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Lott Assails Executive Privilege Claim

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 1998; Page A11

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said yesterday that President Clinton's decision to invoke executive privilege in connection with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation was "improper" and will damage the president's credibility because of parallels with the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's downfall.

"It looks like they are hiding something," Lott said on NBC's "Meet the Press," one of several Sunday television interview programs dominated by discussions of the sexual misconduct allegations that are swirling around Clinton.

"I don't know why they chose to do that," Lott added. "Surely they understand that it's not going to be well received, and it is the first time where there's been some direct correlation between actions they're taking to keep from having to say things and what happened in Watergate."

Responding to Lott, White House adviser Rahm Emanuel told CNN's "Late Edition" that Lott's assertion "looked like a political statement done for a political purpose."

Nixon unsuccessfully sought to invoke executive privilege to protect secret White House tape recordings during the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee -- of which Lott was then a member -- and Nixon's resignation from office in 1974.

Last week, Clinton claimed executive privilege in an attempt to prevent two White House aides, his longtime friend Bruce R. Lindsey and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal, from testifying before a grand jury that is investigating whether Clinton had sex with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, as she has alleged in tape-recorded conversations, and later lied about it under oath.

Starr's grand jury is also investigating charges that Clinton lied under oath when he denied crudely groping White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey during a 1993 meeting in a room near the Oval Office.

Yesterday's discussion of the Lewinsky and Willey allegations underscored the divisions the accusations have caused, not only between Democrats and Republicans but between female supporters and critics of the president.

Interviewed on CBS's "Face the Nation," two moderate Republicans from Maine, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, criticized the White House for what Collins called the use of "the full weight of its propaganda machine" to try to undercut Willey's credibility. Since Willey's dramatic description of her encounter with Clinton on CBS's "60 Minutes" last week, the White House has released warmly personal letters from her to Clinton that were written after the alleged groping incident.

"The message is coming from the highest position in the land that [it] will bring the weight of the presidency down on a reluctant witness who comes forward about an unwanted sexual advance," Collins said.

Collins and Snowe were equally critical of one of Clinton's defenders, feminist leader Gloria Steinem. In an essay in yesterday's New York Times, Steinem argued that even if Willey's accusations are true, Clinton is not guilty of sexual harassment because "she pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took 'no' for an answer."

"It's a horrible message and, frankly, it's shocking," Snowe said of Steinem's argument. "The women's movement ought to be urging the president to come out and speak out because I think we're taking a step backwards."

Anita F. Hill, whose sexual harassment charges against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas caused an uproar during Thomas's Senate confirmation hearings, also argued yesterday that the Willey accusation did not constitute a legal case of sexual harassment because Willey has not claimed to have suffered in her employment as a result of the incident.

Hill also said on "Meet the Press" that because of Clinton's record on women's issues, "I don't think that most women have come to the point where we've said, 'Well, this is so bad that even if he is better on the bigger issues, we can't have him as president.' "

Asked if a "double standard" is protecting Clinton, Hill replied, "I think it is a reality that we have to deal with. We live in a political world, and the reality is that there are larger issues other than individual behavior."

Meanwhile, Willey continued to be a subject of intense interest. Newsweek magazine quoted her as saying the White House is "trying to make me look like a wacko." Newsweek said Willey's lawyer also provided the magazine with a letter Willey wrote to a senior White House aide in which she complained about her failure to obtain a job in the administration or with the 1996 Clinton reelection committee.

"I know for a fact that the president has communicated with certain people regarding my quest for a position with the administration or the reelection campaign," Willey said in the letter.

White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said last night he had no response to Willey's comments to Newsweek.

As for the letter that Willey's lawyer gave to the magazine, which was not among those released earlier by the White House, Kennedy said, "We don't have it. We put out everything we found in our files. We did not find a copy of that letter."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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