her name was Kathleen E. Willey, and she had a graphic story to tell about an encounter with President Clinton in November 1993.
On Friday, the lawyers for Paula Jones descended on Washington and released page after page of sworn testimony from Willey and other women alleging sexual encounters with Clinton dating back to his days as governor of Arkansas charges that, with one exception, Clinton denied in his own testimony.
Ostensibly, the Jones legal team was here to offer their response to the motion filed last month by the president's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, asking U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to dismiss the Jones sexual harassment lawsuit for lack of evidence.
But while the Jones answer came in a 95-page brief, it was the roughly 600 pages of collateral material that drew the most attention from the news media. And in no more time than it took to run the Jones documents through copying machines, the controversy over whether Clinton and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky had an affair that he or others urged her to lie about under oath became, once again, a salacious story about sex and the president.
Two other things became clearer from the Jones filing: First, the Jones case and the Starr investigation were not just intertwined; they are dependent on one another for more reasons than Lewinsky. Second, this is a case in which there has been a prodigious amount of lying on one side or the other.
Whatever the week added up to legally was a matter of debate, with some arguing that the Jones presentation was attention-grabbing but unlikely to be effective in a courtroom as others suggested that the appearance of Willey as a cooperating witness in the Starr investigation could be a sign of trouble for the president.
Politically, it was too soon to know how much the material released by Jones's lawyers would harm a president whose approval ratings have continued to defy gravity since the Lewinsky story broke almost eight weeks ago. But the early analysis from those who have charted the public mood for the past two months was that it would be minimal. The public already believes the worst about Clinton's alleged philandering. They have absorbed it and processed it and many have decided to ignore more details about Clinton's personal life.
But Friday's document dump was a dramatic event. The many pages of depositions and Willey's scheduled appearance on CBS's "60 Minutes" tonight begin to shed more light on the names behind the lurid stories that have haunted Clinton throughout his presidency. It was, as former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos put it, "like taking your puppy and rubbing his nose in it."
Clinton on Willey
When the president gave his deposition in the Jones case on Jan. 17, he was asked a series of questions about Willey, a former White House volunteer. At one point, he said: "I did to her what I have done to scores and scores of men and women who have worked for me or been my friends over the years. I embraced her, I put my arms around her. I may have even kissed her on the forehead."
Clinton is both empathetic and demonstrative. He is, in the vernacular of the day, a hugger. Anyone who has seen him reach out to ordinary Americans flood or hurricane victims; an elderly couple so poor they have to choose between buying food or medicine; the long-term unemployed; a teenager distraught over late-term abortions can envision the scene he described.
But what Willey alleged happened that November day in the White House was not an encounter between a caring president and a distraught constituent. Clinton, she testified in the Jones case, embraced her, hugged her "longer than I expected," attempted to kiss her on the lips, "put my hands on his genitals," touched her breasts and told her "that he had wanted to do that for a long time."
"I emphatically deny it," Clinton said, when confronted with her testimony during his deposition. "It did not happen." Answering a follow-up question, Clinton added, "There was nothing sexual about it."
As Willey becomes a part of Starr's investigation, too, her evolution from reluctant witness in the Jones case to cooperating witness in the Starr probe and prime-time television interviewee may mark a new chapter in the Lewinsky investigation. The sight of Willey stepping out of the van Tuesday surrounded by members of Starr's team added unexpected drama to what has become a routine scene at the courthouse.
For the prosecutor, she is a potentially damaging witness against the president. First, her account of a sexually charged scene in the White House is so graphic. Second, she makes clear that Clinton's supposed advance was unwelcome. Third, she is neither Lewinsky, a young woman who appeared to be totally infatuated with the president, nor Jones, who has become an ally of many of Clinton's longtime political opponents.
Finally, Willey's cooperation offers Starr another avenue to look into both obstruction of justice allegations taking him away from the politically perilous course of investigating the president's supposed sex life. Asked during the deposition whether she had talked "to anyone acting on behalf of Mr. Clinton about that particular incident," she answered, "No." She was then asked, "Has anyone ever encouraged you directly or indirectly not to talk about that incident?" Again she answered, "No."
But later she submitted a one-sentence amendment to the second answer, in which she said, "Nate Landow discussed my upcoming deposition with me."
Landow is a well-known Democratic fund-raiser who has acknowledged talking to Willey, a family friend, but said he never talked to her about her testimony. Landow was an early supporter of Vice President Gore's 1988 presidential campaign, but in 1992 he initially supported Democrat Tom Harkin, not Clinton. He has never been particularly close to the White House.
Willey has yet to publicly offer a fuller version of what may have happened with Landow for now, there is only the cryptic, one-sentence addition to her deposition and the information that she is cooperating with Starr's probe. How well her story holds up over time once more details are offered is a large but unanswered question.
Clinton on Jordan
Jones's lawyers allege a pattern of sexual harassment by Clinton, and their legal brief and supporting documentation focus extensively on the lurid accounts of other women and the stories of Arkansas state troopers who claim they procured women for the governor.
But among the most interesting testimony released Friday was what Clinton himself said about the efforts of his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the prominent Washington attorney, to help find Lewinsky a job.
The president's deposition is revealing in many ways. He is in general a discursive politician: Start him talking and you cannot get him to stop. He has a command of details, ranging from the specifics of a particular state or federal program to his doctor's diagnosis for his often-ailing throat. In the deposition in the Jones case, he is tentative, subdued "Keep your voice up, Mr. President," his lawyer Bennett tells him repeatedly and halting.
