By Dan Balz
On the day after the release of Starr's graphic and damning portrait of the president's behavior, the White House intensified its counterattack against the independent counsel's findings, even as officials braced for reaction by the public and elected officials that could determine whether Clinton survives the biggest scandal of his presidency.
The White House rebuttal acknowledged repeatedly that Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky was wrong, but it concluded with a series of declarations that underscored the president's statement Friday that he would ask his lawyers to mount a vigorous defense in his behalf.
"The president did not commit perjury," the White House response stated. "He did not obstruct justice. He did not tamper with witnesses. And he did not abuse the power of the office of the presidency."
After a Friday of high drama in Washington that brought the country face-to-face with the prospect of its second impeachment proceeding in a quarter century, the American people began to digest the lurid details and legal arguments of the Starr report.
But even as that process was beginning, some leading Democrats yesterday urged the president's legal and political advisers to abandon their claims that the president had not lied under oath about the sexual relationship with Lewinsky and begin to show their readiness for some kind of congressional rebuke, short of impeachment, for the president's actions.
Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta called on the president and his team to forgo "legal quibbling" and begin cooperating with members of Congress.
Clinton alluded to the extraordinary events of the past few days in his weekly radio address. "It's been an exhausting and difficult week in the capital, not only for me but for many others," he said as he sought to shift the focus to issues of education, health care and fighting drugs.
Vice President Gore, touring the Pacific Northwest, issued another statement of support for the president, saying there were no grounds for impeachment in Starr's findings.
"I do not believe that this report serves as the basis for overturning the judgment of the American people in 1992 and again in 1996 that Bill Clinton should be their president," Gore said. "For almost six years now, I have worked alongside this president as he has led us toward unprecedented prosperity, toward solutions to the problems we need to address in America."
On Capitol Hill yesterday, selected members and staffers of the House Judiciary Committee were reviewing the remaining boxes of evidence supplied by the independent counsel's office -- including a 2,000-page appendix -- to determine what more material may be made public by the end of the month.
In Georgia, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) again urged lawmakers to resist leaping to conclusions as the process unfolds in Congress. "I think you cannot render . . . any judgment until you have given the president a chance to respond and given the Judiciary Committee a chance to to its job," he said.
As several major newspapers, among them the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Detroit Free Press, called for Clinton's resignation, the first round of overnight polls offered a mixed verdict on the political damage suffered by the president.
A CNN/Gallup poll pegged Clinton's approval rating at 62 percent, while an ABC News poll put it at 56 percent. Neither represented notable deterioration since the Starr report was made public on Friday afternoon.
The CNN/Gallup poll found that, based on what they know now, only one in three Americans believes Clinton should resign or be removed from office. But the ABC News poll found that a majority said Clinton should be impeached if he encouraged Lewinsky to lie under oath, as the Starr report alleges. And three in five Americans said they believe Clinton broke the law, up from two in five a few days after his Aug. 17 address to the nation.
Administration officials said they would wait until early next week, after lawmakers have returned from their districts and the public has had more time to absorb the details of the Starr report, before drawing any conclusions on how grave the president's situation may be.
"It's too early to have any strong read on the American public," one White House official said. "The Sunday, Monday, Tuesday time frame, when polling comes back, we'll all have a sense of where the country is on this."
The 42-page response to Starr's report was the second in as many days from Clinton's lawyers rebutting the independent counsel's voluminous document saying there was "substantial and credible" evidence of potentially impeachable offenses in 11 areas, including perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
Clinton's lawyers sought to demolish those findings, claiming that the Starr report was in reality "a portrait of biased recounting, skewed analysis and unconscionable overreaching" that fell far short of establishing the constitutional grounds for impeachment.
Repeating a claim made on Friday, the president's lawyers -- private attorney David E. Kendall and the White House counsel's office -- argued that Starr had piled up lurid details of the sexual encounters between the president and Lewinsky in areas just off the Oval Office to "cause pain" to the president and to cover up the weakness of Starr's legal grounds for impeachment.
