Starr focus on sex deplored White House attacks prosecutor's report as 'smear campaign'

Hoping for public backlash

2nd rebuttal decries 4 1/2 -year probe's result of 'lurid' allegations

September 13, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to blunt the still uncertain effect of Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment report detailing President Clinton's misdeeds in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the White House struck back yesterday, calling the independent counsel's case a "hit-and-run smear campaign" designed solely to damage the president.

In a scathing point-by-point response to Starr's 445-page report, Clinton's lawyers said the charges against the president were without legal merit and were merely an excuse to publicize lurid and humiliating details about Clinton's affair with the former White House intern.

"It is plain that 'sex' is precisely what this 4 1/2 -year investigation has boiled down to," Clinton's legal team asserted yesterday in a 42-page rebuttal to the Starr report, its second rebuttal in two days. "The referral is so loaded with irrelevant and unnecessary graphic and salacious allegations that only one conclusion is possible: Its principal purpose is to damage the president."

Clinton tried to return to business yesterday, meeting with his international policy team to primarily discuss Russia. But in his weekly radio address, the president referred indirectly to the topic that preoccupied him, the White House and much of the nation all last week.

"It's been an exhausting and difficult week in the capital -- not only for me, but for many others," Clinton said at the start of his morning address. "But, as I told my Cabinet on Thursday, we cannot lose sight of our primary mission, which is to work for the American people, and especially for the future of our children.

"The most important thing to do now is to stay focused on the issues the American people sent us here to deal with -- from health care to the economy to terrorism."

With their second response to Starr's report, presidential lawyers are trying to encourage Democrats to support Clinton and dismiss the prosecutor's case as appalling in its emphasis on sex. The White House response notes, for instance, that the issue of sex is mentioned more than 500 times in the Starr report; the issue of the Whitewater land deal -- the original subject of Starr's investigation back in 1994 -- is mentioned twice.

The White House is hoping that the graphic and voluminous sexual details recounted by Starr -- and the lack of charges relating to anything but the Lewinsky affair -- will cause a backlash against the independent counsel by the public and members of Congress who will now begin debating Clinton's fate.

Yesterday, most lawmakers reacted to the Starr report with caution. But many responded along party lines. Some Republicans said the seriousness of the charges against Clinton warranted an impeachment inquiry, while some Democrats insisted that private sexual misconduct did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Vice President Al Gore led the Democratic cry, publicly responding to the Starr report for the first time yesterday.

"I do not believe that this report serves as the basis for overturning the judgment of the American people in 1992 and again in 1996 that Bill Clinton should be their president," Gore said at the start of a two-day swing through the Pacific Northwest.

Today, other key presidential defenders, such as David E. Kendall, Clinton's chief personal lawyer; Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel; and John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff, will fan out to appear on the morning TV talk shows and make the president's case.

But yesterday's initial editorial opinion around the country did not bode well for Clinton, with such newspapers as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Detroit Free Press, Seattle Times, Tulsa World and several others calling on Clinton to resign.

The White House has been banking on public opinion, which still indicated strong job approval for Clinton as of yesterday, to inform congressional opinion on whether to start down the road to impeachment.

But early polls had some ominous signs. An ABC News poll taken Friday night placed the president's job approval rating at 56 percent, about where it was before the report was released. But the poll showed that 57 percent think Clinton should be impeached if he encouraged Lewinsky to lie about their relationship -- an increase of 14 points on the same question last month. And the poll indicated that people are nearly twice as likely to believe Starr's account of the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship as they are to believe the president's version.

In their written counterattack on Starr released by the White House yesterday, Clinton's private and administration lawyers argued that the prosecutor's 11 charges against the president "do not even approach the constitutional test of impeachment."

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