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'Levey Live' with The Post's Peter Baker

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Good afternoon and welcome to Levey Live. I'm your host, Washington Post columnist Bob Levey.

Levey Live appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to major news makers and to key Washington Post reporters and editors.

Today, we return to the Clinton-Lewinsky controversy, and to the legal issues surrounding the case. Is Kenneth Starr on the right track? Should he wind up the case, or abandon it? What about executive privilege? Should President Clinton be allowed to invoke it? Will Monica Lewinsky be granted immunity? Should she be?

Our guest is Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker, who covers the White House. Baker has covered the Clinton-Lewinsky controversy from the beginning. Last week, his story about the President's deposition in the Paula Jones case led to a fresh volley of charges and counter charges over leaks – who is doing the leaking and why.

Peter Baker has been a Post staff member for ten years. He previously covered politics for the metropolitan staff.

Your questions and comments are welcome throughout the hour.

Winterville, N.C: If a person leaks a story to a reporter and then accuses another person of the leak, does the reporter have a moral or ethical responsibility to report not who leaked the story, but who did not leak it?

Peter Baker: That's a difficult question. It's certainly not our job to abet people in misleading the public, but on the other hand once we have made a deal with someone we feel honor-bound to live up to it. Once you start going down the road of identifying who did not provide information, you effectively start saying who might have.

Paris, France: Would you be prepared to go to jail to protect your source of the leaked deposition transcript if subpoenaed to appear before Starr's grand jury? Thank you. Douglas Graham

Peter Baker: Sure hope it doesn't come to that! And fortunately we have some very good lawyers here ...

Mount Airy, NC: Why be critical of Starr when the Clintons won't cooperate and withhold information and documents for a year prolonging the investigation, thus dragging things out?

Peter Baker: That's a question better left to the politicians and lawyers involved. Starr defenders certainly accuse the White House of stonewalling and there certainly have been protracted battles over things like the production of notes, and so forth.

Bob Levey: From the beginning, this case has been full of rumors that didn't turn out to be true – that Lewinsky was with Clinton in Florida, that she had a DNA-stained dress. Do you think such rumors should never have been published?

Peter Baker: Good question. We've tried to stay away from the more salacious rumors that haven't had any corroboration. For instance, we checked out the Florida rumor and determined fairly well that it didn't seem to be true and therefore didn't run it. The only time we mentioned it in print was when Starr subpoenaed a Florida TV station looking for footage of Clinton and Lewinsky together – and we pointed out in that story that the evidence suggested she wasn't actually there.

Santa Monica, CA: It has been speculated that some White House folks are seeking executive privilege over the investigation. Can you confirm this and advise who they are. Thanks.

Peter Baker: Only the president can invoke executive privilege on behalf of himself or his aides and it is under consideration in several instances. His deputy counsel, Bruce Lindsey, has declined to answer some questions that might provoke a battle over privilege. Other aides whose testimony might be affected as well are communications adviser Sidney Blumenthal and deputy chief of staff John Podesta. But to the best of our knowledge – and the matter is under seal, so it is difficult to be sure – privilege has not been formally invoked yet.

Bob Levey: Please straighten out a legal issue. Kenneth Starr serves under the same rules that govern other Department of Justice employees. Yet he probably won't refer his case (if he ever decides he has one) to the federal courts. He will refer it to Congress instead. Is this proper? Is there any precedent for this?

Peter Baker: As I understand it, the independent counsel statute requires him to report to Congress with regard to the president. There's some debate about whether he might also have the power to indict and try the president in a court proceeding separate from impeachment. Starr recently brought aboard a constitutional expert who reportedly has argued that the president can be charged criminally, but there are plenty of scholars who disagree and there seems to be no real precedent.

Seattle, WA: Ken Starr has been criticized for spending millions of dollars investigating the president, and taking far too long to complete his task. Is the special prosecutor subject to any limitations in budget or time line? Are Mr. Starr's expenditures controlled or restricted in any way by the federal government? Thanks, Rick Hall, Seattle, Washington

Peter Baker: This is an area I'm not intimately familiar with, but to the best of my knowledge he is not under any real time or budget restrictions. That open-ended situation is one reason many people criticize the original statute and was a major focus of debate the last time it was renewed by Congress during Clinton's first term. For what it's worth, Starr's expenditures are audited by the federal government and made publicly available.

