Grand Jury Testimony
By Peter Baker
After seven months of virtual silence on the matter, President Clinton began testifying under oath this afternoon about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. He thus became the first commander-in-chief to face a grand jury conducting a criminal investigation of his own actions.
Clinton and his lawyers met with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his top deputies in the historic Map Room of the White House at 12:59 p.m. for a session that both sides expected to stretch late into the afternoon.
Clinton went into the showdown with his longtime adversary ready to admit an "inappropriate" physical relationship, according to advisers. But he planned to deny any criminal actions such as perjury, subornation of perjury or obstruction of justice, the advisers said. White House officials were preparing for a possible televised statement to the nation to follow the testimony, although they said no final decision would be made until the president finished.
Advisers and supporters were hoping Clinton's statements today could start to put an end to a political and legal crisis that has bedeviled his administration all year and threatens to hinder his ability to advance his agenda for the remainder of his second term.
"We've been through seven months of hell," former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said on NBC's "Today" show this morning. "It's weakened the presidency. It's undermined confidence in our judicial system. It's bankrupted a lot of staff people who've had to testify. I think it's challenged families with their kids. And it's produced gridlock in the Congress. The time for healing has come."
But it was not clear that a limited admission by Clinton would end Starr's probe. Prosecutors believe they have significant evidence of witness tampering and have been writing a report of possible impeachable offenses they may submit to Congress within the next few weeks.
Several modern presidents have testified in court proceedings, including Clinton, who has been questioned as a witness in Whitewater-related cases and as a civil defendant in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. But never before today has any president been questioned about his conduct as the subject of a criminal investigation.
The question-and-answer session was being transmitted over a live television hookup to the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse across town, where the 23-member federal grand jury was watching twin 19-inch television sets from the audience section of Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson's second-floor courtroom. While the closed-circuit link offered only one-way communication, the jurors were to be allowed to pass questions to prosecutors joining them at the courthouse so they could relay them to colleagues at the White House.
White House technicians were using sophisticated encryption technology to avoid interception and courthouse officials took special precautions to make sure the feed could not be overheard there. Courtrooms on either side of Johnson's were emptied, reporters were kept about 80 feet away and a boombox was set up for a while in front of the media horde to play music to mask any sound.
Joining Starr at the White House were his chief deputy, Jackie M. Bennett Jr., known for his aggressive style, and associate counsel Michael Emmick, known for a more empathetic demeanor. Deputy Robert J. Bittman and about a dozen prosecutors were at the courthouse with the grand jurors.
At Clinton's side were private attorneys David E. Kendall and Nicole K. Seligman of the Washington law firm, Williams & Connolly, and White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, a former Watergate prosecutor.
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