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President Clinton leaves his lawyer's office after his deposition on Jan. 17 (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Washington's Extraordinary Week

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January, 25, 1998; Page A01

It was shortly before 4:30 p.m. a week ago Saturday when President Clinton's black limousine pulled through the gates of the White House complex after one of the most grueling ordeals of his presidency – six hours of sworn testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit covering some of the most intimate details of his personal life.

There to greet him was White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, carrying a fresh draft of the president's upcoming State of the Union address and an update on the Asian economic crisis. Discreet as ever, the courteous Bowles was in and out of the Oval Office in a matter of minutes, never raising the delicate subject of the Jones deposition.

"How's he doing?" another official in the West Wing asked.

"He's fine," Bowles replied.

Save for the embarrassment of the Jones deposition, there was no reason the president shouldn't have felt good that night. He had had an extraordinary January. An aggressive plan to roll out new policy proposals in advance of his State of the Union speech had caught Republicans flatfooted. Clinton had announced that he would submit a balanced budget this year, three years ahead of schedule, and had proposed expansions of Medicare and child care. After criticism that the president had lost focus in 1997, his aides believed he was back in the groove.

Public opinion polls underscored the growing sense of optimism at the White House. Despite the Jones case, Clinton's approval ratings in surveys taken the weekend of his deposition remained at their peak. Equally important, twice as many people as in 1996 said the country was heading in the right direction. Clinton's State of the Union address gave him the opportunity to reinvigorate his presidency and once again reach for the history books. With the deposition out of the way, Clinton could concentrate fully on the speech, the stalled Middle East peace talks, the confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other big issues.

But if there is a predictable pattern to Clinton's presidency, it is that adversity intrudes on success. And what has become more clear over timeis that Jones's lawsuit triggered forces more relentless, powerful and dangerous to the president than it appeared when she first came forward. As the president relaxed in the private residence with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton after giving his deposition, the next storm was forming. "Do you know anything about this Newsweek story?" David E. Kendall, one of the president's personal lawyers who handles the multifaceted investigation of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr known as Whitewater, asked a senior White House official that afternoon. Within days, the entire world would know.

Armed with secretly recorded audiotapes, Starr on the previous day had asked for and received permission to expand his investigation into some of the most damaging charges ever made against Clinton. The tapes, made by a former White House employee named Linda R. Tripp, purported to show that Clinton had carried on an affair with a 24-year-old former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky and that he and confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., one of Washington's most powerful lawyers, had subsequently urged her to deny the affair in an affidavit submitted in the Jones lawsuit.

News of the allegations touched off the most bizarre week Washington has seen in decades as White House officials, the president's lawyers, Starr's investigators, Lewinsky's lawyer and platoons of reporters collided with one another in pursuit of what happened. Fears of a new constitutional crisis mixed with fascination over the sordid and sometimes comical details that spilled out by the hour.

The president, in careful language, denied any impropriety the day the allegations became public, then retreated until his lawyers could assemble more facts. Jordan too denied any wrongdoing, though he refused to answer reporters' questions. Starr, in a brief news conference on Thursday, insisted he would proceed as quickly as possible to find the truth. Lewinsky, whose scheduled deposition in the Jones case was postponed indefinitely late in the week, has not been heard from. Her lawyer spent Friday pleading publicly with Starr to make a deal. It was all a remarkable sight.

Throughout the week, the story careened forward at a breathtaking pace, but by week's end the allegations were still not proven, and many questions remained unanswered:

Did Lewinsky and the president actually have sex in the White House, as the tapes suggest, or is Lewinsky a calculating and insecure young woman who made up stories about a sexual relationship with the president and gossiped about them to a friend?

Are Clinton's denials complete and genuine or merely artfully worded legalisms with an escape hatch designed to slide him past the danger?

Did Starr overreach his authority in his long and expensive, but still inconclusive, pursuit of the president, or was he doing what any prosecutor would have done under the circumstances?

Was Tripp a willing participant in efforts by the president's opponents to bring him down, or merely a woman appalled at what she had seen and heard about the Clinton White House and concerned about protecting herself in an increasingly bitter and tangled legal struggle?

Can a politician who has survived numerous scrapes once again escape from a situation that some old friends fear could be fatal, or has his luck finally run out?

