By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
In a television interview, attorney William H. Ginsburg denied widespread reports that Clinton once gave Lewinsky a dress, "unless you consider a long T-shirt a dress," and brushed off other gifts from the president as "small and inconsequential." While Lewinsky bragged in secretly recorded conversations with a friend of long, steamy "phone sex" with Clinton, her attorney said their talks contained no sexual banter.
And he flatly disputed a statement released earlier in the day by Lewinsky's onetime friend, Linda R. Tripp, who said she was present on one occasion when Clinton made a late-night call to the former White House intern at her Watergate apartment. Tripp, who made the secret tapes that triggered the crisis engulfing the White House, also said yesterday that she heard several tapes of Clinton calling on other occasions and saw gifts they exchanged.
Ginsburg's comments, released in a transcript by ABC News and edited for last night's "20/20 Friday," left the facts of the Lewinsky scandal seemingly more confused at the end of the day than they already were at the start and may help explain why prosecutors have been unable to reach an agreement with Ginsburg that would secure her testimony in their investigation of Clinton.
While Ginsburg pointedly did not address whether there was a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and Clinton, he offered a far more innocent interpretation of some of their interactions.
The telephone calls between the two were of the "Hi, hello, how are you, fine" variety between "colleagues," he said. "They were few and far between and as far as I know, they were in no way fraught with sexual innuendo," Ginsburg said.
Likewise, he said, the presents she received from Clinton were merely hats, T-shirts, hat pins, a sleeve of golf balls and ashtrays. "There has never been a gift that frankly you couldn't buy in the White House souvenir shop," he said. She gave Clinton a tie that he has worn, he added.
Yet even as he seemed to minimize the intimacy of the contacts, the Ginsburg interview suggested an unusually close connection between Clinton and Lewinsky. Few White House interns or low-level staff assistants are showered with repeated gifts or receive "how are you" telephone calls from the president.
Ginsburg's sometimes ambiguous statements may reflect the complications that have dragged out negotiations with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr over a cooperation agreement. Starr is investigating Lewinsky's tape-recorded claims that Clinton had sex with her and urged her to lie about it under oath in the Paula Jones case. Although Ginsburg has made a verbal offer for her to testify in exchange for immunity, Starr's office has insisted on a detailed, written version of her story.
To the extent that she contradicts her statements on tape, she could pose problems for prosecutors and they want to know everything before signing her up as a witness against the president.
Ginsburg said his client is "totally reliable," despite her own remark to Tripp that she would be capable of lying under oath about having an affair with Clinton because "I have lied all my life." Said Ginsburg, "There are people who talk a lot and as part of the scenario, peccadilloes, they may tell fibs, lies, exaggerations, oversell."
Tripp, meanwhile, broke her public silence yesterday and essentially backed up the version of events captured on the tapes she turned over to Starr earlier this month.
In the statement her lawyer released to the news media, Tripp complained that she has been the object of "vicious personal attacks" by the Clinton administration and that Lewinsky is being subjected to "a smear campaign" intended to discredit her.
She sought to answer administration critics, led by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who have claimed the Lewinsky scandal was trumped up by a network of right-wing zealots out to get Clinton for political reasons. "The very same administration which is now trying to portray me as a disgruntled White House staffer, with a penchant for involving myself in scandals, has promoted me twice . . . consistently given me the highest possible annual evaluations and awarded me numerous certificates and merit pay increases," she said.
Tripp said Lewinsky "is a bright, caring generous soul -- one who has made poor choices. She was not a stalker, she was invited; she did not embellish, the truth is sensational enough." Tripp said she felt "horror" over the president's "abuse of power" and Lewinsky's emotional anguish over the relationship.
Tripp said she went to Starr earlier this month to report possible crimes after she was "being solicited to participate in a plan to conceal and cover up the true nature of the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton." On the tapes, Lewinsky reportedly tried to convince Tripp to back up her denial.
"Monica described every detail of the relationship during hundreds of hours of conversations over the past 15 months," Tripp said. "In addition, I was present when she received a late-night phone call from the president. I have also seen numerous gifts they exchanged and heard several of her tapes of him. I was also present when Monica made and received numerous phone calls, which were of a volatile and contentious nature directly relating to her relationship with the president."
As events continued to move on multiple fronts, Clinton won a minor victory yesterday when a federal court barred Jones's attorneys from questioning Secret Service agents about whether they have witnessed any illicit sexual activity by the president.
The Secret Service had sought to block four subpoenas from Jones's lawyers, who are attempting to prove a pattern of conduct by Clinton that would bolster their client's claim of sexual harassment when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state clerk. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who is presiding over the Jones case in Little Rock, declined to recognize a special right of confidentiality, as the service asked, but ruled that such testimony was not needed because it was not "essential to the core issues in this case."
Just the day before Wright prohibited Jones's lawyers from using evidence related to Lewinsky in their case because it might interfere with Starr's inquiry and she cited the same rationale yesterday.
Wright also said that given the "numerous 'leaks' of sealed information in this case," she feared that Secret Service testimony would be divulged publicly "and provide those with hostile intent toward the president with important information to use in piercing the Secret Service's protection." In a footnote underscoring her ire at news leaks, Wright warned she could punish violations of her "gag" order with contempt citations or by barring the use of leaked information at trial.
The ruling, however, does not end the matter. Starr also wants information from the president's security detail and officials are still negotiating over whether some accommodation can be made.
A Secret Service employees group wrote Starr yesterday asking him to back off. "Secret Service officers are duty bound to a confidence of the highest order which must be protected forever from every intrusion," wrote Michael T. Leibig, an attorney representing the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service Officers Association.
Also yesterday, Evelyn S. Lieberman, a former White House deputy chief of staff, testified before the grand jury for about three hours. She gave a brief statement to reporters in front of the federal courthouse in Washington, but refused to take any questions.
She said: "As you know, I've just spent the last few hours testifying before the grand jury. Many of the question they asked were the same questions the press has been asking me in the last week. Most of the pieces I've read about my role in the matter have been, for the most part, portrayed accurately.
"But I want to make one thing particularly clear: I know of no improper relationship between the president and Monica Lewinsky, or anyone else for that matter."
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