Clinton Decries Attempt to 'Set Me Up'
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page A1
President Clinton vigorously defended himself during grand jury testimony broadcast to the nation yesterday, denying that he perjured himself about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and emphatically portraying himself as the victim of a politically inspired attempt to "set me up."
With millions of Americans tuned in, Clinton's four-hour session with prosecutors was released by the House Judiciary Committee and aired unedited on a half-dozen television networks, providing the public its first extended explanation from the president in an investigation that has Congress considering impeachment proceedings.
Clinton flared with controlled pique at times, but never displayed the pure rage some had forecast and he carefully stuck to his script acknowledging "inappropriate intimate contact" with the onetime White House intern while declining to elaborate. Forced to justify what he called his "jumbled" answers about the affair during the Paula Jones lawsuit, he engaged in tortuous debates with prosecutors over what counts as sex and the meaning of words such as "alone" and "is."
"My goal in this [Jones] deposition was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful," the president said during one finger-jabbing, table-pounding retort. "I did not wish to do the work of the Jones lawyers. I deplored what they were doing. I deplored the innocent people they were tormenting and traumatizing. . . . This was a bogus lawsuit."
The release of the Aug. 17 videotape and 3,183 pages of evidence collected by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr marked an unprecedented moment in American history, allowing voters to watch for themselves as their leader was interrogated under oath about whether he broke the law and then evaluate the supporting documentation on the Internet.
The two-volume set of documents made public contained no new blockbuster revelations not included in Starr's previously released report to the House alleging 11 impeachable offenses by Clinton. But it amounted to a voluminous compendium of sometimes highly graphic testimony by Lewinsky as well as White House entry logs, telephone records, gift receipts, appointment diaries, electronic mail, love notes, letters, photographs, DNA test results and other material intended to bolster Starr's case that Clinton committed perjury, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses and abused his power.
The huge mass of information not even counting another 16 boxes of still-secret evidence sent by Starr, much of which could be released in the next week could help fuel or undercut the fledgling impeachment drive building on Capitol Hill, depending on the public reaction in coming days.
The White House hoped for a backlash to the pointed questioning by prosecutors and the exhaustive disclosure by Congress. While Clinton spent the day in New York addressing the United Nations, his spokesman Michael McCurry decried "the rank partisanship" that led to the release of lurid sexual tales, "most of which are irrelevant" to the case. "That the president's conduct does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense should now be clear to everyone," he said.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, joined in protesting the release, saying, "Democrats and the public will not stand for the railroading of the president."
Because the substance of the videotaped testimony was already generally known, politicians evaluated the visual impact and many came away convinced that Clinton's performance did not further damage him and may have even helped. "Based on the expectations built up by both sides, the broadcast failed to register on the Richter scale," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Still, other Republicans said Clinton's sometimes evasive performance made it more likely that the House will open an impeachment inquiry to weigh his credibility against Lewinsky's and determine whether the president committed perjury, not only in his Jan. 17 deposition but also in the Aug. 17 grand jury appearance.
"It does come down to that, whether the specific, detailed, corroborated testimony of Monica Lewinsky is true, or whether the president's testimony is true," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. "They both can't be."
Beyond the videotape, the most important items released yesterday were some 900 pages detailing Lewinsky's extensive accounts of her 18-month, on-and-off affair with the president, which remained strikingly consistent from her first handwritten, 10-page proposed testimony drafted Feb. 1 through numerous private interviews with prosecutors as recently as Sept. 6.
Lewinsky called Clinton "sort of my sexual soulmate" and described her feelings for him as "a little bit of obsession." But she was distraught by his televised address to the nation after his closed-door grand jury session because he did not publicly acknowledge what she had gone through over the previous seven months and seemed to belittle the significance of their relationship.
Returning to the federal courthouse three days after his testimony, a grand juror asked her, "And today, Monica, do you still love the president?"
