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Newsweek
Clinton and the Intern
(Page 5 of 6)

IV. Starr Goes for Broke
Tripp's phone call promised both deliverance and danger for Starr and his team. After four years and $30 million, the Starr investigation was stalled. Starr's deputies were grumbling that the White House had stonewalled them, while Democrats and pundits were calling Starr a Republican stooge. The press and the public had long since lost interest. If Tripp was telling the truth, here was a chance to penetrate the president's inner circle. Starr's men were particularly interested in Jordan. For months, Starr had been investigating whether former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell, an old Friend of Bill's, had been given hush money to buy his silence in Whitewater. Jordan was one of Clinton's friends who had arranged to get lucrative consulting contracts for Hubbell.

At the same time, Starr's deputies knew that following Tripp's leads would be a risky business. Starr had already been roundly criticized for interviewing Arkansas state troopers who had allegedly procured women for the then Governor Clinton. Starr could not afford to be embarrassed by a failed fishing expedition into the president's sex life. Still, as they listened to Tripp's tapes that afternoon, Starr's team realized that Lewinsky and Tripp were not just engaged in idle chatter. To be sure, the tapes themselves would not be worth much as evidence; they had not been authenticated, and taping a phone conversation without the consent of both parties is generally illegal in the state of Maryland. But the information on them, if true, could wind up impeaching the president. To learn more, and develop more solid leads, Starr decided to set up a sting operation. Tripp provided just the opportunity. The next day, she was scheduled to have lunch with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City.

The next morning, FBI agents wired Linda Tripp with a secret listening device. Over lunch, while hidden tapes turned, Tripp walked her unwitting friend back through the whole story. According to knowledgeable law-enforcement sources, Lewinsky made particularly damning statements about Vernon Jordan. "He said, 'It doesn't matter what anybody says, you just deny it'," Lewinsky said, recalling her ride with the superlawyer. She quoted Jordan as saying: "As long as you say it didn't happen, then it didn't happen. You're not going to jail. You're not going to jail." As they listened in an upstairs room at the Ritz, the prosecutors and gumshoes were stunned by the gravity of the moment, the sources said. Somebody could go to jail, they realized, and not just Monica Lewinsky.

The next day, Lewinsky, still unaware of her friend's deception, dug herself in deeper. That afternoon she showed up at Tripp's Pentagon office and offered Tripp a ride home. On the way, she handed her a piece of paper that may turn out to be a smoking gun. The top read simply, "points to make in an affidavit." The rest of the three-page, single-spaced typed document offered Tripp some helpful suggestions, should she wish to make a sworn affidavit in the Jones case. Jones's lawyers, it will be recalled, wanted to ask Tripp about Kathleen Willey as well as Monica Lewinsky. Tripp had been quoted in Newsweek saying that she had seen Willey, after she emerged from the Oval Office, with her lipstick smeared and her blouse askew. Such a description, if repeated in court, would be damaging to Clinton – it would buttress the image of him as a sexual predator. So "points to make in an affidavit" baldly instructed Tripp to change her story: "You now do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened. You now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked blouse, etc. You never saw her go into the Oval Office, or come out of the Oval Office. You have never observed the President behaving inappropriately with anybody." And if she was questioned about Lewinsky, Tripp was told to simply dismiss her as "this huge liar." Tripp was told to say, "I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that." Before signing the affidavit, Tripp was told to show it to "Bennett's people" – Clinton's lawyers.

On its face, "points to make in an affidavit" is what lawyers call subornation of perjury. Lewinsky was giving Tripp a road map to lying under oath. Starr's goal in the sting operation was to "flip" Lewinsky – to confront her with crimes he could charge her with. Among her choices were to join the government's team as a cooperating witness, or face indictment and possibly jail. That Wednesday night, when Tripp handed Starr's deputies "points to make in an affidavit," the prosecutors knew they had been given a powerful tool to squeeze Lewinsky. What's more, Starr strongly doubted that Lewinsky had drafted those talking points herself. That meant she was getting coaching – from whom?

Starr had tapes; he had a piece of solid evidence. It was time to call the Justice Department and make it official: the Whitewater independent counsel wanted to investigate the president and his best friend for suborning of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Paula Jones case. First, however, he needed to get permission. Under the act creating the independent counsel, the Justice Department and a three-judge panel from the federal court of appeals must sign off on any requests by special prosecutors to expand the scope of their investigations.

On Wednesday night, Deputy Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder Jr. was in his seat at the MCI Center watching a Washington Wizards basketball game when his beeper went off. It was Jack Bennett, the deputy Whitewater special prosecutor. "Something has come up," Bennett said, "and it could be serious." The story Bennett spun out the next day stunned and troubled Holder. Lewinsky's claim that Jordan told her to "deny it" was particularly disturbing. Later, with his colleagues, the deputy attorney general wondered what business Starr had investigating the president's private life. But he thought the evidence on the tapes demanded a criminal investigation. By whom? They seriously considered secretly requesting another special prosecutor. And Holder and his deputies pondered having the Justice Department open its own investigation. He knew that Attorney General Janet Reno would not want to be seen as impeding Starr's investigation. Nor would she jump at the chance to investigate Bill Clinton's private life. Still, it was clear that someone in law enforcement had to. That night, Lewinsky visited the White House, but did not see the president.

