President Prepares for Historic Test
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 17, 1998; Page A1 President Clinton finished preparations for his grand jury testimony yesterday as political leaders from both parties urged him to give a full explanation of his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky without relying on a semantic defense about the meaning of "sexual relations."
Clinton met with his lawyers twice yesterday after reportedly deciding to admit what advisers called an "inappropriate" physical relationship with Lewinsky, while arguing he did not commit perjury by denying an affair in the Paula Jones case. White House officials were preparing for what they expect will be a nationally televised statement tonight following his testimony.
After a seven-month criminal investigation of the president's conduct in the Jones case, his unprecedented 1 p.m. appointment with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the grand jury watching through a closed-circuit hookup will be a defining moment for his presidency. His hopes for quelling talk of impeachment and salvaging the remainder of his second term rest in part on how and what he says in the White House Map Room and later to the American people.
Perhaps his most difficult task this weekend, though, was preparing Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, for what would certainly be a wrenching experience. The first lady accompanied the president to church yesterday morning and was an active participant in the strategy sessions later, a senior aide said.
In his only public appearance, the president appeared in good spirits as he and Hillary Clinton, holding hands, attended services at Foundry United Methodist Church. "When we have opposition and hopeless situations, God bears us up on eagles' wings," the Rev. Walter Shropshire Jr. said from the pulpit. Leaving the building, the president waved cheerily and playfully held up a plastic toy Shropshire had given him, before returning to the White House for an afternoon with lawyers that ended early in the evening.
"It sounds like he's ready to go," said another official who had been briefed on Clinton's preparations.
Inside the protected confines of the White House, Clinton bristled at weekend news accounts about his planned testimony, including a Washington Post article reporting yesterday that he was prepared to alter his story about his relationship with Lewinsky, 25, the onetime intern who reportedly testified this month that they had an 18-month sexual affair.
The article, quoting a person who had spoken with the president and his legal team, said his lawyers believed Clinton would acknowledge engaging in "sex play" with Lewinsky but maintain that he had not lied during his Jan. 17 deposition because he did not believe their activities were covered by the definition of "sexual relations" put forward by the Jones legal team.
Such accounts, widely viewed as trial balloons floated by the president's camp to prepare the nation, irritated Clinton, advisers said, because they suggested he was picking among different versions to tell the grand jury instead of simply being resolved to tell the truth. Still, no one close to the White House directly denied the accounts' accuracy.
"There is apparently an enormous amount of groundless speculation about the president's testimony tomorrow," his personal attorney, David E. Kendall, said in a statement. "The truth is the truth. Period. And that's how the president will testify."
On the Sunday television talk shows, there was virtual unanimity -- from the president's former top advisers as well as from politicians of both parties -- that the American people would not accept an explanation that distinguished some forms of sex from "sexual relations." Even if that explained legal testimony, they noted, it would not explain his televised, finger-wagging statement on Jan. 26 when he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
"I think he would be laughed out of the country," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
Hatch, who described the president as "kind of a serial legal manipulator of legal terms," said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that if Clinton explains the relationship in a straightforward manner, "I think the polling shows that the American people probably are willing to allow him to finish out his term."
Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers accused Clinton of "reckless behavior" just by putting himself in the position of being accused of having an improper relationship with Lewinsky and she said he cannot get away with "some crazy explanation" of what he meant in his denial in the Jones case. "He has to tell the truth," she said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said Clinton's biggest challenge is explaining his actions to the country, not maneuvering his way through the grand jury testimony.
"The public, as well as myself, assume that when he said sexual relations that that was a pretty unequivocal statement and I think he then has to say to the American people that he did have improper relations, that he regrets that he did not address this issue earlier with the American people and apologizes," Panetta said on "Meet The Press." "But he's got to say it in a very clear, direct and unequivocal manner."
Two Republicans took issue with Hatch's assertion that Clinton could head off impeachment proceedings with a truthful statement to Starr's lawyers and to the American people.
Rep. Bill McCollum (Fla.), the third-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said on CBS's "Face The Nation," "If at the end of the day, I concluded that the president of the United States lied under oath in a judicial court proceeding, I would have a very hard time not voting to recommend impeachment to the House."
"I think it's entirely appropriate if people decide to forgive a president . . . if he were to ask forgiveness or were to confess a problem," said Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a possible 2000 presidential candidate who earlier in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" called for Clinton to resign. "But . . . I just think that's very serious and would be very difficult for me to anticipate the House not considering impeachment."
Clinton has possible legal problems beyond perjury. Starr has collected evidence about subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice and will press the president to answer several important questions: Did he devise ways with Lewinsky to cover up an affair? Did he suggest she return presidential gifts to his secretary to avoid complying with a Jones subpoena? Did he play a role in efforts by his associates to find Lewinsky a job even as she was drafting an affidavit for the Jones case denying an affair?
Starr also has explored other situations he may want to ask Clinton about, including: whether the president or his associates tried to keep silence former White House aide Kathleen E. Willey, who alleged Clinton groped her in the Oval Office suite; and whether anyone allied with the White House tried to thwart the investigation by smearing prosecutors or key witness Linda R. Tripp.
Starr and his staff met throughout the weekend and into the night yesterday preparing their questions. In a sign that he will not simply accept a confession to sex with Lewinsky and is preparing for a confrontational day, Starr plans to bring his top deputy Jackie M. Bennett Jr., known for a pit-bull style and loathed by the president's camp.
Advisers said Clinton will vigorously deny any witness tampering. He will not give "an inch on any of the obstruction of justice or telling people to lie," said one.
But at the same time, they were painfully aware that a technical defense against perjury by parsing the term "sexual relations" would revive charges that the president plays fast and loose with the truth. "I would hope that it doesn't get down to quibbling over words," said a Clinton strategist.
"My impression is the lawyers don't see this as a legal issue of perjury but a more problematic question of the public statements that were made," added a senior administration official. "They understand he has to account for what he has told the country, but they do not believe there is perjury arising from his Paula Jones deposition."
Joining the president and first lady in the White House residence for yesterday's preparations were Kendall and his partner, Nicole K. Seligman, and former commerce secretary Mickey Kantor, who has signed on as an attorney of record. In addition, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and deputy counsels Bruce R. Lindsey and Cheryl D. Mills were at the White House.
The president's lawyers and political strategists agree that Clinton should provide a public explanation after his testimony, possibly with Hillary Clinton and from the same Map Room, where he will testify. But White House officials have been hampered in preparing for such a statement by not knowing exactly what the president will say.
In addition to a televised speech, former White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis urged his onetime boss yesterday to make public his grand jury testimony "so that everybody can judge for themselves what the president has said and, most importantly, allow this issue to be put to rest once and for all."
In addition to voters and his family, some former Clinton aides said the president owes an explanation to his own staff, which has been sent out to defend him only to learn now that he apparently did have a relationship with Lewinsky.
"It's clear that the staff are basically taking their cue from what the president said and they're not at fault here, but I do think that the president clearly owes them an apology as well," said Panetta. Asked about her former colleagues' reaction to the latest developments, Myers said, "I think, clearly, on many levels, they're disappointed. They're probably crushed. Disappointed isn't even a strong enough word."
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
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