The President Faces His Accuser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 1998; Page A1
With Paula Jones staring him in the face, President Clinton testified for most of the day yesterday about the sexual harassment allegations that have generated one of the nation's most celebrated legal battles and the spectacle of a commander-in-chief forced to explain his conduct with women.
Clinton spent about six hours in the offices of his lawyer answering questions under oath about whether he propositioned Jones in a Little Rock hotel suite seven years ago and later punished her for rejecting his advances. Never before has a sitting president been interrogated as a defendant in a court case.
The session was closed to outsiders and details were scarce, thanks to a far-reaching gag order imposed by the judge. Neither Clinton nor Jones commented afterward, ignoring a media throng that converged from as far away as Japan and Germany. But sources said before the deposition began that Clinton planned to testify he does not remember meeting Jones and denies harassing her, although he was willing to concede they may have met alone at the Excelsior Hotel in 1991.
This was the day he had long dreaded, the day he had gone all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid. For Clinton, this confrontation with his past posed risks not only legal and political, but also historical, as he tries to keep the episode from tarnishing his legacy. Yet in the end, the justices ruled unanimously last year that the law applies even to the president and forced Clinton to answer the charges from the former low-level state clerk originally from Lonoke, Ark.
"I feel so proud to be an American, to know that this judicial system works, to know that a little girl from Arkansas is equal to the president of the United States," Jones said before yesterday's session, according to her adviser and spokeswoman, Susan Carpenter-McMillan.
The raucous scene outside the downtown law offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom was reminiscent of the chaos that surrounded such celebrity trials as those of O.J. Simpson and William Kennedy Smith. As Jones arrived in a taxicab, she was immediately set upon by scores of reporters and photographers, some of whom pressed their cameras just inches from her face.
For his part, Clinton traveled the two blocks from the White House in a motorcade protected from the media, and he tried to maintain an air of nonchalance to demonstrate his conviction that the case would not disrupt his administration.
As soon as it was over, he returned to the White House and headed immediately for the Oval Office, where he conferred briefly with Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles about the Asian economic crisis and received the latest draft of his upcoming State of the Union speech. Yet, plans to go out for dinner or a show with Hillary Rodham Clinton were scrapped at the last minute because the president had "a long day," an aide said.
The deposition marked the first time in the long-running case that Clinton has told his side of the story and it may be the only time as well. Recorded on videotape, his answers can be played at trial, now scheduled to begin May 27, and could be the only time jurors hear directly from him unless he chooses to testify in person.
Clinton sat at one end of a long table in an 11th-floor conference room, with the video camera positioned at the far end, a source said. Jones and her six lawyers sat along one side, while a smaller contingent of attorneys for the president sat along the other. A Secret Service agent also was present for the six-hour session, which was broken up by a half-hour lunch break in which both sides retreated to separate rooms.
While maintaining that he did not harass her, Clinton did not intend to challenge the account of his bodyguard, State Trooper Danny Ferguson, who has testified that he escorted Jones to the hotel suite that day, sources said. By doing so, he would acknowledge that she may have been in the room with him, but his attorneys would rely on Ferguson's assertion that Jones sought out the meeting while admiring Clinton's good looks and afterward offered to be "the governor's girlfriend."
Even beyond the facts of the immediate event in dispute, the questioning promised to be intensely uncomfortable. Jones's attorneys probed into some of the most intimate details of his personal life, including reports from women who have testified that they had affairs or received unwelcome advances from Clinton, according to one source familiar with the questioning.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who is presiding over the case, flew to Washington from Little Rock to sit in on the deposition and handle objections on the scope of the questions. Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett wanted to shield the president from the most embarrassing inquiries into his personal life and has argued that extramarital relationships are not relevant to a sexual harassment case. Jones's lawyers wanted to prove a pattern of behavior that would bolster the credibility of her assertions.
Among those who have given sworn testimony during this evidence-gathering phase are Jones, Gennifer Flowers, several state troopers and a longtime friend who has said she had a lengthy affair with Clinton. Kathleen Willey, a former White House aide, testified against her will about whether Clinton made unwanted sexual advances to her.
During a deposition, attorneys are given far more latitude than they would have in a trial to explore subjects that might not be directly related to the allegations in a lawsuit. Lawyers do not have to stick exclusively to matters that would be admissible, but can ask questions calculated to lead to admissible evidence, according to specialists.
