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President Clinton discusses disaster relief in Oakland, Calif., last week.
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President Hides Private Rage Over Starr

By Bob Woodward and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page A01

The goal, President Clinton has said, is to show up for work each morning and focus on the job. And so in the midst of the worst crisis of his career, he goes about his business with an air of public calm -- planning possible war one moment, touring disaster sites the next, even escaping to a ski resort this weekend with the family.

But behind closed doors, in emotional moments of candor with confidants, Clinton is in a "profound rage" these days about the investigation into his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, according to associates. As unperturbed as he appears in public settings, they said, the president privately seethes that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is "a very bad guy" and "dangerous."

After years of being scrutinized on so many fronts, from his Arkansas business deals to the death of his friend Vincent Foster and now even to his sex life, Clinton has concluded that Starr is engaged in a moral crusade. The prosecutor and his staff, the president believes, are guilty of "prosecutorial misconduct" for supposedly colluding with attorneys working for Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit, said people who have spoken with Clinton. There is, said one friend, "a sense of victimization." It is "not necessarily rational," said another.

"There's a great deal of anger," said one Clinton friend who has spoken with him on the topic. "But it's more than anger. There's genuine concern, even if it weren't him in the cross hairs . . . that Ken Starr represents a danger in American life."

That Clinton is so personally furious at Starr may be predictable, but it is a side of him he has labored to hide from the public and even from much of his staff. It also helps shape the dynamics at the White House as aides there consider how to respond to the six-week-old perjury and obstruction of justice probe by Starr.

While he has publicly pledged cooperation, Clinton privately wants to find ways to thwart the Starr investigation while his attorneys build a legal defense, associates said. At times, Clinton even mulls about how Starr might somehow be forced from office -- not by firing him, but by pressuring him into overstepping and letting him "effectively fire himself," as one confidant put it.

However much he may ruminate about such ideas, though, White House officials insist there is no effort at this time to seek Starr's ouster. Under the independent counsel law, Attorney General Janet Reno could fire Starr for "good cause," and the president presumably could order her to do so. But senior White House officials believe that would be sheer disaster for Clinton because it invariably would be seen as the modern-day equivalent of the "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973 when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the dismissal of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Clinton's top aides are convinced that in his calm-headed moments he recognizes the political consequences, but it is a subject on which he is not always calm.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, many Clinton strategists believe they are better off keeping Starr in place because the prosecutor is viewed so negatively by the American public. "How could you have a better guy there?" asked James Carville, the president's former political consultant who for years has been waging what he calls a public "war" against Starr with the tacit approval of the White House. "You've got a guy investigating you that two-thirds of the country hates. How could you be better?"

That has not slowed efforts by Clinton allies to undermine Starr in the public arena. The White House has denied using private investigators employed by Clinton's lawyers to dig up dirt on prosecutors, but has acknowledged circulating negative news accounts about past prosecutions carried out by Starr's lieutenants.

And Clinton's suspicions about a Starr-Jones collaboration have found their way into public accusations by his surrogates. Several congressional Democrats have alleged a collusion. The president's recently departed chief scandal spokesman, Lanny J. Davis, has been appearing on television shows repeating the charge, though he said he has never discussed it with Clinton.

The major basis for the allegation is that Linda R. Tripp was helping Starr and Jones simultaneously. In fact, the day before Clinton's Jan. 17 deposition in the Jones case, Tripp lured Lewinsky to an Arlington hotel where she was detained by Starr's investigators, then drove home to brief a Jones lawyer about Lewinsky's purported affair so that precise questions could be asked of the president under oath. Jones's lawyers have denied teaming up with Starr and rejected the notion they laid a perjury trap for Clinton, noting it was his choice whether to tell the truth or not.

In private, the Clinton defense team has been searching for other ways to back up an accusation of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a source familiar with the discussions. Among other things, the source said, the lawyers are focusing on whether the Starr investigation was properly authorized in the first place because the original order expanding his mandate to look into the Lewinsky matter did not specifically name an official covered by the independent counsel law.

That technical argument may have little merit because Starr's authority to expand the investigation was made under a provision in the law that does not require that a covered person, such as the president, be the focus of the probe.

For all of the strategizing, the White House publicly insists that it has been fully cooperative with Starr. "There has not been a single suggestion that the White House is going to delay or be obstructive," said White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff. "Delay is not a strategy. As always we are cooperating. . . . There is no effort to slow down. . . . We, too, look forward to an expedited resolution." Unlike others in the White House, Ruff expressed respect for Starr, saying that they "always have had a professional relationship, and that is to the good."

Ruff said the White House has fought Starr's attempts to compel White House aides and Secret Service agents to testify because of "the institutional importance" of protecting the president's confidential communications and his physical safety. The White House is preparing to invoke executive privilege to limit Starr's ability to question deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey and other top aides summoned to the grand jury.

But for Clinton, there is more to it than the institutional prerogatives. Lindsey has been a friend for 30 years and "the equivalent of Bill Clinton's taping system," as one source in the Clinton camp put it, and the president is determined to fight to protect the confidentiality of their talks.

Around most people, Clinton maintains a certain degree of detachment about Starr, displaying his famed ability to "compartmentalize" aspects of his life. Even some of his most senior aides said they have not seen the bursts of rage and frustration described by others and are struck by how focused the president seems on the job. "In private, the president seems quite at peace with himself, almost Zen-like," said Douglas B. Sosnik, the president's counselor who accompanies him on almost every out-of-town trip, talking, strategizing and playing cards late into the night.

Yet another person close to Clinton described his feelings toward Starr as "a slow, intense burn" that only sometimes made itself visible and often just with the closest of friends -- or with his lawyers, to whom he has turned because he can speak freely with them without worrying they might be forced to disclose their private talks. The outbursts often come in late-night discussions or phone calls, said the sources, who declined to provide details of Clinton's distress.

Clinton's hostility toward Starr has been building for a long time. In recent years, Clinton has been forced to testify three times under oath at the White House and twice by videotaped deposition for federal Whitewater trials. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been forced to testify under oath five times for Whitewater prosecutors. The independent counsel has made more than 20 requests for documents from the Clintons and the White House. Last year, as Starr's investigators interviewed women with whom the president had been linked to see if they knew anything about Whitewater, Clinton concluded that the Starr investigation was "intolerable."

Starr defenders point out that the probe has been drawn out in large part because of White House resistance, forcing lengthy litigation to obtain notes, for example. But after being a target for so long, associates said, the president has developed something of a siege mentality.

"It's never out of your mind," one person close to the Clintons said of the Starr investigation. "I believe you have to live through it to understand it. . . . There is a psychic energy drain that is unmeasurable."

Before the Lewinsky issue emerged, sources said, the president had begun to believe the point of danger in the Starr investigation had passed and that no charges would be brought. Now, according to one associate, Clinton again has "demonized and fixated" on Starr, fuming about what he considers the prosecutor's "sanctimoniousness" in the Lewinsky investigation. Clinton maintains that no other prosecutor would probe into the personal behavior of a president, sources said.

People who have lived through other prolonged investigations have talked about how they create a kind of sickness and isolation, both for the investigator and the investigated. Among those who know about that is Ruff, who was the fourth and final Watergate special prosecutor.

Ruff declined recently to comment on Clinton's state of mind, but in an interview back in the summer of 1977, he expressed sentiments that seem as timely today. "You work so damned hard at detaching yourself from emotional reactions," Ruff said then. "You can't do anything but come away almost artificially detached from the real world."

Staff researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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