By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
President Clinton firmly declared yesterday that he would "never" resign in the face of allegations that he tried to cover up an extramarital affair with a young aide, even as his lawyer launched an aggressive counterattack on prosecutors by seeking court sanctions to punish "a deluge of illegal leaks."
During a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair dominated by questions about his alleged relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, Clinton said he did not try to persuade his personal secretary to lie by calling her in to discuss Lewinsky a day after he was asked about the former White House intern in a Jan. 17 deposition he gave in the Paula Jones case. But he repeatedly refused to provide any explanation of his actions, saying he would not discuss any specifics while authorities are investigating.
The extraordinary scene of a president grilled about his sex life in the majestic setting of the East Room came on a day when long-simmering tensions between the White House and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr escalated into open political and legal warfare.
Clinton charged that "someone else is leaking unlawfully out of the grand jury proceeding" and dispatched his attorney, David E. Kendall, to ask a federal judge to impose contempt penalties on Starr's office for allegedly divulging details from its investigation. Starr is examining whether Clinton committed perjury by denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in his deposition in the Jones sexual harassment suit or obstructed justice by encouraging Lewinsky to do the same.
Starr fired back with his own statement last night, saying leaked information about the investigation could have come from numerous people including Clinton's own attorneys and accusing the president's camp of trumping up complaints about leaks as part of "an orchestrated plan to deflect and distract this investigation."
While he said he has no evidence that leaks came from his office, Starr said he has started an internal investigation and other officials said he asked the Justice Department to assign him more FBI agents for the task.
The harsh exchange was all the more striking because it involved two reserved, almost bookish lawyers who rarely return telephone calls from reporters and generally make only infrequent and legalistic public statements.
The dispute was generated by articles in the New York Times and The Washington Post yesterday reporting that Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, told investigators the president summoned her to the White House the day after his Jones deposition to seek her memories of his interactions with Lewinsky and see if they matched what he had just said under oath.
Neither Clinton nor his advisers denied the substance of the reports, but the president insisted he did not coach Currie to agree with his version of events. "I never asked anybody to do anything but tell the truth," he said.
Although he looked weary, with bags weighing down his lower eye lids, Clinton maintained a relaxed and at times even light-hearted demeanor throughout the uncomfortable questioning of the 44-minute news conference. The most dramatic moment came when he was asked if the pain inflicted on his family by the many lurid reports about his private sex life would ever cause him to consider resigning from office.
"Never," he said with a grim face and a low, resolute tone.
Instead, he tried to change the focus to Starr's conduct. Just hours after the news conference, Kendall issued a 15-page compilation of news reports that he alleged were based on information from Starr's investigators in violation of federal rules mandating the secrecy of grand jury investigations. The prosecutor's office, he said, "is obviously out of control."
"The leaking of the past few weeks is intolerably unfair," Kendall said in a rare appearance before television cameras in front of his Washington law office. "These leaks make a mockery of the traditional rules of grand jury secrecy. They often appear to be a cynical attempt to pressure and manipulate witnesses, deceive the public and smear persons involved in this investigation."
Kendall, however, offered scant proof that the reports he cited originated from Starr's office, basing his accusation on the assumption that the unnamed sources were in fact investigators or prosecutors.
In his rebuttal, Starr asserted that defense lawyers have their own motives to secretly disclose information. "The 'leaks' that you complain about, thus, may have come from sources close to those under investigation," Starr said. "Those sources would have a clear and manifest motivation to release harmful information with carefully crafted defenses in order to lessen the painful impact of such evidence when it is revealed through official proceedings."
Starr noted that "the president's defense attorneys had most, if not all" of the information about Currie's cooperation with investigators that appeared in newspapers yesterday. The White House refused to comment last night on how long it has known about Currie's cooperation.
While Starr did not mention it, officials said he formally requested Thursday night that the FBI detail more agents to his office to look into whether his staff had improperly provided information to the news media. One Justice Department official said the request presented a number of practical and legal questions that must be resolved.
"Would they report to him or to the [Justice Department's] Office of Professional Responsibility?" the official asked. FBI officials met with Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss the matter; FBI attorneys wanted to ensure the integrity of a leak investigation without infringing on Starr's independence guaranteed under law.
