Clinton Stresses His Duties
As House Plans Release of Video
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page A1
President Clinton brushed aside talk of resignation or impeachment yesterday, vowing instead to concentrate on repairing his shattered family and tending to his official duties because the American people have assessed his behavior with Monica S. Lewinsky and "want to put it behind them."
Clinton offered no defense for his actions and voiced no protest as the House moved further down the track toward an impeachment inquiry, effectively acknowledging that his fate is in the hands of lawmakers now assessing independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report and sorting through 17 white cardboard boxes of supporting evidence.
"The right thing for all people concerned is not to get mired in all the details here but . . . for me to focus on what I did, to acknowledge it, to atone for it and then to work on my family -- where I still have a lot of work to do, difficult work -- and to lead this country," Clinton said at a news conference with visiting Czech President Vaclav Havel.
The president's sober tone contrasted with the roiling political atmosphere on Capitol Hill as House Republicans prepared to release much of the still-secret evidence, and both parties searched for a strategy while Congress debates whether to launch a formal impeachment probe. In private meetings over the last two days, according to sources, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) described Clinton's defense strategy as "misogynist" and raised the specter of expanding impeachment hearings to include Whitewater and other White House scandals.
Republicans also bristled yesterday at reports that the White House may have planted a story about a 30-year-ago extramarital affair by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who would oversee any impeachment inquiry. The White House denied authorizing the dissemination of the story and promised to fire anyone who did. [Details, Page A15.]
During his first news conference since the release of Starr's 453-page report, the president labored to avoid any hint of combativeness, not only to keep from inflaming Republican opponents but also to assuage nervous congressional Democrats who have flayed Clinton in recent days for relying on a technical, legalistic defense of his misleading statements about Lewinsky.
With none of the defiance displayed in the past, Clinton said he is not much concerned about House Republican plans to release the videotape of his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony as early as Friday. And unlike the last time he was asked if he would resign, back in February -- when he answered with a steely, Churchillian "never" -- the president yesterday said only that voters "want me to go on and do my job and that's what I intend to do."
As he has in the last few days, Clinton tried to refocus attention on his policy agenda, including expanding patients' rights, replenishing the International Monetary Fund and preserving surplus funds for Social Security.
"These are the things, to me, that I should be talking about as president," he said, "without in any way ever trying to obscure my own personal acknowledgment and chagrin about what I did wrong and my determination to put it right."
The passive posture reflected an attempt by the White House to reformulate its public message away from the lawyerly contention that Clinton's testimony about Lewinsky was "legally accurate" when he denied engaging in sexual relations with her, and back toward the confessional approach the president took in last week's prayer breakfast when he said, "I have sinned."
"He wants that to be the statement of record," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said. "He's not trying to parse legalisms here."
Clinton's main goal for now is to hold his own party together and prevent further Democratic defections, amid evidence of some slippage. Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), a conservative, became the first congressional Democrat to call for a full impeachment inquiry into the Lewinsky matter, although he did not say he was ready to have Clinton removed from office. "My gut tells me he's perjured himself," Taylor said. "If it's perjury, I would vote to impeach."
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) yesterday said he too would vote for an impeachment probe and sounded more convinced that resignation was Clinton's only way out. "There clearly is some hemorrhaging going on within the Democratic Party, within the Congress as a whole and particularly within the country," he told reporters. "He's got to stanch that flow. The president has to come up with a way . . . to put an end to this and I'm just not creative enough to think of a way other than resignation that would do that. But maybe he can. If he can, more power to him."
Vice President Gore, who has kept largely quiet through the crisis, offered a terse reply when asked to respond to resignation suggestions. "I disagree," he said before quickly departing the White House briefing room after an announcement on computer encryption.
On Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee scheduled a closed session for this morning to vote on releasing more material delivered by Starr last week, including grand jury testimony by Clinton and key witnesses in the case such as Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House secretary Betty Currie.
In addition, the committee appeared poised to release much of the 2,600-page appendix, which includes court orders, tables, a diagram of the Oval Office suite where Lewinsky testified that she and the president engaged in oral sex and background information about the Paula Jones lawsuit that generated the controversy in the first place.
At a House Republican Conference meeting yesterday morning, two members expressed concern about releasing Starr's evidence, sources said. Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.) said he would not have voted to make public the main report last week if he had known beforehand just how explicit it would be in describing the sexual affair. Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.) then said she had reservations about putting out some supplementary material.
