As Outcry Grows, Aides Prepare Fight
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 1998; Page A01
Despite a rising bipartisan clamor that President Clinton must accept some congressional sanction for his behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy, his defense team is embarked on a combative strategy in which the plan is to heighten their attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and concede no official wrongdoing.
The evident anger on Capitol Hill on display in a pointed floor speech by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) yesterday denouncing the president's conduct as "immoral" has led some Clinton advisers to recommend, both to the president and in staff discussions, that he should seek what amounts to a plea bargain with Congress: accepting some form of reprimand or censure as a means of bringing closure to the investigation.
But this strategy, at least for now, has been decisively rejected by the president's senior legal and political advisers, according to several sources. Instead, Clinton's team of defenders which has significantly expanded in recent days to include members of the White House congressional liaison office is girding for a battle over Starr's expected report of possible impeachable offenses. They will try to convince lawmakers that the independent counsel has come up with nothing damaging beyond what Clinton has already acknowledged: an improper but consensual relationship with Lewinsky.
"He's broken no laws, he's committed no impeachable offense," said one senior adviser to the president. "We'd like to see this end in the [House] Judiciary Committee" the panel charged with weighing the evidence in the report Starr is anticipated to deliver this month.
Lieberman's speech yesterday gave an indication of the difficulty the White House will face in pursuing this course, and White House aides admitted that they have heard similar sentiments and worse while canvassing other Democrats in private conversations. And even as the White House prepares to go into a familiar war-room footing, numerous Clinton loyalists acknowledged in not-for-attribution interviews that they are perilously ill-equipped for waging the kind of political and public relations campaign that Clinton has employed to survive previous controversies.
Just as the eight-month-old Lewinsky controversy is set to move to the congressional arena, the White House is about to lose some of its most experienced political warriors. Press secretary Michael McCurry has announced his departure next month, and sources said senior Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel is also planning to leave in the fall. So is chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles, who until recently had not played a significant role in damage control but lately has taken on a major role reaching out to disaffected lawmakers.
Several Clinton aides in recent days have described a White House sagging badly from scandal fatigue, low morale and personal disenchantment with the president. Seeking to bolster the White House team, aides say Clinton is planning to hire a new senior adviser. The person would take a lead role in Clinton's defense, serving as a White House ambassador to Congress in the fight over Starr's report.
A senior White House adviser said the names under consideration have been reduced to a handful and that the person could be hired as early as next week. Some on the White House staff had been pushing for Washington defense lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste to take the job, but sources said he has taken himself out of consideration. Close Clinton aide Bruce R. Lindsey, the deputy counsel, is pushing for Washington lawyer W. Neil Eggleston, sources said, but others have questioned whether Eggleston hired by Clinton to serve as his lawyer in executive privilege and attorney-client privilege battles with Starr would have the requisite influence in Congress.
Some members of Clinton's team think the job should be filled by a senior statesman and are hoping that former Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) can be persuaded to take the job, but it was not clear last night whether Clinton has sounded him out. Some people on Clinton's legal team, meanwhile, want Deputy Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, who has extensive Capitol Hill experience, to take the job. But Podesta, in line to replace Bowles, is not eager for the assignment.
Even as Clinton considers adding a prominent new defender, his team continues to be riven by conflicts over personalities and strategy, according to several sources. Throughout, there has been tension between two camps: the president's White House and personal lawyers on one side, and a wider circle of political advisers. The political advisers believe the lawyers, who keep tight control over information, do not understand the public-relations consequences of their decisions.
Following a meeting late last month between the lawyers and Bowles, several members of both the legal and political teams say that coordination has improved. Still, problems remain. Some advisers are fuming at Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall, for allowing Clinton to declare that he had been "legally accurate" when he testified in the Paula Jones lawsuit that he never had sexual relations with Lewinsky. This, some Clinton loyalists believe, virtually guaranteed an excruciating public drama in which Starr and congressional Republicans would be able to damage Clinton by showing that he did have sexual relations, even under the most narrow definition of the term.
And while some members of the Clinton team have begun to leak information about Clinton's testimony to get it out before Starr's report showcases it in a more unflattering light several aides say this effort has been conducted haphazardly, without full coordination between legal and political advisers.
One area in which lawyers and senior political advisers are, at least for now, in agreement is on the strategy of aggressively fighting Starr's report and any congressional effort to punish Clinton as a result.
Senior staff members including Bowles, Podesta, counselor Douglas Sosnik, legislative liaison Larry Stein, and his deputies have been busy phoning Democrats. "We let 'em vent," said one senior aide. "You get the sense of pent-up anger."
But legal and political advisers say that trying to resolve the case quickly by signaling a willingness to accept a mild reprimand may look attractive in theory but would not work in practice. Such an approach, aides fear, would look like weakness and would merely embolden Republicans to try for impeachment.
And both lawyers and political advisers say they believe they can rebut whatever evidence appears in Starr's report about alleged obstruction of justice. Kendall is already compiling information that could go into a countering "shadow report."
And the White House will continue to paint Starr as a vindictive man obsessed with private lives. "He's come up with one dry hole after another," said senior adviser Emanuel. "[Military strategist Karl von] Clausewitz said war is an extension of politics, by other means. Ken Starr has made his investigation an extension of the Paula Jones suit, by other means."
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