White House legal moves recall Nixon era and Watergate

June 03, 1998|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The message in the White House's latest legal maneuvers seems to be that the political noose is tightening even if there is still no evidence of illegal behavior by President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

From the outset of the Whitewater investigation, Mr. Clinton has taken pains to rebut comparisons to the Watergate scandal and the way it was handled by Richard Nixon. And he has had a valid case when you consider the huge dimensions of Watergate.

But even if the legal questions being pursued by independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr are relatively trivial, the delaying tactics being used by the current White House invite obvious comparisons with those Nixon employed 25 years ago. The goal is to delay any final resolution of the Lewinsky matter until after the November election and until most Americans are sick of the whole thing, which may already be the case.

The White House has pictured its decision to drop any appeal of the ruling against executive privilege as almost a noble gesture. The theory is that since the lower court ruling did affirm the validity of such a privilege even if it could be overridden in a criminal matter, the rights of future presidents have not been threatened so no appeal is needed.

The obvious comparison is to the days when the Nixon White House insisted it was trying to protect "the presidency," not the president personally. That argument was a hoot then and it is a hoot today.

But it is clear Mr. Clinton didn't want to be the first president since Nixon to take that issue to the Supreme Court -- and particularly on the fast track that Mr. Starr is seeking.

The result is that neither Bruce Lindsey nor Sidney Blumenthal can claim executive privilege as a reason for refusing to answer Mr. Starr's questions before a grand jury. As a practical matter, however, this applies only to Mr. Blumenthal, a relatively minor player in the White House and certainly not an intimate of the president.

The critical goal for the president is to take Bruce Lindsey out of the picture. He has been a friend and confidant for Mr. Clinton's entire career. If anyone knows anything about what went on in the White House at any time in the last five years, Mr. Lindsey is the man.

So the White House has chosen to continue to insist that, contrary to the lower court ruling it is appealing, Mr. Lindsey should be covered by lawyer-client privilege. But, the argument goes, that issue is not one with such constitutional dimensions that it requires fast track consideration by the Supreme Court. The message is: Take your time, there's no rush. If this appeal pushes the whole thing into 1999, that's the way the ball bounces. Who knows, by then the Democrats might even control the House and the impeachment process.

The issue of Mr. Lindsey's status is not as simple as the White House might have us believe. It is true that he is a lawyer and that his title is deputy counsel to the president. But he is paid by public funds ostensibly to perform public functions, not to counsel the president on a criminal matter. That is what David Kendall, the Clintons' private lawyer, is supposed to do.

The operative question in all this is what does Mr. Starr believe that Mr. Lindsey knows that would be so crucial to the special prosecutor's case. In his original appeal of executive privilege, Mr. Starr told the district judge the questions to which he needed answers and which justified trumping the privilege claim. But that argument was made in a closed session, so no one knows what those questions might be.

There are some obvious lines of inquiry, nonetheless. Did Mr. Lindsey discuss with the president the testimony about Ms. Lewinsky of other White House staff members, either before or after they went before the grand jury? Did anyone suggest to anyone else the direction such testimony should take? In short, were they involved in suborning perjury? That has always been the critical question legally.

But the notion of getting such answers from Mr. Lindsey has always seemed far-fetched. In a footnote to a brief filed with the Supreme Court, White House lawyers said Mr. Lindsey already told the grand jury that he "had no information that anyone had committed perjury or obstruction of justice." He is not a latter-day John Dean ready to blow the whistle on the president he has been serving.

The bottom line is that the White House has tossed another small wrench into the gears of the Starr investigation.

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

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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