By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
At a time when she had been ordered to describe under oath the nature of her relationship with President Clinton, former aide Monica S. Lewinsky met privately with the president at the White House on the evening of Dec. 28, sources familiar with the meeting said yesterday.
Lewinsky was cleared past the Secret Service checkpoint that evening by Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary who had authorized her entrances on several other occasions as well, the sources said. Clinton and Lewinsky met near the Oval Office and the sources who knew of the visit said they were unaware of anyone else being present.
The meeting came at a critical moment in the chronology of events that led to a federal investigation into whether Clinton and his friend, Washington attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr., urged Lewinsky to lie in court testimony about having an intimate relationship with the president. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr launched a probe after a colleague of Lewinsky turned over secret tape recordings of the young woman describing a purported affair and attempted cover-up.
The White House meeting between Clinton and Lewinsky, 24, came just 11 days after she had received a subpoena from lawyers working for Paula Jones, who were trying to find women who had had sexual experiences with the president as part of their effort to prove a pattern of behavior in Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit. Ten days after her session with the president, Lewinsky swore out an affidavit denying a sexual relationship with him as part of a legal effort to prevent her from having to testify.
The White House declined to comment about the meeting and has refused to release entry logs that would document Lewinsky's visits after she left to take a job at the Pentagon in April 1996. But one Clinton adviser suggested it would not be unreasonable that a young woman frightened at being dragged into a high-profile lawsuit might seek solace at the White House.
On the tape recordings obtained by Starr, Lewinsky reportedly told onetime friend Linda R. Tripp that Clinton wanted her to deny having an affair and that he told her to talk with Jordan. A longtime friend and confidant of the president, Jordan found her a lawyer and literally took her to meet with him, even as he was helping her find a job in New York.
Jordan has acknowledged referring Lewinsky to a lawyer and to several potential employers, but he denied telling her to lie and insisted she told him she had not had sexual relations with Clinton.
The jobs were important to Lewinsky at the time. Just two days before her meeting with Clinton, she had left her position as a public affairs assistant at the Pentagon; two days after the session, she was in New York for Jordan-arranged interviews with Revlon and Burson-Marsteller for public relations jobs.
A source familiar with the Tripp tapes said that after Lewinsky was subpoenaed by Jones's lawyers, she became much more circumspect about what she said about talking to or meeting with Clinton. This source said the Dec. 28 meeting was not mentioned on the Tripp tapes, though it is likely to have been discussed during a Jan. 13 meeting between Tripp and Lewinsky that was monitored by the FBI. At Starr's direction, Tripp was seeking to draw Lewinsky out on details of alleged efforts by Clinton and Jordan to get her to lie under oath.
On one tape recording made the week before Christmas, Lewinsky reportedly agonized with Tripp over what to do. At this point, Lewinsky said she had talked about the matter with Jordan but had not told Clinton she planned to lie, according to a transcript published by Newsweek. "He's in denial about it," Lewinsky was quoted as saying.
"Well, does he think you're going to tell the truth?" Tripp asked.
"No. . . . Oh Jesus," Lewinsky replied.
"So he's at least feeling somewhat safe that this is not going to go any further right now, right?" Tripp said.
"Yeah," Lewinsky said.
Missing details about the Dec. 28 meeting that followed could be filled in by Lewinsky if she and Starr can come to an agreement in which she would cooperate in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, and Starr's staff continued to inch toward a cooperation agreement yesterday. Ginsburg said in a television interview he expects that the next few days will determine whether Starr and Lewinsky will reach such an agreement. He said he would make Lewinsky available for questioning after an immunity agreement is reached; prosecutors, however, will no doubt want to talk to her in person to gauge her credibility before making such a deal.
"We would love immunity, we would love her to tell the truth," Ginsburg said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "[If not] we are prepared to try this case . . . we don't think the American public will convict her."
Starr continued to move on other fronts, however. His staff questioned former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta before a Washington grand jury for more than seven hours yesterday. Lewinsky first came to the White House as an intern in Panetta's office.
After emerging from the courthouse, Panetta said he would only repeat a statement he made last week: "I am personally not aware of any improper relationship -- sexual or otherwise -- by this president and any of the White House interns, or anyone else for that matter."
Panetta said his testimony mostly involved "detailing the operations of the White House and the physical setting of the White House during the time I was chief of staff."
Other White House officials, past and present, are expected to be brought to testify in coming days. Among those who have been subpoenaed is deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey, perhaps Clinton's closest friend in the White House, officials said yesterday.
Secret Service director Lewis Merletti met with lawyers from Starr's office Tuesday to discuss the possibility that agents who guard the president may be compelled to cooperate with Starr's investigation. Starr is seeking to determine whether Secret Service agents witnessed encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky.
Intermediaries acting on behalf of several agents have been in touch with FBI agents working for Starr, sources said. But Secret Service officials fear that making agents available to testify could establish a dangerous legal precedent. Such testimony about the actions of the president in a noncriminal dispute could create tension and mistrust and thereby hinder their ability to protect Clinton and future presidents.
Starr's staff has not formally notified Merletti that it intends to subpoena Secret Service agents, nor has it indicated how many agents might receive subpoenas.
Meanwhile, a congressional committee yesterday released a deposition in which Jordan confirmed that he helped line up work for Webster L. Hubbell around the time Hubbell resigned from a top Justice Department job under the cloud of a criminal investigation.
Starr is investigating whether such aid for Hubbell was an attempt to secure his silence in the Whitewater case; the coincidence of Jordan helping out another Clinton associate being sought out as a witness against the president was one of the factors that Starr cited in expanding his investigation to the Lewinsky matter.
"I told the president in an informal setting that I'm doing what I can for Webb Hubbell," Jordan testified to lawyers for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee investigating campaign finance abuses about a spring, 1994 golf outing. "The president said, 'Thanks.' End of conversation."
In the past, Clinton and his aides have been vague and at times contradictory about whether the president knew a number of his friends and aides were finding Hubbell jobs for which he was ultimately paid more than $500,000 after he left the government.
In the deposition, Jordan discussed lining up a legal job for Hubbell with MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc., the parent of Revlon, on whose board of directors Jordan sits. Jordan helped Lewinsky line up a job earlier this month with Revlon, which rescinded the offer after the controversy erupted.
Staff writers Toni Locy, Judith Havemann and Clay Chandler contributed to this report.
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