By Peter Baker
In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Clinton legal team jubilantly seized on newly released testimony showing Lewinsky told a grand jury that she was never asked to lie during the Paula Jones lawsuit or promised a job for keeping her affair with Clinton quiet.
"Ms. Lewinsky's sworn testimony . . . directly undermines the central obstruction-of-justice allegations in the [Starr] Referral, and, for that matter, the very basis of the Lewinsky investigation," wrote White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and the president's personal attorney, David E. Kendall.
Yet even as it held up Lewinsky's version of events as the definitive word on obstruction of justice, the Clinton camp offered no rebuttal for her other testimony directly implicating the president in perjury for lying about the nature of their affair both during the Jones case and again during his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony that was broadcast to the nation Monday.
That point was not lost on Starr. "Their letter accepts the credibility of Ms. Lewinsky on these issues, which should indicate that they have no intention of challenging Ms. Lewinsky's credibility on other matters," Starr deputy Robert J. Bittman wrote in a rebuttal to the committee.
The dueling letters highlight the centrality of the 25-year-old former White House intern as Congress begins debate on whether to open formal impeachment proceedings Clinton. After eight months of guesswork, sketchy reports and second-hand assessments, her full version of events finally became public this week, providing the most important evidence about whether the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors. And intriguingly, this young woman at the center of it all has become both the president's chief accuser and, it would now appear, his primary defender.
Without Lewinsky, Starr would have a far tougher time making the case that Clinton lied under oath. Not only did she testify about sexual activities that he still denies, she also provided detailed calendars, e-mail, letters and the pivotal semen-stained dress to bolster her account.
Yet Lewinsky's tale simultaneously provides significant maneuvering room for Clinton's defenders when it comes to the legally more serious crimes of obstruction of justice and witness tampering. While she interpreted some comments to mean he wanted her to deny their affair in the Jones case, she has emphasized that he never gave her explicit instructions.
The conflicting nature of Lewinsky's role came through vividly in the transcript of her final appearance before the grand jury on Aug. 20, just three days after Clinton testified from the White House and then went on national television to coldly admit the affair. A reluctant witness testifying only to avoid criminal prosecution, Lewinsky made clear she did not want to hurt the president but answered questions from grand jurors in elaborative detail.
She was devastated that Clinton had seemed to minimize their relationship during his testimony and speech, in effect suggesting "that all I did was perform oral sex on him," as she put it. Not true, she said. Contrary to his account, they did engage in touching that went beyond oral sex and that would be covered by the definition of "sexual relations" used in the Jones case, she said flatly.
Yet whatever grievance she felt because of his speech was at war with her desire to shield him. She told grand jurors how she refused to secretly tape record the president when confronted by Starr's prosecutors, how she resisted cooperating for months, how she caused him "one less headache" by not letting her father "start a huge uproar about how wrong or improper or inappropriate it was for a 50-year-old man to be having a relationship with a young woman."
"I tried," she said, "to do as much as I could to protect him."
And she did so again at the end of this day with the grand jury. Asked by one of the grand jurors if she had anything to add before she finished, Lewinsky cast aside her anger at Clinton and volunteered a defense. "I would just like to say that no one ever asked me to lie and I was never promised a job for my silence," she said.
That may not be enough for Clinton, because her other testimony made clear that she believed she had a tacit mutual understanding with the president that she would lie for him during the Jones case. Starr argues that the circumstances surrounding the job assistance and her submission of a false affidavit still add up to obstruction of justice.
"She continues to be the linchpin of the independent counsel's case," said former U.S. attorney Henry E. Hudson. "But for her testimony, it would be very, very difficult for a case to be developed by Ken Starr."
What is most striking is the credibility now widely attached to Lewinsky and her account. Many months ago, some Clinton defenders thought they could undermine her by pointing to her own tape recorded statement about lying all her life, to the fact that she lied in her Jan. 7 affidavit, to a letter she once forged while in college and to the emotional problems that have led her to therapists and antidepressant medications.
But the Clinton camp never did so, keeping quiet and leaving her credibility unchallenged even after she became a witness for Starr. While the president has offered a different account of when they started their affair, how many times they engaged in sexual activity and whether he ever touched her private parts, he has not questioned the essence of Lewinsky's account and never suggested she was not telling the truth, as he has with so many other women who went public about alleged sexual encounters.
In part, some lawyers said that is owed to the vast amount of supporting evidence provided by Lewinsky and obtained by Starr, including everything from calendar pages, notes, White House records and the testimony of friends, presidential aides and Secret Service officers that seemed to back up much of her testimony. Her account is so richly detailed, lawyers said, that it seems implausible she could be making it up.
"There's a tremendous amount of corroboration in any kind of case for any kind of witness," said David Schertler, a Washington defense attorney. "I think it shows that what she's saying in the grand jury is extremely credible. . . . And I'll tell you, if it's a battle of credibility between Monica and the president, she comes across as much better at this point. He not only has admitted lying to everyone including his wife for seven months, he still has something to lose."
John W. Whitehead, a member of the Paula Jones legal team that sought to interview Lewinsky, said, "She has weaknesses obviously; she lied originally." But her obvious reluctance to spill her secrets makes her seem more believable now. "They had such trouble getting her to come forward, she didn't just rush forward," he said. "She was no Linda Tripp."
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