The Justice Department's hand was forced in part by the press. On Thursday morning, Starr's office had received a call from Newsweek's Isikoff. The day before, he had learned about Starr's sting operation against Lewinsky. Before Newsweek could publish a story, Isikoff said he needed to contact the subjects of the investigation, Lewinsky and Jordan. Starr's deputies asked him to hold off. Isikoff agreed to wait until 4 p.m. Friday. That gave the prosecutors less than 36 hours to move.

On Friday morning, Tripp was once again wired up by the FBI. Once more, she met the unknowing Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton's bar in Pentagon City. Only this time, the prosecutors moved in. Starr's deputies and the G-men ushered the stunned, crying Lewinsky to a room upstairs. "You're in trouble," she was told by Michael Emmick, one of Starr's deputies. For two hours, Emmick laid out the evidence: transcripts of tape-recorded conversations, and photos of her and Tripp at the Ritz-Carlton three days earlier. The government had Lewinsky's sworn affidavit denying a sexual relationship with the president and a tape recording of her affirming it. "My life is ruined," said Lewinsky.

The prosecutors had a proposition to make. She could go to jail for perjury. Or she could be the bait in a sting operation – and be offered complete immunity from prosecution. She would have to agree to be "wired" – fitted with a secret recording device, or make calls on phones that had been tapped by the government. Starr's deputies did not tell Lewinsky whom they wanted her to secretly record. But the obvious target was Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary. That would take the prosecutors closer to their real targets, Jordan and Clinton. But they needed Lewinsky's cooperation, and they needed it fast. Lewinsky had to agree that night or the deal was off. The reason: Starr's team believed that Newsweek was getting ready to publish Isikoff's article, and that Isikoff would call Jordan on Saturday, thus tipping him off.

Still crying, Lewinsky called her mother. Marcia Lewis took the next train down from New York. For the next five hours, Lewinsky and her new acquaintances in the independent counsel's office uneasily killed time. They looked at pots and pans at Crate & Barrel at the mall, they had dinner at Mozzarella's Cafe. They watched Ethel Merman in "There's No Business Like Show Business." Finally, shortly after 10 p.m., a very shaken Lewis arrived at the Ritz. She was herself at risk. On the tapes, Lewis was aware of the affair and condoned their efforts to avoid testifying about the matter.

Lewis tried to act nonchalant. According to The Washington Post, she asked the prosecutors why they were making a criminal case. "What's the big deal?" she asked. "So she lied and tried to convince someone else to lie." But she called her ex-husband Bernard in Los Angeles, who called the family lawyer, William Ginsburg. Ginsburg did the lawyerly thing: he stalled. No deal tonight, he told Starr's deputies at about 11 p.m. The next morning, he flew to Washington.

At Newsweek, the editors were running out of time on the decision whether to go with Isikoff's story. The magazine had continued to hold off before calling Jordan, the White House and Lewinsky. Some editors and reporters were reluctant to go forward before the prosecutors' interrogation of Lewinsky revealed the strength – or weakness – of their case. Others argued that the magazine's responsibility was to report the news, which this certainly was. On Saturday morning, reporter Daniel Klaidman learned that the Justice Department had approved of Starr's widening of his investigation to include obstruction of justice by the president and Vernon Jordan. But the editors decided to let the magazine's Saturday-night deadline pass. The decisive factors in holding off: the lack of any independent evidence for the obstruction-of-justice charge and of enough firsthand reporting about Lewinsky to judge her credibility.

In the cyber age, scoops rarely hold for a week, and by Sunday morning a dubious Internet gossip columnist named Matt Drudge had his own scoop. He reported some aspects of the story, and that Newsweek had spiked it (not quite right; the reporting went forward, and Drudge was completely unaware of the the most compelling part of the story: Starr's criminal investigation). But Drudge's item about Newsweek had an impact. It helped poison some tense negotiations between Starr's deputies and Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg. Ginsburg and another attorney, Nathaniel Speights, made what is known as a proffer. According to knowledgeable sources, they indicated that their client would be willing to say that she had a sexual affair with the president – if she was granted full immunity. But the prosecutors wanted more. She had to be willing to testify on exactly what the president and Jordan told her. The lawyers balked; the talks collapsed with a dismissive obscenity from Ginsburg.

It was only a matter of time before the story broke in the mainstream press. Around midnight, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry got word that the next day's Washington Post would report that Starr was investigating Clinton and Jordan for obstruction of justice. He didn't have the heart, or the energy, to talk to Clinton, who was meeting late with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Five years into the Clinton presidency, the veteran staffers are used to scandals and media feeding frenzies, even ones over sex. But the mood inside the West Wing on Wednesday morning had never been grimmer. Staunch defenders who had lived through all the various gates were disconsolate. There were tears and anger, and a sense that maybe this time Clinton, the great survivor, was pushing his luck. Restrained and courtly, chief of staff Erskine Bowles tried to remind the staff to stick with the nation's business, but it was impossible. The baying from the press room was too loud.