"I don't think it's necessary to repeat details. It's not good for our kids," Johnson said afterward. "If the detail isn't necessary, we don't need to drag ourselves through it."
Johnson's comment during the closed meeting prompted Gingrich to deliver an emphatic speech about the need to stand firm in the face of White House intimidation, prompting applause, according to leadership sources. One source said Gingrich was not responding directly to Johnson but "was making the larger point about the job we have ahead of us, about how ugly the White House is making it and about how partisan the Democrats are being."
At a news conference later in the day, GOP leaders argued that both members and the public have a right to examine Clinton's testimony for themselves.
Rep. Christopher Cox (Calif.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and a onetime White House lawyer for President Ronald Reagan, cited the public release of Reagan's videotaped testimony during the Iran-contra federal criminal trial of Reagan's former national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, as precedent for the current House proceedings.
"This is a democracy, and this kind of proceeding must be carried out in public," Cox said. "Let the facts speak for themselves." Clinton's demeanor, he added, would be important in judging whether he was being truthful. "We ought to have the same right that any juror would have in any judicial proceeding. The president's credibility is the issue."
Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a member of the Judiciary Committee who has examined the evidence that remains locked in a House building, said the panel should act with "balance and fairness" in weighing what to make public. "We should not release evidence that is incriminating to the president and hold back evidence that is exculpatory," he said.
The release of the videotape of Clinton's 4-hour, 12-minute grand jury testimony could be a defining moment in the eight-month Lewinsky saga as the public gets its first chance to evaluate the president answering questions under oath about his affair and about his attempts to hide it during the Jones case.
Cable channels already were planning to run the full session conducted in the Map Room of the White House, while commercial networks were preparing for extensive excerpts. According to people who have seen it or been briefed on it, the tape shows Clinton at times erupting in indignation and declining to discuss details about his sexual activities with the onetime White House intern. In particular, there are several feisty exchanges that have White House advisers worried about how they will appear to the public.
At one point, Clinton and a prosecutor engaged in a heated back-and-forth over the president's defense of a statement denying a sexual relationship by saying it only applied in the present tense. Grand jurors themselves, watching by closed-circuit hookup at the federal courthouse, also challenged Clinton's assertions at times.
"One way or the other," said McCurry, "it's going to be hard to watch a president of the United States squirm."
Other Democratic strategists suggested Starr may have wanted to videotape the session with the hope of it becoming public and embarrassing the president. Prosecutors said they wanted the tape to show to a grand juror expected to miss the session, but Democrats noted that no other testimony was videotaped to show absent jurors and that the grand jury would play no role in impeachment anyway.
Even so, the president lodged no public objection yesterday. Asked if he assumed it would be released all along, he said, "I think that I knew that the rules were against it, but I thought it would happen. . . . But it's not of so much concern to me. . . . I want to work on my family and lead this country and others will have to make all those judgments. They're not within my range of authority anyway, so it's pointless for me to comment on it."
Federal rules prohibit the release of grand jury material, but Starr obtained a court order allowing him to send it to the House and lawmakers are not bound by the secrecy requirement.
As they deliberate on releasing evidence, Judiciary Committee members also have begun preparing for months of hard work exploring the perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and abuse of power allegations in Starr's report. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) said he expected the committee could make a recommendation to the full House on whether to launch a formal inquiry before its targeted adjournment date next month. The panel then could begin the probe after the fall election.
"There's a real sense we should not delay and this matter requires we proceed with all deliberate speed," Inglis said. "It could be a very busy November and December."
GOP leaders have indicated in recent days that they would be open to pursuing any additional evidence Starr provided about wrongdoing at the White House as part of an impeachment inquiry. Gingrich raised this prospect himself at a closed-door leadership meeting on Tuesday, noting that Starr said in his report that he is close to completing other investigations into the Whitewater land deal, the misuse of FBI files and the firing of travel office employees.
According to several Republicans who attended the meeting, Gingrich said that if Starr made additional referrals to the House the charges could be wrapped into an expanded inquiry. He added that several congressional investigations of the White House could then report on their findings to the Judiciary Committee.
Gingrich also has derided Clinton's defense as "misogynist" in at least two closed meetings in recent days, according to sources, focusing on the president's claim that Lewinsky performed oral sex on him but he never touched her in a sexual way.
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company