How much of what they learned yesterday ultimately will be usable remains less clear. "If they can show that every week he invited some woman to a hotel room who's an employee of the state and propositioned her, then it's more likely they could get it in," said Vicki G. Golden, a Washington attorney who regularly represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment suits. "That he had some affairs? That gets dicey."
In the view of several people close to the case, the deposition removed one of the last motivations for an out-of-court settlement. Because they assume the videotape of the deposition eventually will find its way into the public domain, Clinton advisers consider the damage already done. At this point, the consensus in the Clinton camp is that the public has made its judgments regarding the president's sexual behavior and therefore his best shot at minimizing the impact in the history books would be a victory at trial.
While no president before has given testimony in his own defense, several have done so as witnesses in court cases. Clinton twice gave videotaped testimony in 1996 as a witness in Whitewater-related trials. While he was still vice president, George Bush was interviewed under oath about Iran-contra, as was Ronald Reagan after he left office. Jimmy Carter testified by videotape in the criminal trial of a Georgia state legislator and Gerald R. Ford likewise provided a videotaped account for the trial of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who attempted to assassinate him.
The deposition capped a bad week for Clinton, one that seemed to offer unpleasant reminders of all manner of scandals that have dogged his administration over the last five years.
Hillary Clinton gave sworn testimony this week to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. The Justice Department disclosed it is investigating whether Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman took money from a businessman while she was a White House aide. Prosecutors were reported to be leaning toward seeking an independent probe of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in connection with the rejection of an Indian casino application. The ex-mistress of former housing and urban development secretary Henry Cisneros pleaded guilty to concealing hush money he paid her. And two Tyson Foods executives were charged with giving $12,000 in illegal gifts to Mike Espy while he was agriculture secretary.
Yesterday's moment in history began on a dreary day when Jones arrived at Skadden, Arps at 10 a.m. with her lawyers and her husband, Steve. She "slept soundly ... isn't nervous" and was "eager to see the president" and confront him, Carpenter-McMillan said. "She has fought for four years for this day."
Carpenter-McMillan said Jones didn't really care what the American people thought of her. "It doesn't really matter to Paula who believes her, except the people she brought the lawsuit for," she said. "She brought that for her family, her friends, her acquaintances so they would know the real truth." The most important thing, she said, is what a "jury of 12 people in Little Rock" think.
Jones, 31, wore a champagne-colored pantsuit with a turtleneck sweater. Her hair was coiffed by Los Angeles hair stylist Daniel DiCriscio, who accompanied her to Washington.
Clinton, 51, wearing a standard dark business suit, left the White House at 10:18 a.m. with Bennett and his longtime confidant and deputy counsel, Bruce Lindsey. As his black Cadillac limousine emerged from the southeast gate, crowds of tourists and onlookers snapped pictures, and children waiting in line for a White House tour cheered and waved. Barely two minutes later, his car disappeared into the garage at Bennett's office building.
Jones was a $6.35-an-hour state clerk working the registration desk at a government-sponsored "quality management" conference at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, when then-Gov. Clinton arrived to give a speech. She alleged that she later was approached by Ferguson, who told her the governor wanted to meet her and escorted her to a hotel suite furnished as an office. She went along thinking she might be offered a job, she said, but discovered otherwise once she found herself alone in a room with the governor.
According to her lawsuit, Clinton made small talk, told her he liked "your curves," dropped his trousers and requested oral sex. Jones refused and left, she said, and later told friends that the governor had made a pass at her.
Jones did not file her lawsuit until three years later, after a magazine report identified a woman named "Paula" as an alleged Clinton paramour. She asked for $700,000 in damages, although more recently she has sought about $2 million with an apology to settle the case.
In the days leading up to the deposition, White House officials strained to appear unconcerned and uninvolved, declining in most cases even to talk about the impact it might have. "It's a firing offense to discuss it," said one aide. In trying to foster an impression of confidence, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said he asked the president about his mood on the eve of the deposition and was told, "Why are you interrupting my crossword puzzle?"
Still, McCurry conceded the deposition has taken Clinton's attention away from pressing matters. "It's a distraction," he said. "He's had to spend time thinking about it and worrying about it. But he will do what he has to do."
Staff writers Judith Havemann and Karl Vick contributed to this report.
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