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In Legal Battle, a Tale of Two White Houses

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 1998; Page A21

President Clinton's legal battle with Kenneth W. Starr is an inconvenience that Clinton and his White House staff, by staying focused on public business, have managed to overcome.

Or, alternately, it is a major distraction that since January has shadowed deliberations on such dire matters as the crisis with Iraq and regularly forces the president and his closest advisers into urgent discussions dealing with Clinton's ability to survive in office.

For expressions of the first view, people could listen to a steady procession of public statements by presidential aides and Clinton himself in the four months since the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy erupted.

And for a vivid expression of the latter view – an argument that Clinton's legal woes are a "substantial" daily distraction to his presidency – people could read the affidavit that White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff submitted two months ago to a federal judge.

Ruff's statement, which was made public Wednesday, paints a picture of a president under siege. Clinton and his aides, Ruff wrote, discussed whether the Lewinsky uproar had diminished the president's ability to win public support for a military strike against Iraq. They have been deluged with news media questions about the allegations, requiring large chunks of time deciding how to respond. They discussed speculation on Capitol Hill that Clinton might eventually have to resign.

"This matter is inextricably intertwined with the daily presidential agenda, and thus has a substantial impact on the president's ability to discharge his obligations," Ruff told U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson.

"The Lewinsky investigation not only relates to and affects the presidency – it also threatens it," the counsel wrote in the same statement.

Ruff's argument did not succeed in convincing Johnson that Clinton's need for candid discussions with advisers was urgent enough to justify an assertion of executive privilege allowing the aides to avoid testifying to a grand jury. But his words did manage to undermine the White House message of business as usual.

The contradiction between the public effort by political aides to portray Clinton as undistracted and the private effort by lawyers to portray him as badly burdened is only the latest manifestation of a tension that has confronted the White House in recent months. Should Clinton pursue his best political interest as a president or his best legal interests as a potential criminal defendant?

In nearly every important instance, it has been won by Ruff and Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, in favor of asserting all of Clinton's legal prerogatives – never mind how that looks to the public.

Another example is Clinton's decision to appeal the adverse ruling over executive privilege. Several political advisers were opposed, saying it invited comparisons to President Richard M. Nixon and would ensure that the legal controversy lingered for months.

Ruff's affidavit exposed other contradictions. Last February, Clinton aides mocked as partisan nonsense a statement from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that the Lewinsky scandal was slowing Washington business. But Ruff uncritically cited the quote as evidence of how the controversy was a distraction. The White House yesterday continued to have trouble arriving at a consistent line of how badly Clinton is distracted. White House press secretary Michael McCurry called the Ruff statement "an accurate description" of how Clinton's legal travails have compounded what were already "impossible demands on his time." But he added that Clinton has made the distraction "a minimal one, as best he can, by trying to keep his focus on the work that he was elected to do."

The reality, as various aides described it, is more complex – lying somewhere between Ruff's alarmist argument to Johnson and the White House's customary pose of nonchalance.

When the Lewinsky allegations broke, much of the White House came to a standstill, as senior advisers huddled nearly nonstop and lower-level staff members not involved in damage control gazed with horror at television screens and newspapers.

There remain twice-daily damage control meetings with Clinton's legal and political advisers, although only episodically do they take on the urgency of the early weeks of the scandal. One senior official yesterday likened the controversy to a disease that is sometimes in remission and sometimes erupts anew. When it does, as it has this week, the controversy can absorb hours both of Clinton's time and that of his senior aides as they decide how to react to the latest twists of the story.

But with few exceptions, this reality goes unacknowledged. Is Clinton spending a lot of time on the controversy? "I'm not aware of a lot of time at all," White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart said on Feb. 9.

And, on May 4, Clinton, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, brushed off the idea that he is distracted: "No, no. I think that early on in this process I was somewhat bewildered by it and it was distracting. And finally what I decided what I owed the American people was not to be distracted, and so I'm doing pretty well now, and I intend to keep right on doing it."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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