A Narrow Admission
By Peter Baker and Nathan Abse
As President Clinton prepares to testify to the grand jury investigating his actions with Monica S. Lewinsky, some advisers are recommending he admit to a limited physical relationship with the former White House aide but refuse to answer questions that delve further into his sex life and deny encouraging her to lie.
That scenario has gained currency among strategists who often have Clinton's ear on important decisions, despite an official White House statement Wednesday that the president intended to answer all questions posed to him by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr on Monday. Clinton has given little or no indication to most of those around him about how he plans to testify, keeping his deliberations limited to an exceedingly narrow circle.
"A lot of advisers are saying if he goes slightly beyond where he was in the Paula Jones deposition and [prosecutors] want him to go beyond that, he should draw the line and cite his privacy rights and take his case to the American people," said one adviser. "But nobody knows if any of this is impacting the president or the first lady."
During his Jan. 17 deposition in Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit, Clinton denied ever having sexual relations with Lewinsky, just as she did in a sworn affidavit 10 days earlier. But last week, Lewinsky recanted, reportedly telling the grand jury that she had an 18-month affair with Clinton that included numerous sexual encounters. Clinton strategists are especially worried that her testimony may be bolstered by physical evidence if an FBI laboratory determines that a dress Lewinsky gave Starr contains Clinton's semen, as she claims.
Some advisers believe Clinton could acknowledge certain sexual activities that they contend were not covered by the definition of "sexual relations" used in the Jones suit, thus avoiding any admission of perjury. But that could be a tortured explanation, given that the Jones lawyers defined sex expansively, with a judge's permission and Clinton's knowledge, and many people believe it would include activities such as oral sex.
Under the definition used during the deposition, "a person engages in 'sexual relations' when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttock of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."
"Nobody really knows what's going to happen, but everybody senses the direction," said an adviser, who then offered the current theory. "He's going to push it beyond the deposition, but not by much. He's going to say enough to protect himself in case the dress turns out bad. And then he's not going to go any further."
Clinton, who spent up to five days preparing for testimony as a witness in Whitewater cases, has devoted comparatively little time so far to getting ready for Monday's critical showdown with Starr. He did not meet with his attorneys in the residence part of the White House until around 5 p.m. yesterday and has just three more days to prepare.
The only people truly informed about his thinking, aides said, are Hillary Rodham Clinton, private attorney David E. Kendall and his partner Nicole K. Seligman, and Mickey Kantor, the former commerce secretary who has signed on as an attorney of record so that his conversations with the president can remain confidential.
But others have offered their own ideas. Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer who helped orchestrate Clinton's televised denial of sex with "that woman" in January, has returned to Washington for the final days before the president's testimony.
Many around the president are anxiously searching for ways to limit Clinton's testimony, fearing that Starr will exploit any statements legally and politically. Some have blamed Kendall for allowing Clinton to testify, but sources have said that the president overruled Kendall, who wanted to fight Starr's subpoena and refuse to answer questions.
A partial-admission scenario has been floated by Clinton advisers in various news outlets for days, most prominently in a story leading early editions of today's New York Times. Talk of limiting Clinton's testimony about sexual matters has grown loud enough that White House deputy press secretary Joe Lockhart threw cold water on it during a briefing Wednesday. Asked if Clinton's July 31 pledge to testify "completely and truthfully" meant he would answer all questions, Lockhart said, "That's what it suggests to me, yes."
His boss, press secretary Michael McCurry, returned from vacation and declined to repeat that statement during his own briefing yesterday. "I'm not playing this game today," he said. "I don't have anything to add to this."
But advisers privately said Clinton's lawyers have given no indication that he will try to cut off questioning. Doing so would risk a political backlash. Just yesterday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) sent Clinton a letter urging him "in the strongest possible terms" to provide "nothing less than full and complete answers so this matter can be resolved one way or another in the national interest."
As Clinton prepares for Monday, one worry that has been eased considerably is the financial burden of his legal defense. White House officials said yesterday that a new legal defense fund set up in February has raised about $2 million, far surpassing a previous trust disbanded last winter after it became so mired in its own legal problems that it was paying out more in legal fees than it was taking in from contributions.
The new fund has far less restrictive rules than the previous one, allowing $10,000 gifts and permitting direct solicitations.
In the meantime, eight Secret Service agents or officers were summoned to the courthouse yesterday to tell what they saw or heard while guarding Clinton. Among them was uniformed officer Gary Byrne, who according to lawyers close to the case previously testified that a colleague told him of finding Clinton in an intimate situation with Lewinsky in the Oval Office suite.
The other officer, John Muskett, reportedly has given a different account, saying he and then-deputy White House chief of staff Harold M. Ickes went looking for Clinton in early 1996 when the president did not answer his telephone and witnessed Lewinsky leaving the private study adjacent to the Oval Office, but not in an embarrassing position. Ickes has said publicly that he recalls no such episode.
Clinton aides happily seized on another report yesterday indicating that Starr has been using reporters as informers during his investigation. A line in a newly unsealed brief quoted by the Associated Press suggested Starr tried to limit inquiries into whether his office improperly leaked information to reporters by invoking an "informer's privilege" protecting "the anonymity of citizens who cooperate in law enforcement." It was not clear how Starr contends he has used reporters to provide him with information.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company