Immunity deal could fall apart Report says Clinton, Lewinsky were caught 'in an intimate act'

White House denies claim

Former aide's lawyer says Starr might not need her testimony

January 26, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton's allies fanned out yesterday to tighten up Clinton's denials of an affair with Monica Lewinsky, her lawyer acknowledged that as a result of a new allegation, Lewinsky might not be offered immunity from criminal prosecution.

The new allegation was a report by ABC News, which said, quoting anonymous sources, that Clinton and the former intern had been caught "in an intimate act" in the White House in the spring of 1996. Shortly thereafter, Lewinsky was transferred from her White House post to a job at the Pentagon.

The White House said yesterday that it had no knowledge of anyone having witnessed such an encounter. But when asked about the report on ABC's "This Week," Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, conceded that if the Whitewater independent counsel has "solid evidence" of a Lewinsky-Clinton affair, he might not need Lewinsky's testimony against Clinton and thus might not grant her immunity in exchange for it.

"If they have solid evidence," Ginsburg said, "I suppose they're not going to be offering us immunity or a promise not to prosecute, and we will defend our client if they choose to move forward."

Some of Clinton's longtime political aides, meanwhile, went on television with an aggressive defense and blistering criticism of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation, though none provided any new details on what kind of relationship Clinton did have with Lewinsky.

"There's not going to be a resignation of the president of the United States, but I will tell you something: There's going to be a war," declared James Carville, a longtime adviser to the president.

White House officials elaborated a bit on the president's denials of any "improper relationship" with Lewinsky, saying categorically that the two had never had sex of any sort.

"Sex is sex," said Ann Lewis, the White House communications director, when asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether the president considered oral sex to constitute a sexual encounter.

Today, on a day when the president would usually be laboring to prepare for his State of the Union address tomorrow night, he will instead struggle to keep up with a crisis that even his aides concede is raging out of control. In recent polls, the president's -- popularity is plunging. An NBC News poll showed Clinton's approval ratings down 17 percentage points since the alleged affair became public Wednesday morning.

'Intimate encounter'

ABC's report that there were witnesses to an intimate encounter between the president and Lewinsky could inflict further damage, given the president's own denials of any sexual relationship. One White House official said the report concerns an alleged incident between Lewinsky and Clinton in the White House theater. The official said there may be an innocent explanation for the "intimate encounter."

It is not clear whether the reported witnesses were Secret Service agents or White House aides. But if Starr can produce any such witnesses, the legal picture for Clinton and Lewinsky would change drastically because it could provide independent corroboration of a sexual relationship. Starr's office refused to comment on the new allegation.

Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said of ABC's report of an encounter, "As best we can tell, it was wholly invented."

In negotiations with Starr, Ginsburg has been holding out for complete immunity from prosecution for Lewinsky in exchange for her testimony against Clinton. If such immunity were granted, Ginsburg said on CBS' "Face The Nation," Lewinsky "will tell all and let the chips fall where they may."

But Ginsburg acknowledged on "This Week" that if Starr could produce solid evidence of a sexual affair without Lewinsky's testimony, Starr might move to prosecute the 24-year-old Lewinsky on charges of lying under oath.

Testimony contradicted

Lewinsky has testified in a sworn affidavit that she never had a sexual relationship with the president. But that statement is contradicted by hours of conversations between Lewinsky and her colleague Linda R. Tripp, secretly recorded by Tripp, that are said to detail a year-and-a-half-long affair and efforts by Clinton and his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to persuade Lewinsky to deny it.

Lewinsky is scheduled to testify before a grand jury tomorrow. Ginsburg said, however, that he is urging that the testimony be postponed until immunity negotiations are concluded.

"I do not believe the American people will allow Monica Lewinsky to go to jail," Ginsburg said on "This Week." "She's a 24-year-old doe caught in the headlights of an international scandal."

Starr's broadening investigation of the Lewinsky matter continued through the weekend. Two administration sources said the independent counsel's office has blanketed the White House with subpoenas. Some subpoenas have apparently gone to Secret Service agents, who may have more damaging information than do White House aides, given the agents' unfettered access to the president.

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