By Peter Baker and Toni Locy
A team of lawyers for the president descended on the federal courthouse yesterday morning to try to block independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr from asking senior White House official Bruce R. Lindsey about his conversations with Clinton regarding Lewinsky. Although they did not formally invoke a constitutional claim of executive privilege, the lawyers argued in a closed-door hearing that the president's private talks with top aides are out of bounds for Starr, according to people knowledgeable about the session.
The issue was not resolved during the hearing, which lasted less than an hour. Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson decided Lindsey should return to a grand jury meeting one floor above and she set parameters for what prosecutors could ask in an effort to "build a record" that would define the most controversial areas for possible litigation, one source said.
The day's confrontation presages a possible legal battle that, if no compromise is found, could reach the Supreme Court and clarify what have long been murky rules governing presidential confidentiality. While chief executives periodically assert that certain conversations should remain private to ensure the president receives candid and uncensored advice, the boundaries of that only rarely have been tested in court.
Even as it tried to shield Lindsey, the White House yesterday extended its penchant for secrecy to include the debate over secrecy itself. Officials declined to discuss the issue publicly, to the point where they would not even say whether Clinton had formally claimed privilege.
In a public statement, the White House said it is "continuing to try to resolve the matter regarding the confidentiality of conversations" and was withholding further comments because the hearing was sealed.
A Clinton ally privy to White House thinking said both sides have an interest in settling the dispute. "The clock is running against [Starr's office]. They can't afford another six months while we fight this in court," the ally said. "And we can't win politically with an executive privilege battle on this issue."
Yet while White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff wants an amicable solution, the source added, "They are willing to take this to the Supreme Court and fight a battle for the ages, not just for this White House. Ruff genuinely believes this is not about what Bruce Lindsey does or does not know. . . . If they do not take a stand . . . you have compromised every future White House."
The legal clash came as Lewinsky's lawyer denied for the first time last night that his client's testimony in the Paula Jones case was tied to job assistance, a key question being investigated by Starr. In an interview, William H. Ginsburg said Lewinsky first met with Clinton's close friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., to seek help finding a job on Nov. 5, a month before her name showed up on a witness list in the Jones lawsuit.
Ginsburg did not dispute reports that Lewinsky met with Jordan four times, including on Dec. 8, three days after Clinton's lawyers were notified that she would be interviewed by Jones attorneys about her relationship with the president. But "the innuendo that there was a quid pro quo regarding the Paula Jones case vis-a-vis Vernon Jordan and a job is totally wrong," Ginsburg said. "Totally wrong."
In a separate television interview, Lewinsky's father spoke out publicly for the first time, castigating Starr's tactics and asserting that his daughter would not fantasize an entire relationship with Clinton.
Bernard Lewinsky, a Los Angeles radiologist, said he was outraged by how Starr has treated both his daughter and ex-wife, Marcia Lewis, who was forced to testify for two days. His message to the independent counsel, he said, would be: "Lay off!"
"What Ken Starr has brought up on her is unconscionable in my mind," Bernard Lewinsky said in an interview that will be broadcast tonight on ABC's "20/20 Friday." "To pit a mother against her daughter, to coerce her to talk, to me it's reminiscent of the McCarthy era, of the Inquisition, and even, you know, you could stretch it and say the Hitler era. It's awful. I can't believe that this is happening."
Lewinsky also lashed out at Linda R. Tripp, who secretly recorded his daughter saying she had an affair with Clinton while a low-level aide and was urged to lie about it under oath. "She is a pathetic specimen of humanity," Lewinsky said.
He said he knew at the time that his daughter had a five-year relationship with a married teacher from her high school and while he considered it "a major mistake," he did not stop it. In excerpts released by ABC, however, Lewinsky did not confirm that his daughter, now 24, had an affair with Clinton. Asked if she could have made up such a thing, he said, "I can't imagine her making that up."
In a written proffer submitted to Starr as part of failed negotiations to win full immunity, Monica Lewinsky acknowledged a sexual relationship with Clinton, despite denying it in a previous affidavit in the Jones sexual harassment case, according to sources familiar with the statement.
Tripp's taped talks with Lewinsky not only triggered Starr's obstruction of justice investigation, they also aided Jones's lawyers as they questioned Clinton about his behavior with a variety of women. The night before Clinton's Jan. 17 deposition in that civil case, Tripp met secretly with a Jones lawyer to brief him about what Lewinsky had told her, allowing the attorneys to ask the president precise questions about Lewinsky under oath, sources informed about that meeting have said.
But in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno released yesterday, Jones's chief attorney denied any collusion with Starr to lay a trap for Clinton to commit perjury, as some of the president's supporters have alleged.
"There was no conveyance of any information between this office and [Starr's office] concerning Monica Lewinsky prior to and through the completion" of the deposition, Dallas lawyer Donovan Campbell Jr. wrote in a response to letters by congressional Democrats seeking a Reno investigation. Starr did not share the Tripp tapes or try to shape any deposition questions, Campbell added. "No 'unlawful trap' was laid against Defendant Clinton in our case through the taking of his deposition."
One question that remained unanswered, however, was whether Starr knew about Tripp's aid to Jones the night before the deposition. Tripp had spent much of Jan. 16 with Starr's investigators, having lured Lewinsky to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Pentagon City for her fateful confrontation with authorities. Afterward, Tripp returned home, where she filled in Jones attorney T. Wesley Holmes.
In the battle over executive privilege, Reno announced yesterday that she would not represent the White House. In a letter to Ruff, Reno said that, given the possible conflicts, it would be "in the public interest" for the White House to hire an outside attorney.
To handle the case, Clinton retained Neil Eggleston, a former White House lawyer who is defending Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman in a corruption probe. Eggleston represented the White House in a similar executive privilege dispute over documents sought by prosecutors investigating former agriculture secretary Mike Espy. In a decision on the Espy matter last year, a federal appeals court expanded the scope of privilege protections.
Eggleston was among 10 Clinton-allied lawyers who arrived at the courthouse yesterday at 8:40 a.m. in a show of force demonstrating the dispute's seriousness. The others included Ruff and his deputies, Cheryl D. Mills and Lanny A. Breuer; David E. Kendall, Clinton's private attorney in the Whitewater and Lewinsky investigations, and his partner, Nicole K. Seligman; and Amy Sabrin and Katharine S. Sexton, who represent Clinton in the Jones case. Lindsey, a deputy White House counsel himself, brought his own private lawyer, Bill Murphy.
Only the White House lawyers, Eggleston, Lindsey and Murphy were let into court to discuss the privilege issue, along with four Starr lawyers.
Under Johnson's guidelines, according to one source, prosecutors could ask peripheral questions about disputed meetings such as who attended and when and where they occurred. Once it becomes clear which areas the two sides cannot agree on, the issue presumably could be presented formally to the court. Lindsey resumed his testimony about 11:30 a.m. and spent about two hours before the grand jury.
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