By John F. Harris and Dan Balz
Clenching his jaw and pointing his finger for emphasis, President Clinton yesterday denied, in far more forceful terms than before, that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and coached her to lie about it.
"I want you to listen to me," Clinton said, as he glared at cameras. "I'm going to say this again, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time -- never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people."
Clinton's statement, which came on the day before his annual State of the Union address, was described by aides as an attempt to state unequivocally to the public that there are no loopholes in the president's denials -- a clarity they acknowledge was not present in the muted and seemingly opaque remarks he made when the uproar first broke on Wednesday morning.
Clinton wore a fierce expression as he finished his brief statement, which came at the end of a presentation on child-care policy in the Roosevelt Room with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Gore. Quickly pivoting toward the exit, he ignored a shouted question about the exact nature of his relationship with the 24-year-old former intern. While the denial was not new, his tone was dramatically changed from comments last week to reporters -- the careful pauses and tentative demeanor were gone -- as were the White House's explanations about what meaning the president was trying to convey.
Over the weekend, Clinton advisers had hedged on whether his denial of a "sexual relationship" included all forms of intimate contact, and whether Clinton might eventually back away from his denials with a statement of partial admission and apology.
That ambiguity is now removed, aides said, as Clinton and his legal team have staked out an unmovable position -- the president had no sex of any kind with Lewinsky, despite her claims in surreptitiously made tapes to have frequently had sex with the president. And the speculation among skeptics on his own staff that he might recant or soften his denials is over. "We'll stand or fall" with this version of events, a Clinton adviser said.
Several Clinton advisers described themselves in a period of anxious waiting. Most immediately, they want to see how today's State of the Union address is received by the public. Before the controversy broke, aides were counting on various education and child-care initiatives Clinton will highlight in the speech to put him clearly in the dominant position in this year's policy battles with Republicans.
Now, their hopes are more modest. At a minimum, White House aides said they are hoping for a polite reception in the House chamber, and that, by conveying the impression of an activist chief executive carrying out his duties they can gradually blunt the impact of the controversy.
Most important to Clinton's fate, advisers said, are the negotiations between independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and Lewinsky over what she is prepared to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution. In the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Lewinsky issued an affidavit denying that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton. But, on tapes made secretly by a confidant and given to Starr, she said the opposite, adding that Clinton urged her to lie.
"There are two actors in this play, the president and Monica," one Democrat close to Clinton's political and legal teams said. "Both of them have issued very strong and vigorous denials. It seems to me that the next act is, is she going to recant or is she not going to recant. The president has said what he said, she has said what she said. Now is she going to say something different, and if so, what?"
Initially frustrated and shell-shocked by the allegations, Clinton's mood now is more one of anger at being pursued by what he considers illegitimate questions and prosecutorial tactics, an aide said.
Some people listening to Clinton's statement, carried live on television networks, heard a note of contempt in his voice as he referred to "that woman." There was a moment's pause before he uttered the words "Miss Lewinsky."
Some Clinton advisers yesterday repeated earlier warnings that Lewinsky's own reputation may not go unchallenged if she recants her earlier sworn statement. On the tapes made by former co-worker Linda R. Tripp, Lewinsky reportedly describes herself as comfortable with lying, noted this adviser, predicting that any public perception of Lewinsky as a naive victim may change over time.
Clinton has repeated his public denials in private in greater detail, according to some who have spoken to him directly.
One person who saw Clinton over the weekend later told a friend that the president had issued "a convincing denial" of the allegations during a brief conversation. The person also reported that, on the question of whether there was a dress in Lewinsky's possession, that might be incriminating, Clinton said, "There is no dress."
It was not clear whether the president was referring to reports of a dress containing incriminating evidence or a dress he reportedly gave Lewinsky as a gift.
However it is received by the public, Clinton's more adamant stance yesterday buoyed the White House staff, where some lower- and mid-level aides earlier had acknowledged despairingly that they did not believe their boss. Yesterday, several said they were encouraged that Clinton seemed to be fighting rather than equivocating.
One longtime friend said, "He certainly reduced the wiggle room substantially" in yesterday's statement. "I assume there is a factual basis for what he said, and if there is, this is not a guy who rolls over and runs away. Whatever you say about Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, they hang in there."
Clinton advisers hardly minimize the danger for the president as the case goes forward -- "I think it's up for grabs," one said yesterday -- but they have taken heart that polls show the public so far still has a high opinion of how the president is handling his job.
Another aide noted that polls are likely to go up and down frequently as the controversy continues. "We are facing a long legal battle," said one Clinton aide. "World War II began with a sneak attack and ended with the sneak attacker being hit by an atomic bomb, but there were a lot of bloody battles in between."
Inside the White House, numerous aides profess bitter disdain for Starr. And some complained about the tactics of reporters. One senior administration complained of a "media 'wilding,' " using a slang term for gang assaults.
And some senior officials are cultivating a gallows humor. One joked that the controversy was actually a good thing, since it forced television networks to carry Clinton's remarks on a budget proposal to help local schools reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers -- comments that came before he spoke on the Lewinsky controversy.
And another noted that the Clinton team has faced setbacks and humiliations before. "Try losing Congress," said one White House official, noting that the anti-Clinton wave that helped Republicans gain majority control in 1994.
As is usually the case in the Clinton White House, the State of the Union speech is a weeks-long process involving at least a half-dozen drafts, contributed to by a legion of senior aides. As he did over the weekend, Clinton spent part of yesterday surrounded by advisers in the White House theater, editing and rewriting the text as he spoke. While Clinton's State of the Union addresses have gone far over scheduled length in the past, one senior aide said he is trying to trim the latest draft so that it can be finished in an hour.
The current plan is not to mention the Lewinsky controversy at all, but advisers said this issue would be revisited before a decision is made today.
Vice President Gore was on Capitol Hill yesterday trying to rally support among Democrats, and several White House aides are scheduled to visit today to brief lawmakers and encourage them to applaud.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company