Secretary's Loyalty Didn't Waver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page A28
Until now, President Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, has been regarded as potentially the most damaging witness against him a woman of conscience summoned before the grand jury five times to reveal details of the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
But as Currie's testimony spilled into public for the first time yesterday, it became evident that, even as she endured days of grilling by prosecutors, she had remained intent on protecting her boss.
To be sure, she provided building blocks to the case that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was trying to construct, confirming dozens of details of how Clinton arranged furtive meetings with the former White House intern and how Currie had helped them.
But most of all, Currie sought to cast episode after episode in the most positive light for the president. Sometimes she was evasive. Sometimes she contradicted Starr's other witnesses. Sometimes she said that she and not Clinton had been responsible for episodes that form the basis for several of Starr's impeachment claims against the president.
While Starr contends that Clinton tried to buy Lewinsky's silence by finding her a job she liked, Currie insisted that it was her own idea to ask presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to become Lewinsky's personal headhunter in New York.
And while Starr contends the president tried to hide legal evidence by sending his secretary to retrieve gifts he'd given his young friend, Currie insisted that it was Lewinsky not Clinton who had asked her to claim the box of subpoenaed presents.
In one of his most serious allegations, Starr contends that Clinton had tried to tamper with a witness, by summoning his secretary to his office on a Sunday, the day after he had denied having an affair with Lewinsky to lawyers in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. During that Sunday conversation, Starr alleges, Clinton made a series of statements to Currie suggesting that his relationship with Lewinsky had not been intimate in an attempt to influence her eventual testimony. But Currie insisted before the grand jury that Clinton had not tried to influence her, and that she had believed at the time he was telling the truth.
At other moments, when prosecutors tried to bore in on what she knew, Currie became equivocal or forgetful. On Jan. 27, her first day before the grand jury, prosecutors asked her whether Lewinsky ever had been alone with Clinton. "I can't remember exactly," she replied at first. Then she said, "Yes, I think so." Only when asked for a third time did Currie reply definitively, "Yes."
Taken together, the testimony and the four FBI interviews also released yesterday reveal a woman who seldom lost her composure with Starr's assistants. At one point she even seemed to flirt with one of them. "I was stunned by your handsomeness," she told prosecutor Michael Emmick on May 14.
Her testimony shows that, months before Clinton acknowledged an "improper" relationship with Lewinsky, Currie furnished prosecutors many clues that such a relationship had taken place. She told of coming to work on weekends solely to admit the former intern, and of her suspicions about the nature of the president's interactions with the young woman.
But she provided no evidence that the relationship was, in fact physical.
In leaning on Currie's testimony to bolster his case, it now appears that Starr could be seen to have overreached at times. For example, in Starr's allegation of witness tampering, involving Clinton's Sunday meeting with Currie last January, the prosecutor notes in his report that Currie "knew that the President and Ms. Lewinsky had in fact been alone in the Oval Office and in the President's study." But in fact, Currie testified she believed they had not been alone, because she was nearby. She added that she had not felt pressured to back up his story.
A faithful churchgoer whom colleagues describe as a calming presence in the frenzied vortex of the Oval Office, Currie, 58, has worked for Clinton since his earliest days in the White House. Last winter, she became the first witness that Starr summoned after he turned his investigation toward Lewinsky.
Of the dozens of witnesses the independent counsel has called since then, Currie offered perhaps the closest window onto their relationship. Her desk is a few feet from the president's, and both Clinton and Lewinsky depended on her as their go-between.
The independent counsel's report to Congress last month made clear for the first time how deeply engaged the secretary was in facilitating their interactions and in trying to keep them hidden. What Starr's account omitted, however, is how often she disagreed with prosecutors' suggestions that Clinton had acted illegally.
Through her five sessions before the grand jury, extending from January through July, Currie was largely consistent in the account she gave on several central issues.
At several points, she appeared to be evasive when it served the president's interests. For example, she gave different answers about how many times she had authorized Lewinsky to enter the White House to visit the president. Her answers ranged from two times to more than a dozen.
Similarly, she seemed flummoxed about the length of time Lewinsky had spent alone with Clinton after bringing pizza to him in November 1995. At various points, she said their visit had lasted 30 seconds, three minutes and 15 minutes.
Her memory was vague on more central issues as well. After her meeting with Clinton following his deposition in the Jones case, Currie testified, she tried to reach Lewinsky by pager and telephone a dozen times that night and the following morning. During that period, she said, Clinton called her repeatedly at home.
But asked why the president was calling, she told prosecutors, "I can't remember . . . I can't remember what I was supposed to ask her either. I was supposed to ask her what she knew, had she been contacted I don't remember."
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