By Dan Balz and George Lardner Jr.
The president's advisers continued to attack the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that described in graphic detail the sexual relationship between Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky and that outlined grounds for possible impeachment in 11 areas covering perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
The president's lawyers and top aides argued that the president's behavior was indefensible but not impeachable -- and that his apologies were heartfelt. "He doesn't want to hide behind a bunch of . . . legal mumbo-jumbo," said deputy White House chief of staff John D. Podesta on CNN's "Late Edition." "He has said what he did was wrong, and he has apologized for it. He would like to move on. I think the American people would like to move on."
For now, public opinion continued to side with the president on the issue of whether his actions added up to impeachable offenses, according to a new Washington Post Poll and other surveys. White House officials continued to hold out hope that, if the views of the American people remain consistent, members of Congress may think twice before launching impeachment hearings later this year or next year.
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said he thinks hearings are warranted. "I must say I do, but I want to hear from everyone on the committee," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. His committee will decide whether to recommend that the House hold hearings.
And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said he had spoken by telephone with the president yesterday morning, bluntly warned the White House that it was time to change tactics and begin to level with the American people. Hatch said "nobody believes" Clinton's argument that his Jan. 17 testimony in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit, in which he swore he never had sexual relations with Lewinsky, was "legally accurate."
"He ought to quit splitting legal hairs," Hatch said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) echoed Hatch's conclusions on the same program. "If you come in and then try to make a legal argument about what he said on January 17, I think you're going to lose," Kerrey said.
Yesterday's talk shows brought out an extraordinary cast of Clinton advisers, some of them who have steadfastly remained in the background throughout the seven-month investigation of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. The group included the president's chief personal attorney, David E. Kendall, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, deputy White House counsel Cheryl D. Mills and special counsel Lanny A. Breuer -- all rarely seen in television interviews.
In mounting a vigorous offense against the launching of an impeachment inquiry, the president's lawyers and aides argued that the Starr report was a prosecutor's one-sided presentation. But while challenging Starr's legal conclusions, they did little to contest the details of the 453-page report. Even where Clinton and Lewinsky disagreed in their respective testimonies on the type of sexual contact that occurred, Clinton's team refused to call Lewinsky a liar.
In his appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Ruff dismissed any suggestion that Clinton resign the presidency to spare the country from a wrenching impeachment inquiry. Asked if Clinton would ever consider stepping down, Ruff said, "Absolutely not . . . never."
Podesta said Clinton is so determined to get back to "the work of the people" that he has no intention of even reading the "lurid" report that has brought him to the brink of impeachment proceedings before the House Judiciary Committee.
Podesta said that Clinton told him Saturday that he had not read and "was not going to read" Starr's minutely detailed report of Clinton's sexual encounters with Lewinsky and his allegedly illegal attempts to cover them up -- or the rebuttals prepared by his own lawyers. Asked why, Podesta said, "I think he's decided that he's said what he has to say to the country and he's working on the healing process . . . and I think that he is trying to put this episode, painful as it is, behind him and move on."
Podesta also said he doubted that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had read the report and he hoped she has not "because I think there's much in that report that's intended to be hurtful."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he was alarmed by what he called "a disconnect" between the president's repeated apologies in recent days for his relationship with Lewinsky and his lawyers' aggressive defense of his denials of that relationship over the past eight months.
Lott warned that such a strategy almost guaranteed impeachment proceedings. "Unless something changes, I don't see how they avoid it," he said on "Fox News Sunday." Lott, who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, said the evidence in Starr's report that Clinton lied to the grand jury on Aug. 17 and in his Jones deposition "is overwhelming."
He added that at some future point, Clinton may need to consider resigning, although he stopped short of recommending it now. "That's a call only he can make," Lott said.
For now, Lott said, Clinton should abandon the aggressive attacks on Starr and his report. "He may need to come to the Congress and say, 'You know, how can this be resolved?' " Lott said. "But if he begins the process with attacks, and saying, 'Oh, this is just a smear,' that doesn't help."
Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, conceded that an impeachment inquiry is likely, if only to give the president "due process" to respond to the allegations in the Starr report. "I think that's going to be something we'll determine in our judiciary role over the next couple of weeks," he said on ABC. "We may end up going to that next level."
There is talk among Republicans of expanding any inquiry beyond the Lewinsky scandal to include other topics that both Starr and Congress have been investigating. They include the Whitewater land deal, the firings in the White House travel office and the improper acquisition of FBI files on hundreds of Republicans from previous administrations. But one congressional source said Democrats would be "unalterably opposed" to any broad-gauged inquiry.
House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) said he did not now think Clinton should be impeached but said some kind of "middle option" between impeachment and doing nothing -- such as censure or reprimand -- could become increasingly attractive to members of Congress. Bonior, speaking on "Meet the Press," said "a personal rebuke for [Clinton's] personal behavior" might be considered.
Asked whether the White House might be open to a censure, Ruff said he would not address the issue "because where I am today is trying to convince the House Judiciary Committee that, as a matter of law and as a matter of fact, there's no basis for going forward" with an impeachment inquiry.
Despite the criticism from lawmakers, the president's personal lawyer continued to defend Clinton's testimony as accurate because the president did not believe oral sex performed on him was covered by the definition of "sexual relations" used in the Jones deposition. Kendall said that phrase, as defined in many dictionaries, "means sexual intercourse. And no one alleges that."
The president's lawyers reiterated their attacks on Starr for loading his report with unnecessary, salacious detail. "The inclusion of all that is only meant to harm the president," Kendall said.
But Starr's defenders said the president's legalistic defense of his sworn testimony forced the independent counsel to include the graphic descriptions of Clinton's sexual encounters with Lewinsky. "Frankly, I'm really shocked that they keep blasting Starr," Hatch said. "Judge Starr did what he had to do. He had to put all the details in because of their dissembling on the law."
Hatch appeared on television shortly after receiving a telephone call from Clinton. The Utah senator refused to provide many details of the conversation but called it "a very hard-hitting, very good exchange" of views. He said he believed Clinton has shown contrition in recent days and held out the prospect that the president could survive his ordeal if he would "quit playing this legal game and start being what he is, a basically warm, winning person who the American people have liked from the beginning."
But other Republicans were less conciliatory. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), appearing on "Meet the Press," said it "certainly looks" as if Clinton will be impeached, adding again that he hopes the president will resign before that happens. "The president is stuck in contrition," DeLay said. "In order to get this behind him, he has to confess what he did and accept the consequences of his actions."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, defended the president as "a man who has admitted he has made a mistake [and] asked for our forgiveness." He said on CNN that if members of Congress could be impeached for misleading statements or lying, "We are all done for. We won't have a quorum."
Members of both parties said Congress should move expeditiously to get the matter resolved but disagreed over how quickly it could be done. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said Congress should aim to finish before the new Congress is sworn in next January. But Lott said he saw no way that an impeachment inquiry could be conducted that quickly. "We should not delay," he said. "At the same time, I do not think we should rush to judgment."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company