WASHINGTON -- Robert B. Fiske Jr., the Whitewater special prosecutor, questioned President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton under oath Sunday about Whitewater-related events, White House officials revealed yesterday.
Testimony by a sitting president is rare but not unprecedented in rTC American history. Sunday's testimony concerned two separate areas of inquiry that stemmed from the spiraling controversy, officials said:
* The events surrounding the death of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who was found dead in a park beside the Potomac River in July. Mr. Foster's death has been ruled a suicide, but when White House officials removed a Whitewater file from his office and gave conflicting accounts after his death, critics alleged a cover-up.
* Conversations last year between officials in the Treasury Department and the White House staff over Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
Madison, which has become insolvent, was owned by James McDougal, the Clintons' partner in a land development called Whitewater Development Corp. At the time of the communications, federal banking regulators were looking at the possibility that money from Madison might have been funneled illegally to Whitewater, which would mean that the Clintons had benefited personally from the mismanagement of a savings and loan that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The primary issue for Mr. Fiske is believed to be whether any of the communications could be construed as trying to pressure Resolution Trust Co. officials, who are supposed to be independent of the White House, from pursuing the Madison-Whitewater angle.
Mr. and Mrs. Clinton have maintained that they did nothing wrong in the Whitewater investment, on which they insist they lost money, or its aftermath. And no charges of any kind are pending against them.
"As the president has previously announced, he and Mrs. Clinton are cooperating fully with the independent counsel and voluntarily agreedwhen the interviews were requested," said the White House counsel, Lloyd N. Cutler.
The interviews of the Clintons were done separately Sunday and took place in the White House residence, White House officials said. Mr. Clinton's lasted 90 minutes, an official said, and the first lady's lasted an hour. Also present were a stenographer, another lawyer in Mr. Fiske's office and David Kendall, the Clintons' personal attorney.
Mr. Cutler, citing the wishes of Mr. Fiske, refused to discuss Mr. Clinton's testimony further. But officials familiar with Whitewater said that Mr. Clinton's legal team believes that the prosecutor plans to focus on specific details of the Whitewater land deal at a later phase in his investigation. White House officials sounded as if they expected a second round of questioning.
"That's up to Mr. Fiske," said the White House press secretary, DeeDee Myers. "And the Clintons have said if he has additional questions, they'll cooperate."
Testimony by a sitting or former president invariably raises constitutional issues of separation of powers.
President Ulysses S. Grant testified in 1870 in a criminal case concerning a friend and general who served with him in the Army who had been indicted on charges of importing whiskey into the United States without paying taxes on it.
Grant's friend was acquitted.
In recent history, presidential testimony has become more common. Gerald R. Ford agreed to testify under oath at a congressional hearing into his 1974 pardoning of Richard M. Nixon.
Jimmy Carter, Mr. Ford's successor, also gave a deposition when he was president. His testimony concerned Bert Lance, who had resigned under fire as his budget director.
Ronald Reagan was questioned under oath via videotape in the criminal trial of his national security adviser, John M. Poindexter.
Mr. Reagan and his vice president, George Bush, also were questioned by the Tower Commission, which investigated the Iran-contra scandal, although they were not under oath at the time. Mr. Bush later was questioned under oath by special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh after the 1992 election but before he formally left office.