on Clinton Claims
By Juliet Eilperin and Peter Baker
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) accused President Clinton yesterday of taking "indecent liberties with the concept of executive privilege" and announced that he will introduce legislation next week intended to impose new limits on the presidential power.
In a strongly worded floor speech intended to draw attention away from internal Republican squabbling to Clinton's legal troubles, DeLay accused the president of seeking to cover up the truth by invoking executive privilege in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation and mocked House Democrats for their silence on the issue.
"The president does not have the divine right of a king," DeLay said, echoing a line used recently by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "He must follow the law, even if it may sometimes be uncomfortable for him."
The White House responded with a terse retort. "He's lucky the speech-and-debate clause [of the Constitution] protects absurdity," said White House spokesman James Kennedy.
DeLay's proposed legislation would require the president to notify Congress when he asserts the privilege and would bar Secret Service agents from claiming any privilege to avoid testifying in "criminal proceedings involving the president's conduct."
While Clinton has never directly acknowledged invoking executive privilege to shield top aides, a federal judge dismissed his claim in a sealed ruling this week. The president's lawyers are preparing to appeal that decision in a case that could make it to the Supreme Court.
The judge has not yet ruled on a separate assertion by the Justice Department that there is a "protective" privilege restricting prosecutors' ability to question Secret Service personnel.
The latest Republican attack reflected the GOP leadership's desire to change the subject after a week of highly charged debate over its own investigation of the White House, led by Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.). DeLay's staff consulted with aides to both Gingrich and House Majority Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) before the whip delivered his remarks on the floor.
DeLay's harsh attack yesterday was the latest in a string for the senior Republican, who has been the most outspoken member of the House leadership about Clinton's troubles. In previous public comments, DeLay has called Clinton a "sexual predator" and mocked White House advisers for providing the public with "the spin, the whole spin and nothing but the spin."
At the federal courthouse not far from the Capitol, presidential secretary Betty Currie appeared for the second straight day before the grand jury investigating whether Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones case when he denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and suborned perjury by urging her to do the same.
Currie, an important witness because of her friendship with Lewinsky and her involvement in the job search initiated on behalf of the former White House intern, spent the morning answering questions. She will be called back next week, according to her attorney, Lawrence H. Wechsler. "She would rather be somewhere else, I can tell you that," he said.
In the afternoon, the grand jury heard testimony from White House steward Glen A. Maes, who first appeared last month. Maes and other stewards often work at a pantry adjoining the Oval Office, giving them a unique vantage point to witness Clinton's activities.
In addition to his official duties serving the president and his guests in the Oval Office, Maes is often seen at the White House helping to take care of Clinton's dog, Buddy.
While his deputies continued taking testimony, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr fired back at Clinton in a side skirmish over media leaks.
On Wednesday, Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, asked the federal court to hold Starr's office in contempt for illegally disclosing the executive privilege decision to reporters, citing a Fox News report attributing its information to prosecutors. Fox has since retracted that, saying Starr's office was not the source.
Deputy independent counsel Jackie M. Bennett Jr. yesterday sent a letter charging that Kendall was aware Starr's office did not leak the ruling and demanding that Kendall's motion be withdrawn by noon today. If it is not, Bennett threatened to seek sanctions against those who filed the motion, including several attorneys on the Clinton defense team and the White House aides they represent.
Kendall responded later that he still wants a hearing to explore the Fox report and noted that he questioned other leaks as well. "The request to withdraw the motion is ridiculous," he said in an interview.
In yesterday's speech on executive privilege, DeLay emphasized the identical two points Gingrich has made in recent days. "No man is above the law," he said, "and the American people have the right to know the truth." Later, he asked, "Why would you claim executive privilege if you want to tell the truth?"
At one point the whip, standing in the nearly empty chamber after the House had finished its business for the week, challenged his Democratic colleagues, saying that if they "think the president's use of executive privilege is proper, then I urge them to speak up."
"Speak up! Speak up!" he urged, waiting a moment as he cocked his ear for a response. "Silence. Silence."
Staff writer Susan Schmidt and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company