Aides, Clinton in 'bunker mentality' over allegations Grim president admits life's not 'hunky-dory'

January 23, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton was awakened yesterday by a 5: 20 a.m. call from his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, who reported that a suspected Bosnian war criminal had been apprehended by U.S.-led forces.

"That's good news," the president exclaimed. Inside the Clinton administration, it would prove to be the last euphoric moment of a very long day.

Asked at a photo session yesterday to assess the mood in the White House after explosive allegations that he had had an affair with a White House intern and asked her to lie about it, the president was downbeat.

"I'd be less than candid if I said it was, you know, just hunky-dory," he said in subdued tones.

Asked the identical question, Lanny J. Davis, a White House special counsel, was more succinct. "Grim," he replied.

Several White House officials said privately that the enormity of the accusations made by the former intern, Monica Lewinsky, finally sank in yesterday -- even as officials kept busy on such important tasks as trying to broker Middle East peace talks and preparing for the State of the Union address.

"It hit everybody today," said one senior official.

"It's not business as usual because we're dealing with this story," Mike McCurry, Clinton's spokesman, conceded at a contentious afternoon session with reporters.

"But at the same time, we have to do the work that we need to do on the agenda [the president] is pursuing on behalf of the American people."

Aides troubled

That was getting harder and harder for some aides, who said they were deeply troubled by assertions that Lewinsky had a sexual relationship with the president beginning when she was an unpaid intern fresh out of college.

Clinton has denied a sexual or "improper" relationship with Lewinsky. But he has pointedly refused to answer other pertinent questions about the matter, including whether he had private conversations with her.

Intensely loyal presidential aides appeared in interviews to want to believe Clinton.

But they, too, were having trouble reconciling tape-recorded assertions by Lewinsky that she was the recipient of gifts and late-night phone calls from the president as well as unescorted visits to the Oval Office even after she left the White House.

One aide said that, clearly, something unorthodox seems to have transpired.

"I believe him," an aide said. "But I admit it looks bad."

White House lawyers and Clinton's private attorneys huddled in anticipation of Lewinsky's deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

Previously, Lewinsky signed an affidavit stating that she never had a sexual relationship with the president.

If Lewinsky pleads her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as her lawyer hinted she might, White House officials said they would brace for the worst: a grant of immunity and perhaps testimony from Lewinsky that she had sex with Clinton inside the White House.

Turning of tables

But if Lewinsky does not deviate from the account in her affidavit denying any sexual relationship, White House officials are prepared to turn the tables on special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr and attack him and witness Linda R. Tripp for overzealousness.

Yesterday, however, the president and his lawyers and spokesmen remained in what one official called "a bunker mentality," refusing to provide answers to the many questions about why Clinton would have a relationship of any kind -- sexual or otherwise -- with an intern in her early 20s.

In the meantime, the uncertainty was taking its toll.

Early in the day, one young aide abruptly stopped what he was doing and said to his boss: "She was 21 years old. If he did this, I couldn't work here anymore."

'Someone in health care?'

Others, busy preparing for Tuesday's State of the Union address, appeared to emulate Clinton's tactic of compartmentalizing the potentially explosive new allegations.

"My wife called me up and said, 'What do you think of Monica Lewinsky?' " one top White House official said. I said, 'Is that someone in health care?'

She said: 'Are you kidding me? That's all anyone is talking about!' "

This aide said that those who work in the Clinton White House have become almost numb to allegations against this president, many of which they believe are politically motivated.

Asked what his reaction would be if the allegations were proved true, the aide was quiet for a moment and then said: "I would not defend that, no."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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