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Clinton Denies Alleged Affair

Clinton/File
President Clinton
"... the relationship was not sexual."

(AP photo)

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 1998; Page A1

President Clinton had planned weeks ago to devote yesterday to building up public interest in next week's State of the Union address. Instead, he spent his afternoon with a revolving door of reporters, in a campaign to keep his presidency from buckling under the force of allegations about his relationship with a former White House intern.

In a remarkable series of three interviews in which the president was questioned bluntly and without apology about adultery and obstruction of justice alike, Clinton denied having had a sexual relationship with a then-White House aide, 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky. But he also repeatedly refused to say whether he ever discussed with Lewinsky how she should answer questions about their relationship.

Appearing on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Clinton emphatically denied that he had encouraged Lewinsky to lie to attorneys seeking a statement from her in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. At the same time, he brushed aside requests to explain his relationship or conversations with her.

"I did not urge anyone to say anything that was untrue," Clinton told Lehrer. "That's my statement to you."

It was precisely this suspicion that had engulfed the White House yesterday in a furor that aides acknowledged threatens to be the gravest legal and political challenge Clinton has faced in five years as president.

An allegation that Clinton and Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr., one of the president's closest advisers, coached Lewinsky to commit perjury in the Jones case prompted Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr on Friday to secretly seek and gain authority from a three-judge panel to expand his investigation.

Only late Tuesday evening did Clinton and his lawyers learn of Starr's new avenue and of the potentially damaging evidence – including taped conversations between Lewinsky and a former co-worker – he has already assembled.

Within hours of the news of the allegations breaking at midnight Tuesday, the White House was in the midst of a full-blown media frenzy, with senior aides and lawyers meeting and talking by phone through the night about how to respond. The most important element of the response came from Clinton himself – in three previously scheduled interviews he gave carefully worded statements that denied some of the most unseemly allegations but left other pressing questions unanswered.

Clinton earlier in the day issued a statement denying that he had any "improper relationship," but as the day wore on he was pressed to be more specific.

"The relationship was not sexual," Clinton told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. "And I know what you mean, and the answer is no."

Clinton told National Public Radio that his answers to questions about Lewinsky were constrained by Starr's investigation. NPR reporter Mara Liasson asked Clinton "whether you had any conversations with her about her testimony, had any conversations at all."

The president responded: "I think given the state of this investigation, it would be inappropriate for me to say more. I've said everything, I think, that I need to say now."

Clinton advisers inside and outside the White House acknowledged how unlikely these clipped answers are to satisfy the public's demand for reassurance that Clinton and Jordan did nothing improper. And, uncharacteristically, they made scarcely any effort to play down the severity of their situation.

Even in a White House that long ago learned to prosper amid political and legal controversies, the latest allegations exploded like a bomb on a quiet street. Administration officials who had believed they had withstood the worst of the Whitewater and Democratic fund-raising investigations recited a long list of new problems:

The allegations, unless effectively and swiftly rebutted, threaten to swamp Clinton in a perilous new criminal investigation, aides said; they promise to overwhelm public attention that would ordinarily be devoted to the policies and rhetoric Clinton will present in Tuesday's prime-time State of the Union speech, and already they have badly undermined morale at the Clinton White House.

Many present and former officials in the middle and lower ranks acknowledged privately that they did not see Clinton's careful statements yesterday as anything like the full-throated denial they were hoping for. And many of these people – who regularly denounced the Whitewater and fund-raising probes as partisan vendettas – said they could scarcely defend their boss if the new charges turn out to be substantially true. "I hope he didn't do these things, but if he did he should resign, he shouldn't be president," said one administration official who started with Clinton in the 1992 campaign.

Instead of dismissing the allegations as patently absurd, several people placed their hope on more narrow grounds: Would it really be logistically possible for the president to carry out the two-year sexual relationship that sources said Lewinsky has claimed in the taped conversations with the former co-worker? Could it be that Lewinsky had fabricated a tale?

For senior White House officials, the day began with an injunction not to concern themselves with such questions. Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, at the 7:45 a.m. senior staff meeting, made what aides described as a short, grim speech in which he noted the morning's headlines but reminded his team that Clinton had faced similar crises and distractions in the past. He told everyone to concentrate on their work and turned the floor over to national economic adviser Gene Sperling for a discussion of tax policy.

But few people around the White House were interested in tax policy. "There's an air of unreality here," said one White House official. Many staff members talking with reporters grilled them on the latest of what they had heard. Many said they spent the day glued to the television. Portions of Clinton's interview with NPR and PBS were carried live on major broadcast networks.

CNN went live with White House press secretary Michael McCurry's daily briefing, which was uncommonly jammed with reporters and was dominated by extended but unilluminating exchanges over what precisely Clinton was denying and what, if anything, he was admitting. Repeatedly, McCurry was asked what constituted an "improper relationship," each time falling back on a similar response: "I'm not going to parse the statement. You've got the statement I made earlier and it speaks for itself."

Likewise, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a day trip to Baltimore to speak at a college, found herself pressed for a response on the uproar.

"Can you say that you flatly believe these latest accusations are false?" a reporter asked.

"Certainly I believe they're false," she replied. "Absolutely."

Asked if the publicity was difficult for her to endure, the first lady acknowledged it was. "You know, I wouldn't say that it is not hard. It is difficult and painful any time someone you care about, you love, you admire is attacked and subjected to such relentless accusations as my husband has been," she said. "But I also have now lived with this for more than six years. And I have seen how these charges evaporate and disappear as they're given the light of day."

Last night, the president donned a black tie and the first lady a formal evergreen suit to preside at a White House dinner to celebrate the completion of a $25 million fund for White House restoration.

As if White House staff members needed to be told of the severity of the charges, some of the key political advisers of the first term were there to remind them. Former White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos, now an analyst for ABC News, offered a pungent assessment on "Good Morning, America." "These are probably the most serious allegations yet leveled against the president," he said. "There's no question that . . . if they're true, they're not only politically damaging, but it could lead to impeachment proceedings.

"But they are just questions right now, and that's why I think we do all have to take a deep breath before we go too far here, without underestimating their seriousness," Stephanopoulos added.

Political consultant James Carville, who remains an informal adviser to the Clinton White House and is often the Clinton team's designated point man for attacking Starr, said it is imperative for Clinton's future that the charges be dispensed with quickly.

"The president said they're not true; I believe it," Carville said in an interview, acknowledging that many in the public will want more proof. "We've got to get to the bottom of it and fast. . . . This could be the most-talked-about [controversy] in modern political history."

Staff writer Terry M. Neal contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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