Even as he attacked Starr, Clinton also accused attorneys for Jones of violating the "gag" order in her sexual harassment lawsuit by leaking information. The Jones attorneys later released their own statement in which they said they "categorically deny" the assertion.
The Currie testimony could prove important to the Starr investigation. If her account places Clinton and Lewinsky alone in a room together as reported, it could help establish whether he lied about their relationship in the Jones deposition.
In addition, if prosecutors can demonstrate that Clinton tried to influence Currie's testimony, it could be grounds for a charge of subornation of perjury. Currie was subpoenaed to testify by Jones's lawyers, but her deposition was canceled after a federal judge last week barred evidence of the Lewinsky matter from the case because it might interfere with Starr's investigation.
During the Clinton deposition, Jones's lawyers attempted to establish a pattern of behavior with women that would help build their case and asked the president a series of specific questions about Lewinsky and whether he had sex with her, was ever alone with her or gave her presents.
According to sources familiar with his testimony, he acknowledged giving her small gifts but denied a sexual relationship and said if they were ever alone while she worked at the White House it was only for a few moments while transacting business. After Lewinsky was transferred to the Pentagon in April 1996, Clinton said he could not recall ever being alone with her, the sources said.
Clinton apparently was struck by the detailed questions from Jones's attorneys and after returning to the White House that Saturday night called Currie at home and asked her to come in the next day to go over the matter.
The Post reported yesterday that she told investigators that he asked a series of questions to check his testimony against her memory. At the time, a source familiar with her account said, Currie agreed with his assertion that she had always been in earshot when Clinton and Lewinsky were together. But Currie later told investigators that sometimes she was actually out of the room, the source said.
The Times also reported that Currie turned over to Starr's investigators several gifts Clinton reportedly gave Lewinsky, including a dress, a brooch and a hat pin, which had been subpoenaed by Jones's lawyers. The story did not say why Currie retrieved the gifts. But in her own account to investigators, Lewinsky said Clinton told her she could avoid turning over those gifts to the Jones lawyers if she no longer had them in her possession, the Times said.
Currie's lawyer issued a statement yesterday that did not take issue with the substance of the news reports, but denied her testimony implied any untoward behavior by Clinton. "I want to be absolutely clear," said Lawrence H. Wechsler. "To the extent there is any implication or the slightest suggestion that Mrs. Currie believed that the president, or anyone else, tried to influence her recollection, that is absolutely false and a mischaracterization of the facts."
While the focus was on Currie yesterday, a deadline set by Starr for winning Lewinsky's cooperation came and went without any public indications that they reached a deal.
Starr's staff has been negotiating to secure Lewinsky's testimony for weeks and insisted on interviewing her face-to-face something they have not yet been able to do before deciding whether to grant her immunity from prosecution. They told Lewinsky's lawyers they wanted an answer by yesterday, but neither side returned telephone calls last night.
Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, was insisting publicly earlier yesterday that Starr already had agreed to an immunity deal in a letter sent to him this week, only to back out. The two sides appeared divided over the question of when Lewinsky would be made available for questioning about the story she would tell under oath. Starr has insisted on questioning her before granting immunity and Ginsburg has sought to strike a deal first.
Ginsburg said he was "moving appropriately" to force Starr to accept the deal he believes prosecutors reneged on, and suggested he may try to go to court to enforce it.
At his news conference, Clinton declined again to describe the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky. He likewise offered no elaboration on reports that he acknowledged a sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers during his Jones deposition, in contrast to his 1992 campaign statements denying the affair. Citing a gag order imposed in the Jones case, he said only, "I told the truth in my deposition with regard to that issue and I also did in 1992."
While he would not discuss first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's assertion that his problems were the result of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," he later suggested he was a victim of critics who have injected "venom" into American politics.
Because of that, Clinton said, he will absorb attacks on his character and refuse to resign. "The pain threshold, at least for our side, being in public life today has been raised," he said. "But to give in to that would be to give in to everything that I fought against and got me into this race in 1991 to try to run for president in the first place."
"I would never walk away from the people of this country and the trust they've placed in me," Clinton added.
His words sounded eerily like those of another embattled president. On Jan. 30, 1974, barely six months before he resigned, Richard M. Nixon said during a State of the Union speech to Congress, "I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States."
Staff writers Toni Locy and Bob Woodward contributed to this report.
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