The White House report denied that Clinton had perjured himself in his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones case or in his Aug. 17 testimony before Starr's grand jury, repeating the lawyers' claim that "a witness who gave narrow answers to ambiguous questions" about sex had not met the legal grounds of lying under oath on questions of whether he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, whether they had ever been alone together and whether they had exchanged gifts.
The president spoke in good faith, the response said, when he concluded that oral sex performed on him was not included in the definition of sexual relations used in the Jones deposition. The fact that Starr's report disagreed with Clinton's "linguistic parsing" was not "the stuff of which criminal prosecutions -- and surely impeachment proceedings -- are made," the White House document said.
The fact that Clinton and Lewinsky disagreed on whether he touched her breasts and genitalia -- actions that would fall under the definition of sexual relations in the Jones deposition -- does not constitute perjury, his lawyers argued, because there is no evidence that Clinton "knowingly and intentionally gave false testimony."
On the issue of exchanging gifts and meetings alone, the president's lawyers say Clinton never flatly denied the possibility and said the independent counsel's office was upset simply because Clinton was not more forthcoming. Based on that standard, the president's lawyers said, "there is not much that is safe from a perjury prosecution."
The document calls allegations that Clinton obstructed justice by attempting to conceal the gifts he had given to Lewinsky "wholly unfounded and simply absurd." The president's lawyers said Clinton was never worried about the issue of gifts because "he frequently exchanges gifts with friends."
They also note that Lewinsky's testimony on the gift issue was contradicted by Betty Currie, the president's secretary who later retrieved some of those gifts from Lewinsky's apartment. "The president did not direct or encourage Ms. Currie's activities regarding the gifts," the White House rebuttal said.
The creation of a cover story to conceal an improper sexual relationship "is not unusual and not an obstruction of justice," the rebuttal said. The president never encouraged Lewinsky to lie, nor does the Starr report assert that Clinton urged her to file a false affidavit about their relationship in the Jones civil lawsuit, his attorneys said.
Starr's report also alleged that Clinton's effort to help Lewinsky find a job in New York -- and the involvement of Washington attorney and presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. in that search -- represented an obstruction of justice. The White House response argued that Lewinsky, not the president, first suggested that Clinton help in finding her a job -- and that the effort began long before it was clear she would be subpoenaed in the Jones case.
"It may be the [independent counsel's] view that the president should have cast Ms. Lewinsky off and refused to assist her in any way, simply because the Jones case was filed," the president's lawyers said. "Fortunately the law requires no such callous absurdity."
Clinton's legal advisers described Starr's allegation that the president obstructed justice by attempting to influence a witness -- citing his meeting with Currie the day after his Jones deposition -- as "the product of extraordinary overreaching and pejorative conjecture."
Currie, they said, was not a witness in any proceeding at the time and Clinton did not know that Starr's office had just expanded its long Whitewater investigation to include the relationship with Lewinsky.
The president's lawyers were similarly dismissive of Starr's findings that Clinton obstructed justice by denying to his aides that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and by refusing six invitations to testify voluntarily. "The president had no legal obligation to appear before the grand jury absent compulsion and every reason not to do so, given the [independent counsel's] tactics, illegal leaking and manifest intent to cause him damage," they said.
The president's attorneys also contested claims by Starr that Clinton had abused the powers of his office by throwing up legal roadblocks in the past eight months, including claims of executive privilege and attorney-client privilege. They said nothing Clinton did compares to what then-President Richard M. Nixon did during Watergate. They called "egregiously misleading" Starr's allegation that Clinton abused power by "acquiescing" in efforts by the Secret Service to prevent agents from testifying.
They said that Starr's four-year investigation "has boiled down to" sex and nothing more and that the independent counsel is now asking Congress to remove "a fairly elected president" simply for an improper relationship. "Having such a relationship is wrong," the defense said. "Trying to keep such a relationship private, while understandable, is wrong. But such acts do not even approach the Constitutional test of impeachment -- treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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