Clinton weighs nuance of 'sex' President considers admitting to type of encounter, aides say

Avoiding perjury problems

Inner circle ponders grand jury strategy for Monday testimony.

August 14, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has had extensive discussions with his inner circle about a strategy of acknowledging to a grand jury Monday that he had intimate sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky in the White House, senior advisers have said.

Although Clinton has not settled on this approach, discussions have centered on a plan that would allow him to acknowledge a specific type of sexual behavior while maintaining he told the truth when he testified in January that he never had "sexual relations" with the former White House intern, the advisers said.

Clinton would say he based his previous denial, in a deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit, on a definition of sex approved by the judge in the case. His advisers believe this definition does not cover certain activities, including oral sex.

For months, Clinton has publicly denied any sexual relationship with Lewinsky. So an acknowledgment of some kind of sexual encounter poses considerable political risk, particularly if it were linked to a legal argument that rests on a narrow definition of sex.

But Clinton's advisers have said that telling anything less than the truth to a grand jury about sex with Lewinsky poses an even greater risk. It is not clear how precisely Clinton has described his relationship with Lewinsky to his lawyers.

Once Clinton settles on what to say to the grand jury Monday, he must decide whether, and how, to explain his testimony to the American public.

Several Clinton advisers said thereis a consensus that Clinton should speak publicly, perhaps in a brief televised speech, after he testifies. Several advisers said the feeling is that the president's testimony will somehow be leaked to the public, so he should portray it from his point of view, which would oblige him to offer some specifics about the relationship.

The advisers cautioned that preparations for the grand jury appearance are continuing and strategy could change as the president continues to examine the legal and political implications of various courses.

It could be that the president's advisers are discussing his possible approaches with reporters to gauge the political reaction. The president has been severely limited in his ability to take political soundings, because anyone he talks to other than his private lawyers and his wife is vulnerable to subpoenas from Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel.

The most crucial discussions have been confined to a small group of advisers, who have some recognized privilege that may be invoked against prosecutors seeking to learn of their advice. They include Clinton's wife, his lawyers Mickey Kantor, former Secretary of Commerce, and David E. Kendall, along with other lawyers in Kendall's firm of Williams & Connolly.

Even as the president's advisers review his options, some have prefaced their remarks by saying that it is possible that Clinton will say again, as he has publicly, that he never had sexual relations with Lewinsky.

Rahm Emanuel, a senior political adviser to the president, declined yesterday to discuss Clinton's legal options. "We're not going to speculate on the latest theory of what the president is going to testify to," he said. "As the president said just the other day, he will testify completely and truthfully."

As Clinton prepares to navigate the most politically and legally perilous moment of his presidency, the argument for a public explanation reflects the sense of many politicians that the country wants to see an end to the Lewinsky saga. Democrats and Republicans alike have suggested that even a mild and delicately worded confession from the president might reduce the threat of impeachment hearings based on a report to Congress from Starr.

Even if the strategy of acknowledging sexual activities with Lewinsky succeeds in inoculating Clinton from perjury problems, he may face other legal shoals. Starr's grand jury has also been investigating whether Clinton may have obstructed justice if he discussed with Lewinsky ways that she could conceal a relationship with the president and avoid having to produce gifts that he gave her when she testified in the Jones lawsuit.

An option that is increasingly being considered would be for the president to testify that he was telling the truth last January when he followed a precise definition of sexual relations that the presiding judge had approved in the Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit. Under that definition, some advisers believe, Clinton could plausibly assert that his contacts with Lewinsky did not constitute sexual relations.

In that deposition, when the president was asked whether he had an affair with Lewinsky, his response seemed to be straightforward: "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."

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