Allies Tried to Stem Brewing Scandal
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page A01
Two of President Clinton's closest confidants grew so alarmed as the first fragmentary reports emerged about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky last January that they devised an urgent but futile mission to persuade him to settle the Paula Jones lawsuit to protect his presidency.
Grand jury testimony made public yesterday revealed that Washington attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. urged on by White House deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey rushed to the White House barely 36 hours after the president was grilled about Lewinsky by Jones's lawyers in his deposition, but failed to broker an end to the case.
The previously undisclosed effort was one of the most provocative new episodes to emerge about the frenetic opening days of the scandal that eight months later is on the verge of triggering the first impeachment inquiry since Watergate. The release yesterday of 4,610 pages of additional evidence from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation brought into sharp focus how some of those nearest to the president picked up clues about the potential jeopardy he faced even as other senior White House officials were left almost entirely in the dark about the crisis that lay ahead.
The three-volume set of material put out by the House Judiciary Committee peeled back the curtain further on nearly every significant chapter of the Lewinsky saga, from her involuntary transfer to the Pentagon to her mother's breakdown at the grand jury to the tactics employed by Starr's team and the White House as they shadowboxed all year.
And for the first time, large portions of the secretly recorded conversations between Lewinsky and Linda R. Tripp were disclosed, offering the public an almost voyeuristic look at the complex friendship and the private secrets that led to Starr's charge that Clinton may have committed impeachable offenses by seeking to cover up his relationship with the onetime White House intern during the Jones case.
The newly released documents contained no explosive new evidence and did little to alter the dynamics on Capitol Hill as both parties moved further along the track toward opening an impeachment inquiry. As they reviewed the mountain of new material, House members generally concluded that yesterday's release reinforced and added context to what was already publicly known.
Bound in books standing 7½ inches tall, the evidence was the last to be released before the House votes next week on whether to formally consider removing the president from office. The Judiciary Committee previously put out copies of the main, 453-page Starr report, transcripts of testimony by Clinton and Lewinsky and the videotape of the president's grand jury appearance.
The latest round included not only edited transcripts of the Tripp tapes but also testimony of virtually every player in the soap opera-like drama that has alternately captivated and repulsed the nation. In addition to Lindsey and Jordan, the books contain the accounts of presidential secretary Betty Currie; a long parade of White House aides; Lewinsky's friends, relatives and therapists; White House stewards; business executives enlisted by Jordan to consider hiring Lewinsky; and about 30 Secret Service officers.
While the broad outlines of the evidence have been reported previously, the documents offered a variety of rich new details.
Among other things, the papers reveal that some White House aides kept "shadow transcripts" during their grand jury appearances by taking copious notes or withdrawing frequently to brief lawyers outside the door; that Starr provided immunity agreements for more witnesses than previously known, including Lewinsky's aunt, Debra Finerman, and close friend, Catherine Allday Davis; that there were more White House invocations of privilege to avoid answering questions, including deputy press secretary Barry J. Toiv, whose lawyer claimed executive privilege at one point; and that then-White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta once prevented Clinton from meeting with Barbra Streisand alone for fear of how it would look.
Perhaps most tantalizing were Tripp's conversations with Lewinsky, in which they discussed how to respond to subpoenas from Jones's lawyers seeking to uncover Clinton's extramarital excursions. Through long hours of talking, Tripp appeared to range from confidant to counselor to co-conspirator, sometimes expressing indignation at the idea of lying in the Jones lawsuit as Lewinsky urged her and other times seeming to goad her young friend into demanding job help that later became the basis for an obstruction-of-justice allegation against Clinton.
The White House seized on Tripp's pivotal role yesterday to again portray Starr's investigation as an overreaching political attack on the president orchestrated in part by a manipulative woman as part of an agenda of revenge against a White House that exiled her to the Pentagon.
Tripp's actions "raise disturbing questions about her role in this entire affair with the independent counsel, with the Jones lawyers and for her own enrichment," White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig told reporters outside the West Wing hours after the documents were released. Craig added that the newly released evidence demonstrated that "in its zeal to prop up its allegations against the president," Starr's office left out "direct exculpatory testimony."
Starr responded quickly to what he called "a disingenuous public statement." Citing the facts Craig asserted were left out of the main impeachment report sent to Congress last month, Starr listed page number after page number to make the case that the favorable evidence for Clinton was included in his referral to the House.
"Significantly," Starr added, "the White House today did not question Ms. Lewinsky's credibility or the factual underpinnings of nine of the eleven possible grounds for impeachment including the president's perjury in his civil deposition and before the grand jury."
Among the taped conversations documented yesterday was the Jan. 13 meeting between Tripp and Lewinsky in which Tripp wore a body wire provided by FBI agents working for Starr. Over coffee and a shared cheeseburger at the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City, the two discussed the Jones case at length, with Lewinsky making clear she would lie to protect Clinton and Tripp balking at doing so.
"I would not cross these, these people for fear of my life," Lewinsky told Tripp. "No matter how many girlfriends he had . . . it was my choice." She later added that she felt it was "my duty" to deny the affair and that her mother, Marcia K. Lewis, considered it "patriotic."
Tripp said she could not lie under oath. "I live in terror," she said. "It eats my guts out."
Lewinsky implored her friend to help, arguing in what she conceded was an "existential conversation" that God could not consider truth good if it hurt people. At another point, she even suggested as a hypothetical that her telephones might be tapped, not knowing at the time that Tripp had been taping their calls for three months. "I feel like we're in the middle of a John Grisham book," Tripp said, never hinting at the intrigue she had already launched.
