A Clinton appearance before the grand jury puts pressure on Starr

March 13, 1998|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The news that President Clinton may be called to testify before the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky case is hardly a surprise. The grand jury is, after all, where independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is trying to make his case, if any, against the president.

But the report that Mr. Clinton may testify is a reminder of what this case is all about.

At issue is not whether Mr. Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House intern. The president says it didn't happen; Monica Lewinsky told Linda Tripp that it did happen. It is a he-said, she-said situation on which it would be impossible to base a perjury charge without other corroborating witnesses.

From the outset, however, it has been clear that the serious issue here is whether the president or any of his surrogates tried to persuade Ms. Lewinsky to lie about what happened. Suborning perjury is a decidedly serious crime.

Denials spelled out

We already know the essence of Mr. Clinton's story. The detailed reports on his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones case, unchallenged by the White House as to their accuracy, have spelled out his denial. It would be a monumental surprise if the president altered his account in any way before a grand jury.

The possibility that Ms. Lewinsky was offered a job in exchange for lying about the relationship also has been denied flatly by the man who found that job for her, Mr. Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan. He has said publicly -- and presumably to the grand jury -- that there was no such quid pro quo.

So, again, there is the possibility of a he-said, she-said situation impossible to resolve without some additional evidence from some other source.

Another denial

That evidence is what Mr. Starr seems to be seeking by taking testimony from Kathleen Willey, a one-time White House volunteer who claimed at one point that the president kissed and fondled her when she visited the Oval Office to seek a paying job. As in the Lewinsky case, the sexual contact, which Mr. Clinton has denied, is essentially beside the point. The issue here is whether a prominent Democratic contributor tried to persuade her to change her story.

The issue of Mr. Clinton's testifying before a grand jury is a touchy one politically, even if the testimony was taken by videotape in the White House to avoid the spectacle of a president entering and leaving the federal courthouse. To refuse obviously would raise questions about whether he has something to hide and, equally important, contradict his strong assertions that he wants the facts to come out.

Questioned about the possibility at the White House, Mr. Clinton brushed it off. "I'm just not going to talk about that today," he told reporters who came to his office for a picture-taking session with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The perjury question also appears to be critical in public attitudes toward Mr. Clinton and the whole Lewinsky episode. Opinion polls consistently show that Americans are willing to overlook any stains on his personal life but would be far less tolerant if they found the president has been lying about what happened.

The disclosure of conversations between Mr. Starr and Mr. Clinton's attorneys about testimony before the grand jury suggests the investigation is reaching a critical point. The grand jury already has heard from all the supporting players, some of them more than once, but has yet to hear from either of the principals, Ms. Lewinsky and Mr. Clinton. Once they testify, the pressure will be on Mr. Starr to fish or cut bait.

This suggests Mr. Clinton might find it to his advantage to testify. There is at least the possibility that the case could be completed before the 1998 midterm elections campaign begins in earnest, and in time for the president to turn the country's attention back to the more substantive issues on the national agenda.

A capital distraction

tTC Mr. Clinton has insisted all along, of course, that he is just doing what he was hired to do when he ran for the office. But it would be naive to believe the White House and Congress have not both been distracted by the capital city's winter-long preoccupation with sex in the Oval Office.

A president testifying before a grand jury on a criminal matter sounds a little bizarre. But everything about this episode is bizarre.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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