Move by Clinton's attorney shows how law, politics are intertwined Bennett asks speedup, assails opposition

January 27, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is, some say, inevitable: Any lawyer who has the president of the United States as a client is bound to perform two roles -- one legal, the other political. A new maneuver yesterday by one of President Clinton's attorneys seemed to prove that adage.

The lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, filed a short -- barely five pages -- but aggressively worded motion in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case that he used as a vehicle not merely to gain a legal advantage, but to make political points as well.

Bennett asked the trial judge to speed up the case, on the surface a fairly normal legal request that was well within court rules.

The trial is now set to start May 27, but Bennett argued that an earlier date had become necessary to get the Jones case back into a controlled courtroom setting, away from "gossip, innuendo and hearsay being passed off as fact."

The request was part of White House strategy to deal with the new sex scandal hovering over the president. Bennett has always stressed that any move he makes in the case is cleared with the president.

Besides arguing legal points, the new motion laid down politically tinged criticisms of Jones' lawyers, the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, and the media, and included implied criticisms even of the Supreme Court and the trial judge herself, Susan Webber Wright.

Jones' lawyers and Starr, Bennett said, now have "joined forces" to bring down the president. The Supreme Court, he implied, did not take seriously enough Bennett's fears of presidential distraction last May when it allowed the Jones case to go forward. Wright, Bennett also implied, had allowed Jones' lawyers too wide a reach in gathering evidence about Clinton's private life.

'Anything' is political

University of Texas law professor L. A. Scot Powe Jr. interpreted the new filing as largely a political document, justified because .. "anything the president does is political" and that has to influence what his lawyer does.

If a president becomes involved in a lawsuit, Powe said, "it seems to me to be a part of the political process." The legal decisions that have to be made "shouldn't be a lawyer's decisions; they all ought to be made on the political side."

Clinton's problems, he said, "are political, not legal; he has a real bad political problem, but the only way he is going to solve it is to solve his legal problem." A long delay before trial, Powe suggested, "would leave him [Clinton] twisting in the wind; it is

clearly in his interest to get it behind him."

Others reacted to the political coloration of the new filing by suggesting that it had a parallel in Bennett's successful move to get a three-year delay in the Paula Jones case, which dates back to 1994, in order to get the president beyond re-election in 1996.

Bennett did that by using a purely legal maneuver, a claim of presidential immunity, that was ultimately rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court -- but not until nearly seven months after Clinton had been re-elected in November 1996.

Joseph E. diGenova, a Washington lawyer and former independent prosecutor, said that the delay was a sound legal maneuver that had the desired political effect of keeping the president "from having to give testimony under oath about his private sex life."

A 'mindless' call

The only problem with that strategy, on the part of both Bennett and Clinton, according to diGenova, was that they did not agree to settle the Jones case right after the election. That, diGenova argued, was "mindless," because it ultimately led to the president's being forced to testify under oath last month about sexual involvement with other women, including a White House intern.

That testimony, of course, is at the center of Starr's new and wider inquiry into possible perjury and obstruction of justice by Clinton. Failure to settle, diGenova suggested, was a political choice that drove the legal decision not to settle.

Bennett's new maneuver yesterday, diGenova said, may be a risky one legally, even if it, too, was dictated by political considerations. He said it would probably not sit well with the judge, since a lawyer who had fought so hard for delay was suddenly switching and trying to get a speedup.

Risky motion

DiGenova also took note of criticism that he said Judge Wright would clearly see in the motion: Bennett's comment that Jones' lawyers have been "virtually unregulated" in gathering evidence "in an attempt to destroy the president." Those lawyers could be controlled only by Judge Wright, and, in fact, she sat in on Clinton's testimony to monitor what he was asked.

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