New attack launched on Starr Lewinsky's account was 'distorted,' say president's lawyers

'Grievous wrong' to Clinton

Polls show testimony might have improved job approval rating

September 23, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seizing a political opening after Monday's broadcast of President Clinton's grand jury testimony, White House aides and lawyers launched another round of attacks on Kenneth W. Starr yesterday, calling his report to Congress a "grievous wrong to the president."

With new polls showing that Clinton's videotaped testimony in the Monica Lewinsky investigation might actually have improved his job approval rating, the president's lawyers sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee accusing the independent counsel of presenting a "significantly distorted" account of Lewinsky's testimony in his initial report to Congress.

The lawyers said Starr omitted material that is helpful to Clinton -- specifically, Lewinsky's direct statement to the grand jury that no one ever asked her to lie about her relationship with the president or promised her a job in exchange for silence.

It was a "flaw," the Clinton lawyers said, "that we believe calls into question the fairness of the entire process."

In her testimony that was made public Monday, Lewinsky stated: "I would just like to say that no one ever asked me to lie and I was never promised a job for my silence."

Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall, and White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff said the absence of that quotation in the 445-page report of possible impeachable offenses that Starr sent to Congress more than a week ago "raises grave questions about the fundamental fairness of the Starr referral."

Starr, the lawyers wrote, "chose to print over 150 pages of gratuitous and graphic sexual detail but could not find space for a single sentence quoting Ms. Lewinsky's sworn testimony which directly undermines the central obstruction of justice allegations in the referral, and, for that matter, the very basis of the Lewinsky investigation."

They implored lawmakers to "proceed with due caution and appropriate fairness."

In fact, Starr's report does refer to Lewinsky's statement, but does not include her exact words. "Ms. Lewinsky has stated that the president never explicitly told her to lie," the report states, paraphrasing the witness. The report goes on to say that Clinton and Lewinsky "both understood from their conversations that they would continue their pattern of covering up and lying about the relationship."

Starr did not respond yesterday to the lawyers' letter. But Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the claim in the letter "just is not so."

For his part, Clinton tried to stay above of the fray yesterday. In New York, where he was meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, he declined to comment on any possible impeachment proceedings or the suggestion, proposed by a Senate Democrat, that he voluntarily appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

"I don't have anything to add to whatever the White House is saying about all this today," Clinton said. "Believe it or not, I haven't read the report or my lawyers' replies. I think it's important that I focus on what I'm doing for the American people, and that's what I intend to do."

At a White House reception last night for South African President Nelson Mandela, Clinton received more of the kind of strong international support he received Monday at the United Nations. Mandela said the "continent of Africa" was standing by Clinton and suggested that the standing ovation that greeted Clinton at the United Nations showed "what the world thinks of this national debate."

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said yesterday that Clinton's advisers are discussing a number of ideas that might avert an impeachment inquiry and bring the investigation to an end. He neither ruled out nor elaborated on a suggestion, proposed Sunday by Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, that Clinton appear soon before the House Judiciary Committee.

"What we want to do is work with Congress to find a course of action that is the correct one, that will have bipartisan support, that the people of Congress together agree is the right course for our nation and that the people of the United States of America will support," McCurry said at a briefing in New York. "We have been talking to a lot of people. A lot of people have got ideas."

One White House official said he and others have been "reaching out" to congressional Democrats, former members and Clinton supporters "mostly to seek advice and counsel."

But, the official added, unlike other White House-Capitol Hill matters, "This is not our deal to drive. The president is not central to putting any kind of deal together. He can't be."

The White House was buoyed by polls conducted Monday which showed that, if anything, Clinton's job approval rating went up in the aftermath of the broadcast of his testimony. In a CNN/Gallup/USA Today survey, 66 percent of those polled said they approved of Clinton's job performance, up from 60 percent on Sunday.

A CBS News poll showed Clinton's job approval rating jumping 11 percentage points, from 54 percent to 65 percent, among those who watched the president's grand jury testimony.

The percentage of the public believing Clinton should be removed from office -- about one-third -- remained about the same, even though polls showed that about half of all Americans -- 48 percent to 56 percent -- believe he committed perjury in his grand jury testimony.

The taped testimony, said one White House official, "further solidifies where the public has been for a long time. They think this [Clinton's behavior] is wrongful conduct, but not an impeachable offense. I think public opinion is settled."

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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