Beyond the Tripp tapes, the documents fleshed out a variety of subplots from the past several months. Jocelyn Jolley, who worked next to Lewinsky in the White House correspondence office and was transferred out at the same time in April 1996, told investigators she believed she was ousted "in order to make the Lewinsky firing not seem too singular in nature."
Lewis, Lewinsky's mother, broke down in tears before the grand jury during a discussion of code names they developed for Jordan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was called "Gwen," after Broadway actress Gwen Verdon, and the first lady was called "Babba," a family term for grandmother. At that point, Lewis began weeping and in the hallway outside the grand jury room exclaimed, "I can't take it. I can't take any more. I can't stand it."
Lewinsky's Los Angeles therapist likewise had code names, calling the president "Elizabeth," and urged her patient during telephone counseling sessions to keep two doors to the Oval Office locked during sexual encounters with Clinton, something they never did because he wanted to make it appear as if they had nothing to hide.
The ruse, though, did not work. Testimony by a variety of people in the White House made clear that his affair with Lewinsky was widely presumed in certain circles, particularly among Secret Service officers. Their trysts were so blatant, testified Officer Brent Chinery, that, "I mean, it was pretty much common knowledge that there was a sexual relationship going on between the two of them."
The material was heavily redacted in places by the Judiciary Committee numerous references to sexual matters and personal gossip were taken out but the enormity of the task showed. At times, veiled references to other women connected with Clinton were redacted, only to have their names appear a few sentences later.
One woman whose allegations were not redacted was Kathleen E. Willey, the former White House volunteer, who alleged Clinton groped her in a hallway near the Oval Office. Tripp's testimony shed new light on Willey, alleging that she sought out presidential attention and told Tripp in the spring of 1993 that she was "flirting with the president" and that he appeared interested.
"Willey described several ways that she would pursue the president," Tripp told the FBI, sometimes by arranging to appear at social functions where she knew Clinton would be and wearing "a particular black dress" and high heels.
Tripp held to the account she gave Newsweek last summer that Willey appeared happy after the alleged incident but added details, saying Willey told her that the "sexual approach came out of nowhere and was forceful, almost to the point of an attack." However, Tripp said Willey then described Clinton as "a great kisser" and that the two discussed on the phone that night "whether Willey would be a girlfriend of the president."
In addition to Tripp, the documents provided the first direct accounts from other key players such as Jordan and Currie, both of whom remained loyal to the president during repeated appearances before the grand jury.
Currie testified that Clinton did not enlist her to ask Jordan to find Lewinsky a job, insisting that she called him on her own. Contradicting Lewinsky, Currie also denied that the president asked her to retrieve his gifts from his former lover to avoid a Jones subpoena, saying that was Lewinsky's idea. And despite heavy grilling by prosecutors, she continued to deny that Clinton tried to persuade her to lie when he summoned her to the White House the day after his Jones deposition.
However, Currie's testimony was riddled with inconsistencies about details, and she conceded that her memory was "getting worse by the minute." At one point, she said she had taken back Clinton's gifts "within the last six months," when she had done so only a month earlier. And her estimates of how often Clinton was alone with Lewinsky seemed to change almost every time she was asked.
The new evidence indicated that Currie was the first to receive a telltale sign that Lewinsky might become a big problem for Clinton when she unexpectedly received a call Jan. 15 from Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff asking about Lewinsky's gifts to the president and "taped conversations." A shaken Currie immediately called Jordan, who told Currie to come over to his office. As it happened, Lewinsky picked her up and drove her over, Currie told the FBI.
Jordan advised Currie to alert Lindsey, who told her not to tell Newsweek anything. Lindsey picked up more warning signals on Saturday, Jan. 17, sitting outside the law office where Clinton was deposed by Jones's lawyers. At one point, White House lawyer Cheryl Mills alerted him that the Drudge Report, an Internet gossip page, had an item saying Newsweek was preparing a report on Clinton's relationship with a woman in the White House. As Clinton was inside being questioned about whether he tried to help Lewinsky get a job, Lindsey told Mills to find out whether Currie had asked White House deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta to find Lewinsky work.
The next day, Sunday, Lindsey and Jordan had lunch. "Vernon wanted thought that the Paula Jones matter should be settled," Lindsey testified. "He indicated that . . . if it was a matter of trying to raise, you know, whatever the money was that would be required to settle it, that he thought he could raise it. ... I suggested to him that he ought to have a conversation with the president expressing what his thoughts were."
The next morning, Lindsey said, Jordan came to the White House and made his "pitch" to the president. But Clinton did not settle.
"I gave it my best shot," Lindsey recalled Jordan telling him.
Jordan's attempt to persuade the president to settle the Jones case has an especially familiar ring at a time when his advisers are once again trying to reach a financial deal with the onetime Arkansas clerk who claims he propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel room. Jones has demanded $1 million, while Clinton's lawyer this week offered $700,000 and the president has bristled at paying more to finally end what he has termed "a bogus lawsuit."
Had Clinton gone along with Jordan's suggestion that day in January, it might not have made a difference. By that point, Tripp had already gone to Starr with her tapes. During the very first of what would be 23 interviews with investigators, she mentioned that Lewinsky had a navy blue dress with Clinton's semen stain, the very dress that ultimately would prove the existence of the affair Clinton denied.
But no one at the White House knew that at the time. While Jordan and Lindsey were focused on the building story that would break on Jan. 21 in The Washington Post, they did not share their worries with political aides. Podesta testified there was a "relatively low level" of concern at first. "By late Tuesday [Jan. 20], when The Post called and said they had details, introduced Mr. Jordan, as I recall, into the story. I don't think I knew about that before. And said that Mr. Starr was investigating it. Then I think we were at a high level of concern."
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