Clinton to videotape Whitewater testimony Pleas for live appearance rejected as undue burden

March 21, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The star witness at the first major Whitewater trial President Clinton himself will appear only electronically, on videotape, a federal judge in Arkansas ruled yesterday.

Judge George Howard Jr. rejected defense lawyers' plea that Mr. Clinton testify in person in Little Rock. The judge also turned down a request by prosecutors that Mr. Clinton testify in a courtroom; questioning will be done at the White House, but without presidential symbols visible.

The president will have no chance to rehearse his answers; he will not see the questions in advance. Questioning, the judge said, will bear on "matters from prior to his presidency."

Mr. Clinton's appearance, on a date not yet set, will be similar to that of former President Ronald Reagan, who taped his testimony for the criminal trial of his former national security adviser John M. Poindexter in the Iran-contra affair.

Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, while sitting presidents, also testified via videotape in criminal trials.

Mr. Clinton's testimony has the potential to create more political problems for him than did the testimony of prior presidents. He will be answering accusations of misconduct against him by a prosecution witness in the Whitewater trial that opened in Judge Howard's court this month. Mr. Clinton has not been charged with any crime.

Only the portions of the videotape that are shown at the trial will be made public. Judge Howard said that he will edit out portions of the tape that he deems irrelevant before showing it to the jury.

During the questioning of the president, the judge and lawyers for each side will take part some by video-conference connection and others who will be in the room with the president. The judge will remain in Little Rock. He will be rule on any objections to the questions posed by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr.

Judge Howard last month ruled that the president had to testify, at the request of Susan H. McDougal and James B. McDougal, former partners with Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the failed Whitewater land investment in Arkansas.

The McDougals, along with Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, are on trial on charges of plotting a $3 million fraud of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, a thrift linked to the Whitewater land deal. Judge Howard decided that Mr. Clinton's testimony is "vital" to the case apparently to counter the expected chief prosecution witness, a former local judge named David Hale.

Mr. Hale has said that Mr. Clinton, who at the time was governor, and Mr. Tucker pressured him to make an improper $300,000 loan to Ms. McDougal a loan that prosecutors contend was never repaid, contributing to the demise of Madison Guaranty.

Mr. Hale also is expected to testify that Mr. Clinton complained to him that Ms. McDougal did not use the loan money as intended.

In his testimony, Mr. Clinton is expected to repeat his denials of both assertions. He said recently that he would "be happy to cooperate . . . if they believe that something I know can help the trial."

In a related development, Senate Republicans failed for the fourth time in two weeks to override Democratic opposition and extend a special committee investigating Whitewater. With approval of 60 senators needed, the vote was 53-47 along party lines.

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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