WASHINGTON -- In an arrangement that spares President Clinton from being the first leader of the nation to testify under subpoena, his lawyers and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr reached a deal yesterday for Clinton to answer questions at the White House on Aug. 17.
Clinton's testimony in the Monica Lewinsky case will still mark a historic first: No president has ever testified as the principal target of a criminal investigation.
Confined to a single day, Clinton's interrogation will be videotaped and shown later to the federal grand jury being led by Starr. That panel is looking into whether Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case when he denied having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and whether he urged Lewinsky to deny such a relationship.
The independent counsel agreed to let the president's lawyers sit in on the session.
As a result of the deal, negotiated over more than a week to break a six-month impasse, the grand jury subpoena has been withdrawn. It was the first ever issued to a president. The White House disclosed yesterday that the subpoena was served on one of the president's private lawyers, David E. Kendall, on July 17.
Clinton, who had turned down six previous invitations by Starr to testify in the Lewinsky matter, urged Kendall to reach the deal after being subpoenaed.
"Let's get it over; let's get it done," the president said, according to a White House official who briefed reporters.
As a result of the arrangement, a constitutional and political crisis that could have arisen had a deal faltered and Clinton challenged Starr's subpoena seems to have been averted.
The deal is likely to speed the conclusion of Starr's inquiry, presumably with a report to Congress and possibly with criminal indictments -- although one potential target, Lewinsky, has received immunity from prosecution in return for her promised testimony before the grand jury.
Under pressure to deal
That immunity deal, as well as the subpoena hanging over the president, seemed to have contributed to his willingness to agree to testify. Clinton also was under election-year pressure from Democratic lawmakers to answer prosecutors' questions and avert Republican criticism that he was stonewalling.
Lewinsky is one of two major witnesses Starr has yet to question; the other is Bruce R. Lindsey, the deputy White House counsel and a close Clinton confidant whose appearance remains in doubt because of a court fight over a White House claim of attorney-client privilege. The White House has lost that fight so far, but is pondering a further appeal.
Starr reportedly wants to question Lewinsky in the grand jury before he gets to Clinton. But the timing or sequence for her was not definite yesterday.
After negotiations with Starr that were driven partly by pressure for a compromise from U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson this week, Kendall announced the deal. Meeting reporters in a White House driveway, Kendall read this statement:
"In an effort to achieve a prompt resolution of this entire matter, the president will voluntarily provide his testimony on Aug. 17, 1998, to the office of independent counsel, as he has on prior occasions.
"The president's testimony will be videotaped at the White House with lawyers present. No further statement will be issued."
CNN reported yesterday that Johnson had threatened to order Clinton to testify had a deal not been reached. Any such order would have been binding only if the president failed in challenging it in higher courts.
Besides looking into whether Clinton lied under oath or asked Lewinsky to lie, Starr is investigating whether Clinton or any of his associates tried to obstruct justice in the since-dismissed Jones lawsuit or to interfere with Starr's investigation.
The arrangement for Clinton's testimony will grant him privileges that no other witness before a grand jury would receive -- apparently as concessions, pressed by Johnson, to the office he holds.
For example, grand jury witnesses usually must appear in person, without their lawyers, in a closed room; must answer questions not only by prosecutors but also by grand jurors; and receive no guarantees of how long the questioning will last.
By contrast, Clinton will be questioned in his official quarters, surrounded by the images and aura of his office; his lawyers will be in the room and presumably able to give him advice; no grand jurors will ask questions; and the interrogation will be limited to a single day.
In addition, Clinton can assert that his testimony is voluntary, because the subpoena that was intended to force it has been withdrawn.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury last year, on other aspects of Starr's investigation, she was granted none of the advantages the president will have. She appeared at the federal courthouse as an ordinary witness, though after she finished, her celebrity was obvious: A grand juror asked for her autograph.