"Before Monday, I would have said yes," she said. "It was very painful for me to watch his speech on Monday night . . . [and feel] that this was a service contract, that all I did was perform oral sex on him and that that's all that this relationship was. And it was a lot more than that to me."
The torrent of evidence made its way into public view just after 9 a.m. yesterday, when the Government Printing Office delivered 3,500 two-volume bound copies of the appendices to the Starr report to the clerk of the House of Representatives. Each member of Congress got a copy and the House Judiciary Committee kept 1,350 copies for itself. Others were distributed to news organizations, while 1,400 were sent to libraries around the country and another 1,500 made available for sale at $68 apiece.
At 9:25 a.m. Fox News began feeding the pool videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony through the House recording studio in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. All seven major broadcast and cable networks carried the feed live and, with few exceptions, stayed with it for more than four hours while flashing occasional warnings of sexually explicit material.
Although the Judiciary Committee in a fractious two-day meeting last week deleted 155 items it considered too graphic, private or irrelevant, it rejected Democratic efforts to redact another 19 sections with sexual content and five others on privacy grounds.
Among the items left in at Republican insistence was Lewinsky's testimony that Clinton sexually stimulated her with a cigar and that he rebuffed her attempt to initiate phone sex one night just hours after the suicide of Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda, the chief of naval operations. In another section Democrats failed to excise, Lewinsky described Clinton telling her that he had had hundreds of affairs, that his life was falling apart when he turned 40 and that he may have told her that at the time he "entertained thoughts about ending his life."
While the most important information has already surfaced publicly, the evidence released yesterday contained a wealth of detail about how Starr conducted the investigation, the legal sparring throughout and the meticulous way his prosecutors and FBI agents went about corroborating Lewinsky's testimony and establishing the facts of the relationship with Clinton.
Included was everything from a photograph of the infamous navy blue Gap dress that contained Clinton's semen stain to the president's own handwritten notes related to sexual harassment allegations by former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey to the calendar Lewinsky kept in her Filofax noting when she had encounters with Clinton. Starr retrieved e-mail and draft letters to Clinton from Lewinsky's computer hard drive and compiled an inventory of the gifts that Lewinsky turned over to presidential secretary Betty Currie to hide under her bed to prevent them from being turned over in response to a Jones subpoena. Starr even commissioned an appraisal of how much some of the gifts were worth not much, in many cases, such as the much-discussed hat pin and gold brooch, each valued at about $3.
The material elaborated on Starr's suspicion that some of Linda R. Tripp's secret recordings of her conversations with Lewinsky were doctored. Tripp surreptitiously taped Lewinsky from Oct. 3 until Jan. 15, depositing tapes in a bowl in her house, but nine of the 27 tapes she turned over to Starr did not appear to be originals as she testified, according to FBI tests. Starr did not use those in his report and had Lewinsky authenticate the only other tapes he did cite.
Lewinsky also blamed Tripp for the idea of keeping the soiled dress, testifying that she was going to send it to the cleaners but that her friend told her to keep it "because it could be evidence one day." Sure enough, after obtaining the dress, Starr asked Clinton for a blood sample on July 31. Three days later, Clinton rolled up his sleeve after 10 p.m. in the White House Map Room. The final positive results came back just hours before Clinton's testimony.
Lewinsky's first official account to Starr of her dealings with Clinton came in a handwritten proffer that referred to herself in the third person and described the frightening 2 a.m. phone call from the president last December telling her she was on the Jones witness list.
"After Ms. Lewinsky was informed by the Pres. that she was identified as a possible witness in the Jones case," she wrote, "the Pres. and Ms. L discussed what she should do. ... When asked what to do if she was subpoenaed, the Pres. suggested she could sign an affidavit to try to satisfy their inquiry and not be deposed. In general, Ms. L should say she visited the WH to see Ms. Currie, and, on occasion when working at the WH she brought him letters when no one else was around. Neither of those statments untrue."
