By John F. Harris and Susan Schmidt
Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has been seeking President Clinton's testimony in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter for more than a month, but lawyers for the president so far have declined to say whether Clinton will testify, sources familiar with the investigation said yesterday.
Starr's office has made several requests in writing to the president's lawyers, the sources said. Starr is seeking Clinton's testimony in the ongoing grand jury investigation voluntarily.
Clinton yesterday declined to comment on whether he would testify. "I've got to do the work that the people of this country hired me to do," the president said at a photo opportunity with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. "I'm not going to discuss that." The question was prompted by a New York Times report that his lawyers and Starr had recently opened discussions about arranging for his testimony, but sources said no substantive talks have taken place.
Clinton, as a likely target of the investigation into whether he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and urged her to lie under oath about it, cannot be compelled to testify. Under Justice Department guidelines, targets are generally invited rather than subpoenaed to appear before grand juries. They are free to decline, effectively invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
White House lawyers and private attorneys for Clinton refused to comment publicly. Presidential spokesman Michael McCurry said that White House lawyers refused to tell him what was going on. "They were just not inclined to get into that subject," McCurry said. "They didn't give a reason."
However, there were signs of a behind-the-scenes debate on Clinton's team about the merits of telling his story voluntarily.
"Given the situation, I wouldn't recommend it," said one Clinton adviser who thinks the president would be imperiling himself legally by testifying. "Not given the animosity between Starr and" Clinton.
But one Clinton friend who speaks with the president regularly said, "My feeling is if they ask him to testify, he'll testify and I'm pretty sure of it. He would have no choice but to testify and I think he'd recognize that."
That there would be debate on this question is itself a striking change within the Clinton camp.
When the Lewinsky controversy first broke in January, most Clinton advisers both within and outside the White House said they took it as a given that the president would eventually tell his story voluntarily to Starr.
More recently, however, some Clinton advisers have suggested the possibility that Clinton will neither voluntarily provide testimony to Starr nor say more publicly about his relationship with Lewinsky.
But other advisers said there could be some benefits to Clinton testifying, given his charisma and history of persuasiveness. "It's not the worst thing in the world for him to testify," the friend said. "I think it would be Starr's worst nightmare."
Even as the question of Clinton's testimony remains unresolved, U.S. Chief District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson must rule on a motion that will affect under what conditions Lewinsky herself testifies. Johnson is expected to rule soon on whether Lewinsky's lawyer can enforce a disputed immunity agreement with Starr's office. The resolution of that question could clear the way for getting Lewinsky's testimony one way or another either on the witness stand at trial if she is indicted or before the grand jury if she is given some form of immunity.
Also pending before Johnson is the issue of executive privilege, which the White House is prepared to invoke to block testimony by senior Clinton adviser Bruce R. Lindsey and other presidential aides. Starr has challenged the assertion, and the issue is being fought out under seal. If normal grand jury rules apply, the White House will have a short time frame to respond to the Starr motion, or decide to abandon the executive privilege claim.
The grand jury did not hear from any witnesses yesterday. Instead, Starr's prosecutors presented audiotapes to the grand jurors. Former White House aide Linda R. Tripp secretly recorded and later turned over to Starr more than 20 hours of conversations with Lewinsky in which the former intern purportedly discussed a sexual relationship with Clinton and efforts to keep her from testifying about in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) was asked about the assertion of Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that Clinton's personal problems are beginning to affect his presidency and relations with Congress. Daschle ridiculed the notion.
"I think Monica Lewinsky is the legislative equivalent of El Nin~o with a lot of Republicans," Daschle said at his daily news briefing. "There isn't any connection."
Instead, Daschle blamed Congress's slow progress this year on what he called the GOP's lack of an agenda. "The fact is if they wanted to get things done, they could do them. . . . It's just a convenient excuse."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Toni Locy contributed to this report.
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