By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Clinton, who has denied any improper relations with Lewinsky, reached a deal with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to testify after six months of resistance and just as Starr secured the cooperation of Lewinsky, who agreed Tuesday to tell the grand jury that she had an affair with the president and that they discussed ways of keeping it hidden in the Paula Jones case.
As part of the pact granting her immunity from prosecution, sources close to the case said yesterday, Lewinsky agreed to turn over to Starr physical evidence that could help establish a close relationship with Clinton, including telephone message recordings with his voice on them and a dress she allegedly wore while with Clinton that could be tested for identifying DNA material. Lewinsky met with Starr's prosecutors yesterday to begin preparing for testimony that could come as early as next week.
The report that Lewinsky secretly withheld a dress from Starr's investigators despite their search of her Watergate apartment revives perhaps the most sensational allegation in the case -- one that the White House had dismissed as discredited long ago. It also raises the possibility that the investigation may turn on more than the simple, he-said-she-said disagreement portrayed by Clinton advisers.
On a day of fast-paced drama reminiscent of the investigation's early days, another of the saga's chief protagonists spoke out before television cameras yesterday for the first time. Linda R. Tripp, whose surreptitious tape recordings of conversations with her onetime friend and Pentagon colleague Lewinsky sparked the Starr probe in January, defended herself and her actions after completing her eighth and final day before the grand jury.
"This investigation has never been, quote, just about sex," the former White House aide said on the steps of the federal courthouse in Washington. "It has been about telling the truth. The truth matters."
"I had nothing, let me repeat, nothing to do with preparing the so-called talking points," Tripp said. "Allegations to the effect that I contributed to or assisted in any way with the creation of the talking points are as illogical as they are patently false."
The schism between Lewinsky and Tripp, now the two prime witnesses for the independent counsel, offered some solace for the Clinton camp as it searches for ways to respond to the latest flurry of action.
With Tripp now finished, the grand jury appears to be wrapping up its work and Starr has accelerated his pace, possibly enabling him to send a report of potentially impeachable offenses to Congress by the end of summer, which would force lawmakers to confront the issue before the fall elections.
Other than Lewinsky and Clinton, the grand jury apparently has only a few Secret Service officers and former Clinton aide Harold M. Ickes still to hear from. And Starr may press the final unresolved dispute by issuing a subpoena next week to deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey, Clinton's close friend, after winning an appeals court decision this week rejecting the White House claim of attorney-client privilege.
In deciding to testify, Clinton overruled the advice of some lawyers and political advisers who had concluded that he had nothing to gain by answering questions and nothing to lose by standing up to the unpopular Starr, according to sources familiar with the deliberations. But Clinton in the end maintained he had nothing to hide and agreed with other political advisers who argued that refusing to testify would be potentially explosive, advisers said.
The White House also came under pressure from congressional Democrats, particularly House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who publicly urged him to tell his story and privately feared the political consequences in the elections if he did not.
As part of yesterday's agreement, Starr withdrew his unprecedented subpoena of a sitting president, which senior administration officials confirmed yesterday was issued secretly on July 17. The White House wanted the subpoena withdrawn so Clinton could say he was testifying voluntarily and preserve the future right of a president to challenge the authority of a special prosecutor to force his testimony, said a White House official.
David E. Kendall, the president's private attorney, announced the deal after leaving a White House meeting with Clinton yesterday afternoon. "In an effort to achieve a prompt resolution of this entire matter, the president will voluntarily provide his testimony on August 17, 1998, to the Office of Independent Counsel, as he has on prior occasions," Kendall said.
"The president is obviously looking forward to a prompt resolution of the matter," added a senior official who declined to be named.
Clinton and his lawyers had wanted to delay any testimony until mid-September, both to give him time to prepare and to put off any Starr report to Congress. Kendall asked Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson in a closed hearing Tuesday for a postponement, but was unsuccessful, according to sources familiar with the session.