No one – from the most loyal Clinton supporter to the most vehement Clinton hater – doubts that the allegations represent the most serious crisis of Clinton's presidency, so perilous that their appearance prompted some politicians to talk about the possibility of resignation or impeachment – if the charges are proven.

There is no turning back. What has come tumbling out over the past week could forever change the way people see Clinton. The future of his presidency hinges on what may happen in the next week: on what Lewinsky says when she begins to talk; on what the president says when he finally responds in more detail; on the president's potential legal liability; and ultimately the judgment of Congress and the American people.

What follows is the story of how it all unfolded.

Unlikely Intersection

Bill Clinton's presidency would not be in turmoil this weekend were it not for the unlikely intersection of the lives of Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.

Jones is a former Arkansas state employee who first appeared at a conservative gathering in Washington in February 1994 with a startling story to relate. She told reporters that Clinton, while governor, had her brought to a hotel suite in Little Rock, where he asked her to perform a sex act. She said she refused and immediately left the room in embarrassment.

By that spring, her complaint had become a sexual harassment suit against Clinton, and the president's conservative opponents had seized upon the case and turned it into a crusade. To all but the most vehement Clinton haters, the suit still seemed only an embarrassing nuisance. They could not have been more wrong.

Efforts to settle the case broke down. Clinton attempted to block the potentially damaging suit until he had left the White House, claiming it would interfere with his duties as president, but a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in May 1997 that the case could move forward while he was in office. Jones's lawyers immediately began to intensify efforts to find and depose potential witnesses and made no secret of their intention to seek out other women with whom Clinton might have had sexual relationships in order to show a pattern of behavior. By December, both Tripp and Lewinsky had been snared in their web.

Tripp was a holdover from the Bush administration who developed a habit of finding ways to embarrass the Clinton White House. A former military spouse (she was divorced in 1992), she joined the White House staff in 1990 as a likable, low-level employee who gradually worked herself into more responsible jobs. When Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, she believed her White House days were numbered; instead she became executive assistant to then White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum.

Tripp was one of the last people to see Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel, on the day he committed suicide in 1993. She wrote several embarrassing e-mail messages about the Foster case, including one that described White House lawyers as "the three stooges." Tripp wound up testifying before Congress and Starr's investigators about the Foster suicide and eventually found herself an outcast at the White House.

She took a job in the Pentagon in August 1994. Last summer she reappeared, this time as a source for a Newsweek story that alleged sexual misconduct by the president.

Tripp told Newsweek she had seen Kathleen Willey, a one-time volunteer at the White House, with her lipstick smeared and her clothing askew. Willey, she said in the article, told her that she had gone to see Clinton to ask him to give her a full-time job, and that the president took her into a small office adjacent to the Oval Office, where he kissed and fondled her. Clinton's attorney Robert S. Bennett dismissed Tripp as "not to be believed" – a comment that deeply offended Tripp and later convinced her that she needed to protect herself. (Willey has since confirmed the encounter with Clinton in testimony in the Jones lawsuit.)

Monica Lewinsky arrived at the White House a year after Tripp departed. A native of Beverly Hills and the daughter of a doctor father and a writer mother, Lewinsky was just 21 when she came to the White House as an intern after graduating from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. "She was a bit star-struck," said a former White House official. "I think she was a young 21. But she was a very decent, hard-working, serious young woman."

She carried with her a reference from Walter Kaye, a retired New York insurance executive and Democratic contributor whose most valuable gift to Clinton may have been the discovery that the president's insurance companies were liable for the fees charged by Bennett to represent Clinton in the Jones harassment suit.

A few months after she began work at the White House, according to published accounts, Lewinsky attended a White House party wearing what was described as a revealing dress and apparently caught the president's eye. Soon after, she would later tell Tripp, she began a sexual relationship with the president that would last for more than a year.

Lewinsky caught the eyes of others at the White House, in particular that of Evelyn Lieberman, who was then deputy chief of staff and had worked previously for Hillary Clinton. Lieberman's antennae for trouble were especially acute, according to her colleagues. "Any hint, any whiff, any possible impropriety, or too many looks would raise Evelyn's suspicions," one colleague said. She sometimes admonished other women on the staff for wearing skirts that she deemed too short.

Lieberman didn't like it when she saw Lewinsky hanging around the West Wing. Others thought the young aide was infatuated with the president. By April 1996, Lewinsky had been shipped off by nervous White House officials for a job as confidential assistant to Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon

There she met and was befriended by Linda Tripp.

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© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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