Lewinsky said in the proffer that after she received the Jones subpoena Dec. 19, she went to Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who asked her if she had had sex with Clinton. She said no. Later, though, she "tried to make it clear to Mr. Jordan that she in fact did have a physically intimate relationship with the Pres. Ms. L made it clear she intended to deny the sexual relationship with the Pres."
At another point, she said she asked Jordan if he thought the Clintons would stay married and Jordan said yes. When she expressed disappointment, said Lewinsky, Jordan said perhaps she and Clinton would have an affair when he left office. "Ms. L replied that she and the Pres. had already had an affair minus having sex but it included everything else," Lewinsky wrote.
Lewinsky said neither Clinton nor Jordan asked or encouraged her to lie in the affidavit and that she decided she could justify denying a sexual relationship with Clinton in the affidavit because they did not have intercourse.
But Lewinsky told the grand jury last month that she told Tripp some things about Jordan that were not true things that ended up on an FBI tape recording and that she said "got him in a lot of trouble." Specifically, Lewinsky said she was lying when she told Tripp she flatly refused to sign the affidavit until Jordan got her a job offer.
Lewinsky said she lied about the quid pro quo because it was a course of action Tripp was urging on her and she "wanted her to feel . . . like I needed to hold her hand through this in order to try to get her to do what I wanted, essentially."
In her accounts to authorities, Lewinsky emerged as a deeply hurt young woman who was in love with Clinton and could not accept that it was over when he called off their affair last year. She took antidepressant drugs throughout their affair and as it ended she and Tripp even tried to piece together what went wrong, making "a stupid spreadsheet on Microsoft Excel" to try to discern a pattern in her faltering relationship.
Even through much of this year's investigation, she remained devoted to him, she said, at least until she saw him describe their affair coldly on television last month. "I just thought he had a beautiful soul," she said. "I just thought he was this incredible person, and when I looked at him I saw this little boy and I don't know what the truth is anymore. ... How could I know the truth of my love for someone if it was based on him being an actor?"
'A Good Girl'
Clinton sounded more caring in the testimony she did not see that day. During the broadcast aired yesterday, he described her as "charming" and "a good girl" burdened by a difficult childhood. "It wasn't her fault," he said. "It was mine." In the end, he said, he always knew she would talk about their relationship and it would become public. "It was a part of her psyche," he said.
Much of Clinton's testimony was already known through news accounts and Starr's reports, but the public never before has seen a president being grilled like this. The session took place in the Map Room beginning at 1:03 p.m. and broke at several points before finally ending at 6:25 p.m., after the president rejected requests to extend it past the prearranged time. Throughout, the camera stayed trained on him, but he was clearly aware that he was speaking to a larger audience, once explaining that he would not describe exactly what sexual activities he engaged in because he knew the statement would "be forever in the historic annals of the United States."
Clinton bristled with indignation at several points, repeatedly assailing the motives of the Jones lawyers and, occasionally, the Starr team, whom he accused of trying to "criminalize my private life." More than once, he noted that Tripp had gone from consulting with Starr's prosecutors to advising Jones's lawyers on the same day just before his deposition, hinting at collusion between the two camps to trap him.
"It now appears . . . that there had been some communication between you and Ms. Tripp and them and they were trying to set me up and trick me," he said. "And now you seem to be complaining that they didn't do a good enough job."
Under questioning by Starr and three of his deputies, Clinton denied he perjured himself in answering questions about sex with Lewinsky during the Jones deposition, asserting that he did not touch her breasts or genitals with an intent to arouse or gratify, despite her testimony to the contrary.
Clinton's interpretation of the definition of sex used in the Jones case, covered only his own actions, he said, not acts performed upon him. "My understanding of this definition is it covers contact by the person being deposed with the enumerated areas, if the contact is done with an intent to arouse or gratify," he said. "What I believed then is what I believe today."