Starr, though, agreed to most other major conditions sought by the president: He will testify at the White House with his lawyers present, rather than go down to the federal courthouse to face grand jurors in person without an attorney, as every other witness must. The questioning will last no more than a day and a videotape of the session then will be shown to the grand jury. Clinton adamantly refused to be forced to testify in person, deeming that unbecoming to the office and still fuming from the time Starr made Hillary Rodham Clinton appear before a grand jury about Whitewater.
While presidents have testified on a number of occasions as witnesses -- Gerald R. Ford in the trial of a would-be assassin, Jimmy Carter in the corruption trial of two Georgia officials, Ronald Reagan about Iran-contra -- never before has any commander-in-chief testified for a grand jury investigating whether he committed a crime.
Clinton has testified on videotape at the White House twice before in connection with Whitewater, both times as a witness in trials of Arkansas associates accused of banking law violations. He also traveled two blocks to testify at the office of attorney Robert S. Bennett in the since-dismissed Jones sexual harassment case, the first time a president has given a deposition in a civil lawsuit naming him as a defendant.
The schedule will force Clinton to postpone his vacation. He had planned to leave Aug. 15 for two weeks on Martha's Vineyard but now will not depart until two or three days later. His Aug. 17 date with Starr, just two days before Clinton's 52nd birthday, also will affect his calendar in the weeks ahead, as every time he has testified before he was prepped extensively by his lawyers.
Before the Whitewater interviews, Kendall spent several hours a day for four or five days going over evidence he believed Clinton would be asked about, according to lawyers familiar with the White House legal operation. They said that in preparing Clinton to testify this time, Kendall once again will pull together all the information he has garnered about testimony other witnesses have given the grand jury, then try to anticipate Starr.
Kendall is at the hub of a wheel of lawyers and witnesses participating in a joint defense agreement that allows them to share information. While Lewinsky is not part of that pact, information has at times flowed from her camp through an informal network of lawyers. In addition, Secret Service officers were debriefed by the Justice Department after their testimony, and the gist of what at least some of them have said has circulated among defense lawyers, including Clinton's legal team.
Clinton's lawyers know they do not have all the information that Starr has, however. For example, they do not have the Tripp tapes of Lewinsky, nor do they know what additional information Tripp has given the grand jury.
Most dangerous could be any physical evidence tying Clinton to Lewinsky. While he acknowledged during his Jones deposition that he knew Lewinsky well enough to exchange small gifts with her, he also said he did not remember being alone with her except possibly brief stops by the Oval Office to deliver papers.
The telephone messages Lewinsky agreed to turn over to Starr do not contain any romantic or suggestive remarks, according to sources familiar with their contents, but they could be taken as a sign of an unusually familiar relationship between a president and a low-level clerk.
The dress would be harder to explain if it produces scientific evidence useful to Starr but also could prompt another legal fight. If there is bodily fluid on the clothing, it would take just a day to determine whether there was enough to submit for DNA testing and just a few more days to yield a unique genetic marker, according to experts. Such a test, though, would be meaningless without a blood sample from the president to compare with and it was unclear whether Clinton would agree to provide that.
Still, while such evidence might establish that a sexual relationship existed despite Clinton's sworn denial, it would not prove obstruction of justice, Clinton advisers noted.
Possibly more problematic would be Lewinsky's testimony regarding her discussions with Clinton about keeping their relationship secret. While Lewinsky would not testify that Clinton ever directly asked her to lie in the Jones case, she has told prosecutors that she and Clinton devised "cover stories" to disguise an affair, according to legal sources informed about her account.
If she were asked about Oval Office visits, the president told her, she could explain that she was visiting his personal secretary, Betty Currie, the sources said. Clinton also discussed how she could avoid turning over gifts he gave her that the Jones legal team had subpoenaed, shortly before Lewinsky gave them to Currie, according to the sources.
Staff writer Bill Miller and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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