Jordan, who testified before the grand jury March 3 and March 5, has said he was asked last December by Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, to help Lewinsky find a job. Those familiar with his version of events have said he interpreted that request as coming from the president.
According to those same sources, Jordan initially did not know Lewinsky was a potential witness in the Jones case. When he learned later in December that she had been subpoenaed, the sources said, he specifically asked both the president and Lewinsky whether there was any sexual activity. Both denied it to him.
At the conclusion of his testimony on March 5, Jordan publicly reaffirmed that he had helped Lewinsky find a job in New York and secure a lawyer to help her file her affidavit in the Jones case, in which she denied any sexual relationship with the president. He then told reporters, "It is a fact that I kept the president of the United States informed about my activities."
Clinton's version is less clear-cut about his contacts with Jordan. Asked by the Jones lawyers whether he knew that Jordan had met with Lewinsky and talked about the lawsuit, Clinton said: "I knew that he met her [Lewinsky]. I think Betty suggested that he meet with her. . . . I, I thought that he talked to her about something else. I didn't know that I thought he had given her some advice about her move to New York. Seems like that's what Betty said."
He was then asked to confirm that Currie had initiated the request to Jordan. "I don't know that," Clinton said, adding "I think, I think, I think Betty told me that Vernon talked to her, but I, my impression was that Vernon was talking to her about her moving to New York."
Later in the deposition, Clinton was asked again about contacts with Jordan. Questioned whether the two had had a conversation about Lewinsky, Clinton replied: "I have. He told me that he called he mentioned in passing to me that he had talked to her, and she had come to him for advice about moving to New York."
Because that seemed at odds with his earlier version of how Jordan and Lewinsky first got together, Clinton was asked whether Lewinsky had gone to Jordan first. "Uh-huh. She'd come to him for advice about moving to New York. She had called him and asked if she could come to see him, and Betty I think had maybe said something to him about talking to her and he had given her some advice about moving to New York. That's all I know about that."
Pressed again as to whether he had done "anything to cause the conversation [between Jordan and Lewinsky] to occur, Clinton said, "I think the way you mean the question, the answer to that is no. . . . I don't believe that I actually was the precipitating force."
There may be an easy explanation for the difference between Jordan's and Clinton's descriptions of what happened. Was it simply because he was not asked directly that Clinton never mentioned a conversation with Jordan about sexual activity with Lewinsky? Clinton's account juxtaposed with those provided in recent weeks by Jordan and those close to him remains another of the puzzling aspects of the investigation.
Moments after Jones's lawyers held their news conference in Washington on Friday, Bennett appeared in Los Angeles to denounce them. The filing, he said, "proves what we have been saying all along: namely, that the plaintiff and her political and her financial backers are pursuing this case as a vehicle to humiliate and embarrass the president and to interfere with his presidency."
Just how much personal embarrassment the president can stand is a question only he can answer. The Jones case has been an embarrassment from the beginning, and the prospect of a trial appeared to guarantee days or weeks of discomfort for him and his family. But Friday's document dump may represent the worst that Jones's attorneys can heap on the president. Much of what was released Friday may not be allowed at the trial, scheduled for May 27.
Whether the release of all those documents becomes a political problem for the president is one the American people will have to answer. Senior White House adviser Rahm Emanual predicted yesterday that the president will suffer minimally, if at all, from the information disclosed on Friday. "It's delivered in a very political environment and comes through a political filter," he said. "This is not seen as a lawsuit, as a legal case. This is seen as more political noise."
Emanuel also said the fact that Starr and Jones are dependent on one another raises questions for the independent counsel. "He's slowly but surely been taking over the Paula Jones case," he said. Starr's investigation, he added, "is a mirror of the Paula Jones case that stands on a weak reed."
Two Republican analysts of public opinion shared Emanuel's view about the impact of fresh allegations about Clinton and sex. "This dump [Friday] added some new information," said Robert Teeter, "but only more examples of the same thing that everyone knew."
Jan van Lohuizen, another Republican pollster, said, "It has been a sex scandal all along and most members of the public don't care about that part of it." He said that it will take something dramatically new to change public opinion. "We need a John Dean," he said. "We need somebody close to the president not talking about sex who essentially says he's lying. Nothing short of that will change the game in a major way."
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said the political impact of the week's news may be minimal because the details have tended to blur in the public's mind. "All of this is now part of something that is bigger, messier," he said. "You can't separate anything from the larger terms of the Clinton-Starr battle. In that fight, the battle lines are pretty clearly drawn and people have taken firm sides."
Garin said that in the two months since the controversy surfaced, public opinion has become more polarized. Clinton supporters have gotten stronger because they see a president under siege; Clinton opponents have dug in the opposite way.
The emergence of Willey as a public witness against the president offers Clinton opponents a new front from which to move against the president, Garin said. But, he added, that doesn't change a political context in which many Americans have concluded that whatever happened between the president and Lewinsky "is a forgivable offense."
The political environment, however, is subject to change depending on events. And while this week proved again how much sex is at the heart of the controversy, Starr's case will rise or fall on serious legal questions of perjury, suborning perjury and obstruction of justice. "Where he has a political problem and the place he's not home free yet is if and when he has a legal problem," Teeter said of the president. "If he has a serious legal problem, that becomes a political problem."
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