By John F. Harris
Anxious and uncertain about what today will bring, White House advisers toiled all yesterday to put together a plan to respond to the public release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy.
A senior White House official said discussions were still underway last night about how to address the detailed sexual allegations they believe will be in the report.
Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, has been working for weeks on the draft of a "shadow report" to present exculpatory evidence or arguments against Starr's charges. Despite this preparation, however, Clinton aides said they remained fearful they would not have their report ready for release today, and that the response to what many believe will be a damning document might be limited to general statements from Kendall denying the allegations but with scant supporting material.
"This is the most loose thing I've ever seen here," a White House official said of the last-minute, and highly improvisational response strategy that lawyers and political advisers were trying to organize last night. Many aides believe that speed is of the essence in responding to Starr's report, since public opinion may be exceptionally fluid once details become public. But Kendall and White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff were rebuffed on Capitol Hill in their request for a three-day advance look at the report before it is made public.
Instead, the refusal to give Clinton an advance look at the prosecutor's finding will itself apparently be used as part of the White House's appeal not to rush to judgment of Clinton. Noting that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) got an early look on a House report that made ethics allegations against him, White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said the uneven treatment looks like "the beginning salvo of a very unfair process."
The president spent much of yesterday continuing his campaign of private apologies in meetings with Democratic senators and his Cabinet.
As Clinton has grown more voluble in recent days about addressing the Lewinsky affair and expressing his regret for it, eyes have increasingly turned to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a written statement immediately after her husband's acknowledgement last month of an extramarital affair, she said she forgave him, but she has had no public words on the matter since then.
Some Clinton political advisers, and many congressional Democrats, are hoping that she will find a forum to address the matter and come to the president's defense. But staff members to the first lady, sources said, have made it clear to political aides that Hillary Clinton is not yet prepared emotionally to make a painful public statement about the matter, and also believes as a matter of political tactics that now is not the time to do so.
The first lady did appear with the president last night at a Democratic fund-raiser, and introduced him with lavish praise for "day after day" doing what is "best for America."
She said, "I am proud of what he gives our country and all of us everyday by his commitment." The president reached out and embraced his wife after her remarks.
Knowing how much media attention is focused on her, the first lady offered sarcastic gibes with a large crowd of reporters and cameramen gathered in the East Room earlier yesterday for an appearance to highlight colon cancer screenings the kind of event that under other circumstances would generate minimal coverage.
"I am thrilled by the concern the press is showing for colon cancer," she said to appreciative laughter from the group of cancer survivors, victims' families and health advocates.
Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, joining in the chortling, said she endorsed colon exams for all adults especially reporters. "We can demonstrate the test in the Green Room right afterward," she said.
Though Hillary Clinton did not speak directly about the president's affair, her press secretary said again the first lady had forgiven her husband. "She stresses her support, her love and her forgiveness of him," Marsha Berry told reporters after the East Room event.
Asked if Hillary Clinton had anything to say about the possibility that Congress might impeach Clinton, Berry said "She's said all she's going to say . . . She doesn't comment on it."
The president, however, addressed the controversy at a Roosevelt Room ceremony honoring people who won presidential awards for excellence in math and science.
Clinton said his morning meeting with Senate Democrats was "part of this process I'm going through of talking to people with whom I work and with whom I must work in your behalf to ask for their understanding, their forgiveness, and their commitment, not to let the events of the moment in Washington deter us from doing the people's work here and building the future of this country."
Later in the day he met with Cabinet members, repeating his expressions of sorrow. Afterward some secretaries and Cabinet-level officials came to the White House driveway to discuss the session with reporters.
White House officials said they made no effort to urge Cabinet members to speak publicly or coach them on what to say. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater and Secretary of Agriculture Daniel Glickman both marched to microphones to offer support, but much of the defense of Clinton was left to lesser-known officials who would not be recognized by many in the public as even belonging to the Cabinet: Office of Personnel Management Director Janice R. Lachance, and Federal Emergency Management Administration director James Lee Witt.
Slater, borrowing from the Bible's Book of Galatians, said he told Clinton that "in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart."
"This is a president who has not lost heart," Slater said. "This is a Cabinet . . . that has not lost heart. And that will carry us through this."
Senate Democrats also came to Clinton's aid after their session. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) described it as a "very difficult session," in which Clinton made it clear he is a "man in some considerable pain."
"There has been a remarkable transformation," Torricelli said in an interview. "He began by recalling the pain he caused to his wife and daughter, then expressed regret to those of us in the Senate who have been his friends . . . This is a man who is no longer blaming his accusers but is blaming himself."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said the 10 senators at the meeting asked Clinton to "continue to demonstrate his contrition at the appropriate times," to "cooperate with Congress and not to stonewall" and to "do all he could to bring this to closure, hopefully before the next Congress convenes." They also told him that Congress "owes it to you to be fair."
Asked in an interview what he meant by bringing closure before the new Congress convenes, he held out the possibility of returning after the Nov. 3 elections and meeting into December or even staying beyond its scheduled adjournment date of Oct. 9, if necessary. "I personally think we should make the effort to come back and complete our work," he said. He said he was not talking about a negotiated deal of some kind.
Clinton, aides said, is likely to address his affair with Lewinsky again this morning when he and Vice President Gore hold a White House breakfast with religious leaders.
The broad outlines of Kendall's defense against obstruction-of-justice allegations are already known. Gifts that Clinton gave Lewinsky likely will be dismissed as insubstantial. His efforts to get her a job were merely part of a months-long effort by Clinton to help someone with whom he was involved, Clinton advisers say, not an effort to buy her silence in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Clinton will deny instructing her to return gifts he gave her, calling this a misunderstanding between Lewinsky and his secretary, Betty Currie.
The most problematic part of the Clinton defense, however, deals with what to say about specific sexual acts that are apparently alleged by Starr. The prosecutor presents them as evidence that Clinton committed perjury when he testified in the Jones case that he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky. When he testified to a grand jury last month, Clinton insisted that answer was "legally accurate," based on a narrow definition of sex, but he refused to offer details of his intimate encounters with Lewinsky.
Today, the White House will be confronted with a choice of discussing these encounters in more detail, or allowing Starr's perjury allegation to go essentially unrebutted.
"They're pretty panicked," said one White House official of the damage control team. "One gets the sense that the fundamental strategic questions of responding are surprisingly unthought-through."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company