Clinton said he believed the use of the words "cause contact" in the definition implied forcible behavior a "rather strange" definition, he allowed, noting that no one had ever suggested he forced himself on Lewinsky. When asked specific questions about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky, Clinton repeatly referred back to a three-paragraph statement he read at the outset acknowledging an inappropriate relationship without providing details. When asked whether he ever used a cigar as a sexual prop with the former intern, Clinton reddened but refused to provide any answer beyond that statement.
Clinton and prosecutors sparred repeatedly over his narrow interpretations of language to defend the truthfulness of his earlier testimony. The president defended allowing his lawyer to say during the Jones deposition that Lewinsky's affidavit in the case showed "there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton."
"In the present tense," Clinton told the grand jury, "that's an accurate statement. . . . I'm not at all sure this affidavit is not true." He went on to explain that both he and Lewinsky along with most "normal Americans" believed "sexual relations" would necessarily include intercourse. (A recent Time-CNN poll, however, showed that 87 percent of Americans consider oral sex to be sexual relations.)
While in the deposition Clinton said he had no specific recollection of being alone with Lewinsky, he acknowledged to the grand jury he had numerous private meetings with her, including several sexual encounters and a Dec. 28 conversation in which she told him of her reluctance to testify in the Jones case. He explained that he never really felt as if he was alone with Lewinsky because there was always someone else in the "Oval Office complex."
Prosecutors focused intently on whether Clinton lied in January when he did not reveal he had discussed Lewinsky's subpoena with Jordan. Asked by the Jones lawyers whether he had talked about it with anyone but his own attorneys, Clinton said he did not believe so. He then offered that deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey had first brought the matter to his attention and tried to turn the question into one about how he learned about the subpoena instead of who else he'd discussed it with.
In the testimony aired yesterday, Clinton admitted he talked to Jordan about the subpoena and that in fact Jordan had come to the White House to discuss it on Dec. 19, less than a month before the Jones deposition. "I now know I had a conversation with Mr. Jordan about that," Clinton told the grand jury. He blamed imprecise questions for his answer in January.
This prompted one of the most tense exchanges. When prosecutor Solomon L. Wisenberg suggested he may have made "a false statement, presumably perjurious," Clinton snapped back.
"No, Mr. Wisenberg," he said tartly. "I have testified about this three times. Now I will do it the fourth time. I am not going to answer your trick question."
Clinton said he did not recall Lewinsky's concern that the Jones subpoena sought a hat pin he had given her. Clinton said he gives and gets hundreds of gifts as president, and did not see the gift issue as a dangerous area the way Lewinsky did. "It just was not a big deal," he said, adding that he told Lewinsky at some point in December that she would have to turn over any subpoenaed gifts that she had.
"I didn't see this as a problem. I never encouraged her to avoid complying with the subpoena." He flatly denied dispatching Currie to retrieve a box of gifts from Lewinsky that Currie then stashed under her bed. "I did not do that," he said.
As evidence that he would tell the literal truth, even if it embarrassed him, Clinton pointed to the fact that he admitted during the Jones deposition that he once had sex with Gennifer Flowers, despite his statements during the 1992 campaign. "I would have rather have taken a whipping than done that," he said.
Prosecutors briefly questioned Clinton about Willey, another woman on the witness list in the Jones case who claimed she was groped by the president when she went to see him about obtaining a paid White House job in November 1993. Willey has said Clinton got her phone number and called her from his hotel in Williamsburg, Va., during the 1992 presidential campaign and asked her to come to his hotel room that night. Prosecutors produced phone records that back up her claim that he called.
Clinton said in the testimony aired yesterday that, "I have no recollection of asking her to come to my room," but said he did recall some sort of conversation with her around the time of the trip to Virginia for a debate. He charged that her credibility had been "shattered" after the White House last spring released genial letters she wrote to Clinton after the alleged groping incident.
Clinton was questioned about why he did not produce those letters when they were subpoenaed by the Jones lawyers, releasing them only after Willey appeared on "60 Minutes." He said they were not in his personal possession, but in White House files, and "I don't believe we were required to produce them."
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta and researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company