Looking uncharacteristically tense, McCurry read a statement about how "outraged" the president was by the allegations, and declared that the president denied ever having had an "improper relationship" with Lewinsky. Under his breath, ABC's Sam Donaldson, whose return to the White House beat was well timed, muttered, "Boy, you're going to earn your pay today." Querulously, McCurry and the reporters sparred over the meaning of the word "improper." McCurry repeatedly refused to "parse that statement," which had clearly been written by lawyers.

As it happened, Clinton was scheduled to be interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS about the State of the Union. The subject immediately became sex. Looking uncomfortable, Clinton said, "There is no improper relationship." Soon, all the networks were reporting that Clinton had used the present tense. Clinton has such a history of making tortured semantic distinctions – possibly to fool himself as well as the public – that this latest equivocation was like a flashing light. McCurry had to trudge back to the Oval Office to report that his remark was being dissected with "Talmudic precision." "OK," shrugged Clinton, "I'll use the past tense."

Hillary Clinton was out of town, making a speech on race relations at Goucher College. She greeted the news about her husband with public aplomb, deflecting reporters' questions. "Certainly, I believe they [the allegations] are false – absolutely," she said. "It's difficult and painful any time someone you care about, you love, you admire, is attacked and subjected to such relentless accusations as my husband has been." The First Lady's basic instinct, said a supporter, is to "fight back now, find out about the affair later." She immediately began calling old Clinton hands to plot a defense. But it did not go unnoticed that at a glittery dinner for contributors to a White House preservation fund in the East Room that night, Hillary made no eye contact with her husband as he introduced her as the after-dinner speaker.

Back came the anchors from Cuba, where they had been covering the pope. Up went the crisis in the white house graphics on all the news shows. Extra makeup artists had to be hired to handle all the talking heads. Reporters tried, not very hard, to hide their glee. Washington has been boring for months. "Is this the low point of the Clinton presidency?" demanded CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "Not yet," replied McCurry.

Day two was no better for McCurry: he was still held hostage in the press room. This time he had to deal with a Washington Post story that Clinton had admitted under questioning by Paula Jones's lawyers, in his secret deposition the Saturday before, that he had had sex with Gennifer Flowers. How did that square with Clinton's denials back in 1992? The press hounds demanded to know. No contradiction, said McCurry, weary enough to keep a straight face. In a stab at business-as-usual, reporters were led into the Oval Office, where they found Clinton and Yasir Arafat chatting. Lined up on a silk couch, looking very grave, were national-security adviser Sandy Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and – gravest of all – Vice President Al Gore. The reporters showed perfunctory interest in the Middle East peace talks, which were at a critical juncture, before peppering the president with sex questions. Arafat's translators did not bother to translate. Albright briefed an almost empty press room on the progress of the talks. The Iraq crisis started heating up again, bringing a lot of jokes among White House staffers about the new movie "Wag the Dog," about a political guru who starts a fake war to distract attention from a sex scandal that is about to engulf the president.

The subpoenas began to arrive on Thursday. White House staffers have learned to dread subpoenas, whether or not they have anything to hide, because they can mean crushing legal fees. There were particular commiserations for Betty Currie. A much-beloved motherly figure, Currie will need an expensive lawyer. About the only heartening moment came when Vernon Jordan, at a crowded press briefing on Thursday afternoon, gave a lesson in how to deliver a denial. He was, as always, crisp and elegant, with his gold stick pin and $1,000-an-hour smile. "May I have your attention?" he asked as he stepped to the podium. "My name is Vernon Jordan," he announced to a roomful of reporters, many of whom had played golf with him, or summered on the Vineyard, or lunched at the Palm, or asked him for one favor or another. He smoothly and calmly explained that, of course, he had gotten Lewinsky a lawyer and a job. The message was, why, I'd do the same for you.

Other lawyers were looking less composed. Bob Bennett, Clinton's lawyer on the Paula Jones case, took a long and unpleasant walk down the driveway of the West Wing, through the media gantlet. Bennett likes reporters, but on this morning he looked like he never wanted to see another one again. Meanwhile, the Clintons' Whitewater lawyer, David Kendall, quietly slipped through a side door. Kendall belongs to the "never complain, never explain" school of lawyers, a safer place to be in a sex scandal. Behind the scenes, a very critical legal game began to choose up sides. A basic rule of defense lawyers is "hang together or hang separately." In a case with a number of potential defendants – any one of whom can be "flipped" by the prosecutor to turn state's witness – it is critical to make sure all the defense lawyers are working together on a united defense. Prosecutors, by the same token, like to "divide and conquer." Thus, the president's legal team was scrambling to make sure that low-level aides were represented by counsel who would be loyal to the president.

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