By John F. Harris
A tense and occasionally heated debate is underway between President Clinton's political advisers and his legal team about how he should answer allegations that he had a sexual relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky and encouraged her to lie about it, according to sources inside and outside the White House with knowledge of the deliberations.
Even as Clinton pledged yesterday to give the American public "as many answers as we can, as soon as we can" about the nature of his relationship with the 24-year-old Lewinsky, White House lawyers imposed a tight clamp on information. And his advisers clashed over how soon and in what forum Clinton should expand on the clipped and legalistic statements he gave when the controversy first exploded into public view on Wednesday.
The White House political team is increasingly fearful that Clinton's presidency is imperiled by the controversy unless he quickly rebuts the allegations with more force and thoroughness. They have urged that Clinton answer the charges in detail before Tuesday's State of the Union speech in either a news conference or an extended interview.
But Clinton's lawyers including White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and private attorney David E. Kendall have warned in sharp terms that Clinton must keep his public answers terse and undetailed until they can assemble more facts about Clinton and Lewinsky, and make a more complete assessment of the legal threat Clinton is facing from Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
The president acknowledged yesterday that his refusal to answer the charges at greater length is an untenable position. Rather than denouncing the allegations as politically inspired or improper for public airing as Clinton and his aides have done with previous allegations of sexual misconduct the president told reporters yesterday that "there are a lot of other questions that are, I think, very legitimate. You have a right to ask them."
"We are working very hard to comply, get all the requests for information up here," Clinton said at an Oval Office photo session with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "And we will give you as many answers as we can, as soon as we can, at the appropriate time, consistent with our obligation to also cooperate with the investigations."
The dispute within the White House, as several people described it yesterday, was essentially over timing, as well as the feasibility of getting answers that won't subsequently be contradicted.
The political team including advisers Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala and Douglas Sosnik argued that Clinton must provide answers rapidly to put out the firestorm of negative publicity that has erupted over the past 48 hours and keep his policy agenda from being reducted to an irrelevancy.
The lawyers, while agreeing that Clinton's problems have both a political and legal dimension, believe they need to be especially methodical in compiling critical information before letting Clinton venture forward with his version of events, according to sources familiar with their thinking. Among other subjects, the lawyers want to know how often Monica Lewinsky visited the White House after she left her job there to work at the Pentagon in April 1996, and the precise chronology of contacts among Clinton, close friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Lewinsky in recent weeks.
About a half-dozen meetings were held yesterday between the political and legal teams at the White House to discuss public relations strategy. While lawyers Ruff, Kendall and Robert S. Bennett are allowed in the communications meetings, the political advisers are not allowed in on the legal strategizing meetings. This is because of court rulings that show that the conversations among non-lawyers are not "privileged," meaning that prosecutors can later ask them what they knew.
One source who claimed familiarity with the discussions said they were marked by heated debate and occasional yelling; a senior administration official who participated in some of the discussions described them as "robust" but "not acrimonious."
"There are a lot of people who want him to break out of the lawyers' trap he's in and be himself," said one member of what he called the "let-Clinton-be-Clinton" crowd.
Yesterday also illustrated how in light of this controversy even years-old Clinton statements are being dissected anew for veracity, presenting further problems for Clinton. When running for president six years ago, for instance, Clinton denied on the CBS News program "60 Minutes" that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. But on Saturday in a deposition in the Paula Jones case, Clinton acknowledged a sexual relationship with her, according to sources familiar with his testimony.
"The president knows that he told the truth in 1992 when he was asked about that relationship, and he knows that he testified truthfully on Saturday, and he knows his answers are not at odds," said McCurry.
But Clinton's answers appear directly at odds. In 1992, asked if he was denying an affair, the future president said: "I've said that before and so has she."
Yesterday, Clinton aides explained the contradiction by saying that Clinton was only denying the precise descriptions of the affair that Flowers had publicly alleged not that any sex between them had occurred.
Clinton's reputation for semantic contortions is hurting his public defense now. One senior White House official, who rejects the idea that lawyers are insensitive to the public relations aspect of the controversy, said the goal was to present enough facts to dissuade people that they need "to peck around the edges of [Clinton's] prose" to discern his meeting.
Even so, various officials said White House lawyers planned to tightly husband information. While McCurry said it "sounds like a good idea" to publicly release records showing how often Lewinsky visited the White House after leaving her job there, other officials said lawyers would not do that until the records had established that they support Clinton's case.
Moreover, the White House refused to answer questions about what if any role other senior officials including Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles played in the controversy. Jordan, who acknowledged yesterday meeting with Lewinsky and helping her search for jobs, is a close friend of Bowles. But an administration official said the counsel's office would not say whether Bowles knew in advance that Jordan was meeting with Lewinsky or discussed her with him. "The White House is not answering those kind of generalized questions," the official said.
Aides tried to portray Clinton and his staff as being largely undistracted by a furor that has consumed the news media. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had no public schedule, but Clinton, in addition to two Arafat meetings, worked for much of the day on the State of the Union speech, aides said.
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