Richmond, VA: I remember your fine work as Richmond correspondent for the Post a couple of years back, and admire the job you've done on the Lewinsky story. With regard to the leaked Clinton deposition, how does the paper, which obviously knows who leaked the document, deal with the "mystery" when the leak itself becomes a story. Seems sort of like witnessing a crime and then writing a "balanced" story leaving open the possibility that the guilty are innocent and the innocent guilty. I don't mean this as a criticism, nor do I mean to equate the leak with a crime. But it does raise some interesting journalistic questions. I'm interested in how the paper resolves these issues internally.

Peter Baker: Again, not an easy question. Howard Kurtz, our well respected media writer, put together a piece on the issue last week and we essentially erect a church-and-state wall on the matter. Neither Kurtz, nor for that matter virtually anyone else in the newsroom, knows anything about how we came to write the story. So that means that he can write about it as if he were working for another newspaper.

Fairfax, VA: Do you think this situation can possibly be resolved before the end of the President's term?

Peter Baker: Boy, sure hope so! Don't know how much longer any of us can keep going!

Brookline, MA: Do cabinet members and other staff members not involved in the Lewinsky matter talk to reporters (on- or off-the-record) about Ken Starr? Do they ask questions about press coverage of the investigation?

Peter Baker: We talk to quite a number of administration officials and some of them surely will discuss Ken Starr. And yes, they make sure to let us know what they're thinking of our coverage (and you might imagine what that is)...

Bob Levey: More on executive privilege: When President Nixon invoked it, there was a huge firestorm. Obviously, the Clinton Administration is wary of history repeating itself. Yet most Americans (according to polls) believe the President can't do business if every word he says or writes can be dragged through the courts and the press. How will this President come down on this issue?

Peter Baker: It's delicate for Clinton for exactly the historical precedent you mention. The White House lawyers feel strongly that they have to protect the prerogatives of the institution (in addition to whatever concern they have for protecting the president personally). But on the other hand they are loath to be compared to Nixon and they know that is exactly what will happen if/when privilege ultimately is invoked.

Washington DC: Why hasn't Ken Starr subpoenaed Lucianne Goldberg? She has been a prime character in this whole affair – advising Linda Tripp and allegedly hearing her tapes?

Peter Baker: Good question. Don't know the answer. It's possible, of course, that he has and we just don't know about it. He did subpoena her copies of some of the Tripp tapes and took possession of them from her.

Petoskey, MI: Part of my brain thinks Clinton and Starr deserve each other. However, I do believe Starr should be replaced. If Clinton does it, it would seem self-serving. What are other options for replacing the Independent Prosecutor ?

Peter Baker: The law allows the attorney general to fire Starr for "good cause," but doesn't define what that is. Most people at the White House believe that if the president were to order Janet Reno to do so, it again would prompt comparisons to Nixon and the Saturday Night Massacre.

Bob Levey: You reported in this morning's Post that Kathleen Willey will soon testify before a grand jury. Will this have big impact on the case? Medium? Small?

Peter Baker: Hard to say. She actually did show up at the grand jury this morning, and significantly, she arrived with Starr investigators, which I don't believe any other witness so far has done. That suggests a level of cooperation that could make her particularly important. But we don't know much about the facts of whatever may or may not have been done to influence her testimony yet.

Fairfax, VA: The premise for this discussion was "has Starr gone too far"? How do you and your colleagues feel about that?

Peter Baker: That's one we'll probably stay away from. Hopefully, we provide enough information about what he is up to that you can draw your own conclusions.

Bob Levey: What's the status of the Lewinsky immunity negotiations?

Peter Baker: Non-existent, to the best of our knowledge. Lewinsky's lawyer went to court last week to try to get a judge to enforce what he says was an immunity agreement from Starr, but Starr says there was never a final agreement. The judge will have to decide and in the meantime the atmosphere between Starr and Lewinsky's lawyer, Bill Ginsburg, has been so hostile that voluntary cooperation seems remote.

Plattsburgh, NY: How do you respond to public criticism claiming that in the Lewinsky-Clinton story journalists are merely puppets, while lawyers and politicians are the puppet masters?

Peter Baker: Well, obviously we try to avoid that. But you have to remember, anybody involved in any story has an angle and it's our job to evaluate it dispassionately and assess it for its accuracy and newsworthiness.

Richmond, VA: Why hasn't Starr had Monica['s mother] back before the Grand Jury before now?

