By John F. Harris and Peter Baker
The president suggested Willey's account should not be believed because it has emerged "in three different incarnations," as told by different people. Clinton advisers depicted her as a woman who craved his attention even after their purported encounter and now is trying to sell her story to a book publisher.
The White House yesterday quickly assembled and released a thick pile of cheery notes and letters Willey sent the president after the November 1993 meeting, including one in which she called herself his "number one fan." A senior official went on television to report that, far from being angry and shocked by Clinton's behavior, Willey eagerly sought work on his 1996 reelection campaign. Former White House colleagues of Willey's called reporters unsolicited to report that she always seemed friendly toward the president.
And Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's chief defense attorney in the Paula Jones case, charged last night that Willey's lawyer, Daniel Gecker, tried to obtain a $300,000 book contract for his client and touted her Sunday appearance on CBS's "60 Minutes" as a way to boost its marketability.
Bennett, appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live," said Gecker met with New Millennium publisher Michael Viner, who has printed several books on the O.J. Simpson murder case. Neither Gecker nor Viner could be located for comment last night. But Daily Variety reported yesterday that Viner turned down the offer. "It's not the kind of publishing we want to do," Viner said. "Further, we are supporters of the president."
The vigorous public rebuttal to the Willey allegations ran counter to a policy -- followed devotedly in the weeks since the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy broke in late January -- that Clinton would not comment on the waves of allegations that have been a constant part of the Jones civil lawsuit and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's criminal probe.
For two months, the White House has refused to release precisely the sorts of records regarding Lewinsky that it produced yesterday about Willey. And just last week, the White House would not disclose even basic information about Willey -- it took two days of requests before it would provide dates of her employment and four days before it would confirm that her job was part time. White House spokesman Jim Kennedy has declined to explain how she got the job or her subsequent appointments to international summits.
The president and his aides were shaken out of their no-comment stance by a fear that Willey's interview, made on television's highest-rated public affairs show, could produce a new and damaging turn in public opinion. Once again an air of crisis hung over the daily White House briefing, which was jammed with reporters who hammered spokesman Michael McCurry with questions, including whether Clinton has ever received psychiatric help for compulsive sexual behavior. McCurry said he had not.
On "60 Minutes," Willey said she sought a meeting with Clinton on Nov. 29, 1993, while working as a White House volunteer, to tell him the financial and personal problems she was having and to ask for a paying job. Clinton, she said, took advantage of her distraught state by making unwelcome sexual advances -- hugging and kissing her, feeling her breasts and putting her hand on his groin. She said she told this story last week to the grand jury investigating whether Clinton encouraged Lewinsky and other people to lie in the Jones lawsuit.
Even Bennett, whose rebuttal to Willey on "60 Minutes" was criticized as lackluster, conceded that Willey was a powerful and compelling witness on television. "There's no question that Ms. Willey was impressive on that show," Bennett told King last night. But, he added, "you just can't go by appearances. What you've got to do is wait for all of the facts."
Yet Bennett, who said Sunday that still-sealed portions of Willey's deposition would undercut her story, did not reveal what he was talking about. Lawyers for Jones yesterday said no such information exists and challenged Bennett to join them in agreeing to lift the court gag order keeping the rest of her testimony secret.
Just as Clinton felt compelled to issue a denial when perjury and adultery allegations broke in the Lewinsky case, aides said there was no way he could stay silent in the face of the "60 Minutes" interview, in which a poised and understated Willey gave a human face to a story that has been in circulation for months.
During an education event at a Silver Spring school, Clinton said he had a "very clear memory" of his meeting with Willey in a private hallway leading to the Oval Office, contradicting an earlier statement through Bennett that he had "no specific recollection" of the event. The president asserted that "I told the truth" when he testified in the Jones case that there was nothing sexual about the encounter with Willey.
Even as Clinton spoke out in his own defense yesterday, he suggested that he may never offer a fuller public explanation of the controversy over his relationships with women, despite his pledge after the Lewinsky allegations broke that there were "legitimate" questions and that he wanted to tell his story. "Well, I did suggest that, but that was before the deposition [he gave in the Jones case] was illegally released," Clinton said. "And it basically states my position. Whether and what else will be said I think is something that we'll have to deal with in the future depending on how circumstances unfold."
Clinton advisers inside and outside the White House said they considered the defense in the Willey controversy an especially delicate matter, with potential to increase his political problems rather than alleviate them if not handled carefully. A White House meeting with Clinton's lawyers and political aides on Saturday, according to participants, dealt at length with the problem of how to undercut Willey without appearing to attack her directly.
White House communications director Ann F. Lewis went on two network morning shows yesterday to report that Willey continued to speak warmly of Clinton and seek jobs from him after their purported encounter. Yet Lewis was among the Democratic activists who in 1991 accused Republicans of attacking the victim when they noted that Anita Hill stayed in touch with Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas even after he allegedly harassed her. Lewis said in a later interview she was not trying to impugn Willey: "I am not attacking, there are no adjectives here."
In charging that there were "three incarnations" of Willey's story, aides said Clinton was referring to the story she told "60 Minutes"; the story told by Willey's former friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, who claimed Willey encouraged her to lie about the alleged Oval Office incident; and the story that former White House aide Linda R. Tripp told Newsweek that Willey emerged from the office looking happy as she recounted a sexual interlude that seemed consensual.
Congressional reaction hinted at the gravity of the matter. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters he found Willey "credible," and regarded her charges as adding "one more bit of seriousness to the equation."
"If this is true, it is very, very disturbing and I think it ultimately has very powerful consequences," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) during an appearance in his home state. Yet as the House Republican leadership uneasily mulls actions it could take against Clinton should Starr send evidence to Capitol Hill, it is finding most options to be fraught with political risk, GOP sources said.
Thus far Gingrich and other GOP leaders have shown no appetite for an impeachment inquiry, according to several people familiar with the leadership discussions. Reflecting the profound uncertainties, the sources said that developments such as Willey's allegation have to be considered largely in a political context.
Whether or not her grand jury testimony and public allegations that Clinton groped her in the White House help Starr's investigation, the congressional sources said, the developments would have to cause a sharp downturn in the president's popularity and a consequent decision by at least some Democrats to abandon him before the GOP will consider impeachment.
Still, even without impeachment, the House could take other actions. The sources pointed out that if the GOP leadership does not find the evidence compelling, it has no obligation to accept any recommendation from Starr and the case could end there. If it finds the evidence strong enough to "cause concern" but not merit impeachment, one source said, the leadership could simply decide to publish it, or vote some kind of "censure" against Clinton, an idea first advanced by Lott.
As a solution to what could become a potential election-year disaster for the GOP, the sources said, some members of the leadership have raised the possibility of creating a special select committee to evaluate Starr's evidence, or even to conduct an impeachment inquiry. If the committee simply reviewed the evidence, it could make a recommendation that Gingrich could either act by himself or refer to the full House for a vote.
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
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