By Bob Woodward
President Clinton's lawyers believe he has decided to change his story about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and will testify this week that he and the former White House intern engaged in sexual activity, but he will not admit to perjury, according to a person who has spoken with the president and his legal team.
As he prepares for Monday's questioning by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, this person said, the president must confront a painful obstacle: how to explain his behavior to his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea.
"He has not prepared the family," this person said Friday, anticipating an agonizing weekend for the Clintons. "He has got a lot of work to do with the family."
The first lady, whose steadfast defense of her husband in January set the tone for his political revival at a moment of peril, is aware that there is a significant problem with Clinton's January testimony in the Paula Jones case and his public denials of a sexual relationship, but she is not fully aware of the details. "She knows but she doesn't know," the person said.
Presidential advisers cautioned that Clinton could change his mind before Monday's testimony, that he is a man given to taking advice right up until the final moment and then altering strategy. But even if he goes ahead with the decision to admit to some kind of sexual activity with Lewinsky, his testimony remains perilous, both legally and politically.
The president and his lawyers hope that Starr would accept a presidential recantation magnanimously, according to this person, but Clinton understands he cannot appear evasive in his closed-circuit television appearance before the grand jury on Monday.
If Clinton can find the right words and the right tone in his grand jury testimony, the president's lawyers hope Starr and his deputies will not attempt to humiliate the president with an extended series of intimate questions about his personal behavior.
"Starr wins," another source with first-hand knowledge of the situation said of Clinton's apparent willingness to give ground on the issue of sexual activity. "And we hope he [Starr] wouldn't feel it necessary to drag the body around the arena."
But Starr's investigation of perjury involves more than the issue of whether Clinton lied under oath by denying that he and Lewinsky engaged in sexual activity, however defined, in the since-dismissed Jones case. If Clinton acknowledges some kind of sexual relationship with Lewinsky, he would also have to explain many other questionable statements in the deposition.
The independent counsel's inquiry also focuses on obstruction of justice and suborning perjury by the president and others areas that always have been considered more serious by the American people than the issue of the president's private behavior. It is considered unlikely that Starr's team would be willing to limit the interrogation on those critical issues simply by a Clinton acknowledgment of sexual activity with Lewinsky.
After seven months of shrill, partisan rhetoric designed to discredit Starr's investigation and a series of White House legal challenges fought all the way to the Supreme Court, the Clinton intimate clearly intended to extend an olive branch to the independent counsel when he said, "I don't know that Starr is a bad man. He is a righteous man."
He then spoke respectfully of Starr's religious convictions and justifiable moral outrage about allegations that the president had behaved improperly with a young subordinate.
Despite publicly charging Starr with illegally leaking grand jury information and just a week ago saying such conduct is "highly unprofessional and utterly indefensible," David E. Kendall, the president's personal lawyer, also has softened his criticism of Starr in recent private comments to associates, according to knowledgeable sources. Declaring that Starr is neither a fanatic nor a true believer, Kendall has said that Starr's aggressive investigation was perhaps forced on him by the strictures of the Independent Counsel Act.
But in making an attempt to reach out to Starr, the president's advisers also are preparing the American people for what shapes up as the most important week of Clinton's presidency. By offering a preview of a presidential strategy that some lawyers and politicians regard as risky, the president's associates may help soften the impact of hearing it from Clinton himself.
However, there is much more in the Clinton deposition than the definition of sexual relations that could cause the president problems when he testifies on Monday. In his Jones testimony, Clinton also was evasive on key questions, such as whether he gave gifts to Lewinsky, whether they were ever alone together and whether he discussed with Lewinsky her subpoena in the Jones case.
With Starr still preparing to send a report to the House of Representatives on possible impeachable offenses, Clinton advisers believe that the days after the president's grand jury testimony will determine whether the president can hold the support of the public, which so far has found his denials not credible but has shown no willingness for Congress to launch impeachment proceedings.
Many Clinton advisers now believe the president's problem is more political than legal namely the question of how he explains whatever he says before the grand jury to the American people.
The advisers are pushing for a public statement by the president, perhaps on Monday evening, outlining the gist of his grand jury testimony. But in previewing what they now believe is likely to be his version of events, they may be hoping that it will be accepted by the American people by the time they hear from Clinton directly.
Clinton and his lawyers have persuaded themselves they can avoid legal jeopardy with the independent counsel's investigation if he testifies truthfully on Monday and, in doing so, explains why he denied that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in the Jan. 17 Jones deposition.
The foundation of this strategy hinges on a claim that, when he was presented with a definition of sexual relations approved by Judge Susan Webber Wright, he interpreted the term to mean something akin to a love affair that involved sexual intercourse. Instead, Clinton could acknowledge some kind of "sex play," according to the person who has spoken to the president, that fell short of intercourse.
At the beginning of the Jones deposition, Jones's lawyer James A. Fisher, proposed a three-part definition of sexual relations. It read as follows:
"For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in 'sexual relations' when the person knowingly engages in or causes (1) contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person; (2) contact between any part of the person's body or an object and the genitals or anus of another person; or (3) contact between the genitals or anus of the person and any part of another person's body. 'Contact' means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing."
Wright ordered that only the first part of the definition be used when Fisher began to question Clinton about his relationship with Lewinsky, and on the basis of that definition, he said, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."
Exactly how Clinton might attempt to finesse this on Monday is not clear, even to his own advisers. As of late Friday, the president had not fully decided on the specifics of what he would say to the grand jury. "I'm not sure Bill Clinton knows what he is going to say," this person said.
What it means is that the president needs to be contrite acknowledging to the grand jury that he was reacting defensively and stupidly, but not illegally, in a Jones deposition that he believed was politically motivated and concocted by his political enemies.
This person also said the president may make the argument that Jones's allegations of a crude sexual advance by Clinton and her belief that the alleged encounter in a Little Rock hotel room affected her standing as a state employee bore no resemblance to his relationship with Lewinsky.
More than anyone, Clinton set in motion over the past month the events that will put him before the grand jury on Monday.
The key event was the subpoena Starr issued on July 17 ordering the president to testify before the grand jury. The unprecedented subpoena of a president came after months of fruitless requests by Starr for Clinton to appear voluntarily, a course Kendall resisted as folly for someone whose actions were under criminal investigation.
Kendall told associates that he would have to turn in his law license if he allowed Clinton to testify, but everything changed within days of the July 17 subpoena. Clinton overruled his lawyer and decided to testify, sources said. "It was over Kendall's violent objection," said one source.
The decision that Clinton would provide testimony was communicated to Starr early in the week of July 20, at a point when the independent counsel remained at an impasse with Lewinsky's legal team over an immunity agreement.
But when it became clear that Clinton would testify, Starr and his deputies realized Lewinsky's testimony was more critical than ever and decided to try to make a deal. "They reached out for her," said a source. "What was unacceptable in her prospective testimony suddenly became acceptable." Lewinsky had offered to testify that she had a sexual relationship with the president but would not claim he directly asked her to lie in the Jones suit.
By July 28, after several days of behind-the-scenes talks, Starr agreed to give Lewinsky full immunity in exchange for her truthful testimony. The next day, Kendall publicly announced that the president would make his grand jury appearance a decision that had been made a week earlier.
Clinton's prep sessions with his lawyers this weekend, however difficult, may be considerably less stressful than the family discussions that may take place. One close associate of the president said the sessions may amount to "a reverse intervention" in which the person with the problem, namely the president, confronts his family, tries to explain himself, asks for forgiveness and sets a course of action for recovery.
As the Clinton associate said, "The level of human suffering and tragedy in this is going to be great."
Staff writer Dan Balz and researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company