By Dan Balz and John F. Harris
White House officials, although virtually all are excluded from Clinton's legal deliberations, were preparing yesterday for a public statement by the president to explain to the American people the nature of the relationship with Lewinsky, which sources said could come after his testimony Monday.
The most likely choice is a nationally televised address, but it is also possible Clinton may simply put out a written statement. There is virtual unanimity among Clinton's political advisers that it would be wise for the president to make some kind of public statement. "You can bet on that," said one official.
But Clinton's personal lawyers -- particularly David E. Kendall -- continue to have reservations about public statements and may veto such a plan, sources said. Because of that, a decision may not come until after Clinton finishes his testimony on Monday. Another official said a public statement won't be made "unless he's [Clinton] completely comfortable" and that won't be known until after the testimony is completed.
Clinton spent much of the day with his legal team preparing for his testimony, and several sources outside the narrow circle participating said they had been told no decisions have been made about what the president will say when questioned by Starr. Even so, Clinton's advisers appeared increasingly confident that he may be able to avoid legal jeopardy if he is careful in Monday's testimony.
But the advisers also recognize that Clinton faces a political problem because of the seemingly unequivocal statement he made before television cameras Jan. 26, when he declared, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Some officials believe that the key to his political future may hinge on what he tells the American people in any public statement he makes after his testimony.
"When he speaks to the American people as president, he's no longer in a legal situation and he will not want to speak legalistically," one presidential adviser said. "He'll want to convince the American people that he's telling the truth."
To avoid the appearance of making a legalistic argument, Clinton might acknowledge an inappropriate relationship, but avoid elaboration on the details, some advisers said. Despite the new confidence among some Clinton advisers that he might be able to acknowledge a physical relationship with Lewinsky while still not admitting to perjury, the White House publicly yesterday sought to play down Washington's increasingly fevered speculation about the president's testimony.
"A lot of people are going to speculate going into this weekend about events on Monday," White House press secretary Michael McCurry told reporters yesterday. "You don't know what the questions are, we don't know what the questions are. You don't know what the answers are, we don't know what the answers are that the president will give."
But officials did not flatly dismiss reports that the president may offer Starr's team of attorneys a different version of events than he gave Jones's lawyers in January. Lewinsky, according to sources familiar with her testimony, last week told the grand jury that she and the president had numerous sexual encounters in the White House and together discussed "cover stories" to disguise the nature of the relationship.
One senior official said the content of Clinton's testimony will not be settled until he spends additional time with his lawyers. "It depends on how the preparation goes," one official said. "They're getting there, but they feel they've got a lot yet to do."
In fact, Kendall has complained he has not been able to spend sufficient time prepping Clinton, McCurry said in yesterday's news briefing, because the president has been occupied with the embassy bombings in Africa and the Russian economic crisis.
Clinton acknowledged as much in a luncheon speech at a downtown hotel where he was helping raise money for Democrats. "In the last few days, I've spent more time on these two challenges, by far, than anything else."
White House officials offered no guidance about the president's testimony, but did provide logistical details of what is rapidly becoming one of the biggest media circuses Washington has seen in some time.
McCurry said the testimony will begin at 1 p.m. Monday and will be held in the White House Map Room. Clinton will be accompanied by three lawyers -- personal attorneys Kendall and Nicole K. Seligman, and White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff.
The testimony will be shown to grand jurors at the federal courthouse through a "one-way live feed," McCurry said. The White House Communications Agency will handle the technical details, which are being designed to frustrate any potential eavesdroppers.
McCurry said he did not know how long the testimony would take, although Clinton's appearance will be limited to Monday. It was not clear from McCurry's description of the logistical arrangements whether grand jurors would be able to pose questions to the president. McCurry referred other questions to Starr's office, where officials did not comment.
The New York Times, in yesterday's editions, reported that some advisers believe the definition of sexual relations used in the Jones deposition did not include oral sex. But legal and political sources dismissed that strategy as one that will not fly with the public, and there were signs that some presidential advisers were equally uncomfortable with such a tortured explanation.
Any effort by Clinton to redefine sexual relations in that way would undermine not only the impression he left with his public statement in January, but also harm the credibility of a number of White House officials who were asked at the time for clarification of the president's remarks.
Communications director Ann Lewis, during an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" in January, said the president had been "very clear and direct" in his denial, and when she was pressed about whether he was being coy, responded, "Sex is sex, even in Washington, I've been assured."
McCurry, in an exchange with reporters about Clinton's public denial, said, "He didn't leave any ambiguity in it whatsoever."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.
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