Clinton's moment finally at hand Presidents' lawyers prepare for videotaped session for grand jury

August 16, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After seven months of less, rather than more, from President Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky matter, the embattled executive is finally about to address pointed, specific and, most likely, embarrassing questions about his relationship with the former intern.

With three lawyers by his side for the historic session, Clinton will tell his side of the story tomorrow to prosecutors and the 23 members of the Lewinsky grand jury, determining the direction the controversial investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will take in the ensuing weeks and months.

"This is critical for the Clinton presidency," says Allan J. Lichtman, chairman of the history department at American University. "Obviously, testifying before the grand jury greatly raises the stakes."

The session, scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in the Map Room of the White House residence, marks the first time a president has testified in a grand jury investigation in which he is the target.

The deal worked out by Starr and David E. Kendall, Clinton's private lawyer, allows Clinton to answer questions from the White House, with his testimony videotaped and fed live to the grand jury at the federal courthouse via one-way closed-circuit TV run by the White House Communications Agency.

Clinton has spent part of almost every day for the past two weeks preparing for his testimony with his team of private lawyers, the only ones whose conversations with the president are protected by attorney-client privilege.

They have pored over White House documents that had been subpoenaed by Starr and staged mock cross-examinations.

Every detail has been attended to: Clinton's delivery, his clothes, his manner and even his backdrop. When, two years ago, he testified by videotape from the White House as a witness in Starr's prosecution of several Whitewater figures, the presiding judge ruled that the presidential seal of office could not be in the picture.

Although Kendall has scoured the transcript of Clinton's Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, the president's attorney spent nearly five hours last week screening the videotape of that session. At that time, Clinton denied under oath a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky," he said. "I've never had an affair with her."

What remains the biggest mystery, of course, is what Clinton will say tomorrow. Will he stick to that story, contradicting Lewinsky and what could be conclusive physical evidence of a sexual relationship? Will he admit there was a sexual relationship and that his Jones testimony was not truthful?

Or will he do something in between, as some of his advisers late last week were suggesting he would do? That is, admit to some sort of sexual contact with Lewinsky, but say he did not lie in the Jones deposition because the activities he and Lewinsky engaged in did not fit the definition of "sexual relations" as laid out by the judge in the Jones case.

The judge defined sexual relations as "contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."

While such a strategy could technically and legally clear Clinton of a possible charge of perjury in the Jones case, it could be politically damaging, enhancing the disingenuous, "slick Willy" image some voters have long had of the president. After all, Clinton angrily told the American people, too, last January that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Some have reacted harshly to reports that Clinton might use such a legal loophole, a scenario most likely leaked by Clinton's legal advisers as a trial balloon to gauge public reaction.

"There shouldn't be any games played at this point," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "And if there are, I think it's going to be pretty irritating to almost everybody."

Starr is not only investigating whether Clinton committed perjury in his sworn denial of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, but also whether he encouraged her to lie about a relationship and acted to cover up a relationship.

Prosecutors will explore whether Clinton advised Lewinsky to return presents he had given her to presidential secretary Betty Currie in case the gifts would be subpoenaed in the Jones case. Starr's team will also want to know whether Clinton enlisted his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to help Lewinsky find a job in New York in exchange for her silence.

Starr is said to have begun drafting a report regarding the Lewinsky matter, and is expected to decide soon after Clinton's testimony whether there is "substantial and credible" evidence of presidential misconduct that requires him, under the special prosecutor law, to submit an impeachment report to Congress.

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