Peter Baker: Another good question. She had some sort of anxiety attack, as Ginsburg describes it, after her first two days of testimony and is supposedly under the care of a doctor. Her lawyer has objected to further testimony so the matter is still pending...

Berkeley, CA: One thing that puzzles me the most is that it seems most Americans don't care about the sexual scandal — at least that is what the polls show. Why can't the President come forward to tell the whole story?

Peter Baker: Sure seems logical. The White House lawyers would argue, though, that even if voters are forgiving, the president has to be careful not to do anything that gives Starr anything that would expose Clinton to criminal charges, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, etc.

Bob Levey: I'm really worried by the atmosphere at the White House. Even the Press Secretary seems reluctant to learn the facts in this case because he might then be subpoenaed. This has to affect the flow of information there. How bad has it gotten? Will anyone at the White House talk to you? Will anyone try to find out answers to your questions, or do they all duck out of "subpoena fear?"

Peter Baker: It's gotten really bad. Here's an example: A bunch of media organizations, including The Post, filed a motion asking the judge to open up hearings and documents on executive privilege, which are under seal. She denied the motion and put her decision under seal. And so therefore the lawyers representing The Post could not even tell us that we had lost the motion. We had to discover it from other sources a week after it happened.

Fairfax, VA: If President Clinton is found guilty of having an affair with Lewinsky can he be impeached for a lack of family values and morals?

Peter Baker: The Constitution says he can be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors" and Congress can interpret that however it likes. However, from what the politicians are saying, it seems unlikely they would impeach simply for having an affair. More likely they would define perjury and obstruction of justice – if they are proven – as possible grounds for impeachment. Sen. Lott, as you probably know, suggested a middle course in which Congress would pass a non-binding censure resolution if not enough evidence is turned up.

Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining in our discussion of the Lewinsky-Clinton controversy with Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker.

Falls Church, VA: Would you agree that Trent Lott's reversal on Starr's investigation proves that the whole thing is more political than moral?

Peter Baker: Not for me to say. But it is clear from his change of heart that it is an exceedingly difficult issue for Republicans right now. Clinton is riding high in the polls so they are reluctant to take him on directly, but they have a strong constituency that would like to see some moral umbrage about what the president is alleged to have done.

Longview, TX: What evidence is there that Starr is part of a right-wing conspiracy and how do David Brock's comments in Esquire relate to Hillary's charge?

Peter Baker: Starr is certainly conservative and makes no bones about it. Whether he is part of a "conspiracy," though, is best left to others' interpretations. The White House points to a variety of factors, such as the fact that he was about to take a Pepperdine University job funded by conservative critic Richard Mellon Scaife. Yet we also have seen reports that Scaife has been harshly critical of Starr for not pursuing Clinton more vigorously.

Bob Levey: We've been speaking a lot about "leaks" as if the information arrives on the desks of reporters benignly or naturally. But what if some of the leaked material has been stolen? Does that place you and other members of the press in legal jeopardy? Does it place the leaker-thief in legal jeopardy?

Peter Baker: Not really sure about that. Anybody who illegally stole material is, of course, subject to possible prosecution. But not as sure about how it relates to the press, especially if we aren't aware something was stolen. Seems to me the Pentagon Papers were swiped but reporters were able to report on them without being personally prosecuted.

Palm Harbor, FL: Any Watergate era reporter knows that executive privilege only applies to national security issues. Why does the press let Clinton off for even suggesting this? If Clinton has nothing to hide, why is he threatening to use such an obvious delaying tactic that is doomed to fail?

Peter Baker: The White House argues that it applies to more than merely national security (although that area certainly has the highest priority in any balancing act by a court). The White House maintains it covers presidential communications more generally. And the truth is there is precious little case law to judge this claim by.

Richmond, VA: Do you think that the Supreme Court made a mistake in ruling that the Paula Jones case could go forward, while the President is still in office?

Peter Baker: Some people in Clinton's camp, including his lawyers, argue that the last two months prove that the Supreme Court was wrong when it said a civil case would not significantly distract the president while in office. Yet ironically yesterday when Sen. Lott said Clinton had been distracted by the Lewinsky matter, the White House insisted he had not been. Apparently they don't agree among themselves.

Stoughton, WI: How do you feel when you do such a great job, and then get hit with such venomous "media-hatred" by the general American public? (And let me be clear – I think you are doing a great, and seriously important, job).

Peter Baker: Thanks for the kind words. The fact is that it's not our job to be popular. We hope that readers will understand that we're trying to be responsible and get at the facts. But certainly people have every right to scrutinize our performance and criticize it if they feel we have not lived up to our obligations.

Falls Church, VA: I suspect that at least some of leaks came from Paula Jones lawyers, who hope to force Clinton into reaching a settlement, now that the Jones case seems in serious jeopardy. What do you think?

Peter Baker: Obviously we can't discuss where some of our information has come from. But all the various parties involved have motivations for providing information that may or may not help them achieve their goals, such as settlement. We try to evaluate what we learn through that prism, but the most important factor is whether it is true.

Bob Levey: Your March 1 story in the Post reported that President Clinton is in a "profound rage" over Starr and the investigation. How does he express it? Does he kick the cat? The dog? Is he surlier than before this story broke nearly two months ago?

Peter Baker: The cat would kick back. And the dog is his only friend right now. More likely he kicks his lawyers, the ones who can't be subpoenaed.

Akron, OH: Do you think the American people are getting tired of Kenneth Starr's investigation, and as a result are rallying around the President?

Peter Baker: Clearly the polls show that many people don't approve of what Starr has done and that probably rebounds in the president's favor. On the other hand, it's not a prosecutor's job to be popular either. If he turns up the goods, that will be one thing.

Washington, DC: This has been going on for long enough now that I'm starting to get the impression that Starr is trying desperately to find something, anything, to bring charges on, so he can justify the time and expense. Do you get the same impression?

Peter Baker: Well, it's hard to get at motivations, but again the open-ended nature of this process is something that has concerned critics of the independent counsel law from the beginning. It should be noted that while Starr has not brought charges against the president or first lady, he has secured a number of significant convictions, including the governor of Arkansas and Clinton's business partners.

Bob Levey: In your account of Clinton's deposition before Paula Jones's lawyers, you describe a president who had constant trouble remembering dates and details. Yet Clinton was an honor student and a Rhodes Scholar. How does the President explain his forgetfulness in light of his obvious intelligence?

Peter Baker: Good question and one he hasn't answered. He does seem to have a phenomenal memory for policy details and other matters in other settings. When it came to his deposition, he gave fuzzy answers such as "I don't recall" or "I don't believe so." Of course, he's a lawyer and knows that such answers are less risky legally.

Fairfax, VA: To your knowledge is there any foundation to a rumor that Monica was recently striking a book deal?
Thanks for input today. Very informative.

Peter Baker: Her lawyer, Bill Ginsburg, has denied that she has been working on any book deal, but he also says that it may come to that after the legal process is over if she needs money and can't find a job.

San Antonio, TX: Let us assume for a moment that there really is a vast right wing plot, does this make the facts any less true? Was there a vast left wing plot against Richard Nixon and does that make him any less guilty of his acts. Or is this in fact part of the way our system works to keep our leaders on the straight and narrow?

Peter Baker: That's an interesting way to look at it. There's been a lot of discussion, for instance, about the fact that Linda Tripp briefed the Jones lawyers the night before the Clinton deposition. Some people think that shows a trap to snare the president into committing perjury. The Jones people deny that. And of course, it was up to the president and no one else to decide whether to tell the truth or not.

Bethesda, MD: Mr. Baker, do you have any feeling as to why the American public seems so supportive (according to recent polls anyway) of President Clinton? If he really did do what has been alleged, it seems to me to be a very serious matter. Since all the facts aren't in yet, it is too early to say whether any action should be taken against the President. But I am surprised at how high his approval levels are. Are the polls misleading, or do people outside of Washington DC just not care much about this sort of thing?

Peter Baker: Other than figuring out the facts of what happened, that's probably the most interesting question through this whole thing. There may be several factors at work – one, the economy is strong and voters care strongly about pocketbook issues; two, there may be a cultural change going on regarding our standards of behavior; and/or three, as happened with Nixon and Reagan, voters may be unwilling to turn very quickly on presidents they have elected twice.

Bob Levey: After Watergate, American journalism schools were flooded with students who wanted to be the next Woodward and the next Bernstein. After this story, will they be breaking down the walls in an effort to be the next Peter Baker?

Peter Baker: What a horrifying thought.

Bob Levey: That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker. Be sure to join us next week when our guest will be Douglas Duncan, the Montgomery County executive.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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