Escalating exchange of testy notes threatened, protected president Six invitations from Starr were spurned in months of sniping, stalling, blame

The Clinton Investigation

September 24, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The brief hand-delivered note conveyed the testiness of a foot-tapping Washington hostess awaiting an RSVP from a guest three days before the party.

Which is approximately what it was.

"Dear David," the note to President Clinton's lawyer began with apparent cordiality. The president, it noted, had publicly promised to cooperate in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Yet despite an invitation issued on Jan. 28, the grand jury had heard nothing back from the president. It was now Feb. 2. The grand jury would next meet on Feb. 5.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

So opened a volley of sometimes coy, sometimes cagey, increasingly combative correspondence between the Clinton and Kenneth W. Starr camps that reveals how the president ultimately came to testify to the grand jury, albeit later rather than sooner.

It was an invitation the president was to decline six times, for a variety of reasons, before finally agreeing to a date with the grand jury on Aug. 17. In the end, the president's team won concessions: Clinton could testify from the White House, via closed-circuit TV, with his lawyers present.

At first, the letters were brief and to the point. Later, the dueling became more strenuous.

When Clinton's lawyer, David E. Kendall, chose to respond, he rarely missed an opportunity to snipe at the enemy. On Feb. 13, after three letters within two weeks had been issued by the independent counsel's office, requesting that the president appear before the grand jury, Kendall issued his first reply.

Blame the prosecutors

His strategy: Blame the prosecutors. He had been unable to respond earlier, Kendall wrote, "because I was in the process of dealing with prejudicial and false leaks of information about your investigation."

The president had great respect for the grand jury, Kendall noted. But as for the invitation, it was simply not possible.

There was the situation in Iraq and the president's heavy travel schedule. So busy had the president been, in fact, that even his own lawyers had received limited time with him, Kendall wrote.

"I am certain that you understand why, in light of the well-publicized and questionable investigative techniques of your office, we feel we would be derelict in our professional duty to a client unless we assured ourselves that we had adequate opportunity to advise that client appropriately." Thank you for your courtesy, Kendall closed.

Starr's office ratcheted the pressure up a notch by drawing in a big gun.

"I have discussed this matter with Chief Judge [Norma Holloway] Johnson, and she has indicated that the grand jury will accommodate any special scheduling needs of the president," said Robert Bittman, a lawyer in the independent counsel's office. "If the president intends to testify at any time, please notify us by Feb. 27."

The counsel's office was "fully sensitive" to the president's responsibilities, Bittman said.

There was no reply from Clinton's side. The deadline, a Friday, came and went. On Monday, Bittman fired off a new, more XTC sarcastic communique.

"In regard to the various explanations you have been kind enough to advance for declining our four invitations, I note that 1) the state visit of Prime Minister Blair has passed; 2) the 'situation in Iraq' has, thankfully, eased; and 3) you have now had some six weeks to 'prepare' the President."

As to Clinton's weighty responsibilities, "the President has -- with all respect -- found time to play golf, attend basketball games and political fund-raisers and enjoy a ski vacation," he observed.

It was to be the last of the brief exchanges.

Into the spring, Clinton's team attacked, deflected and stalled with multipage replies to Bittman's multipage requests.

Face-to-face meeting

A face-to-face meeting of the lawyers in late March did not help. Kendall refused to indicate whether Clinton would ever testify. He argued that the president's deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones case could substitute for a grand jury appearance, that Starr's office had colluded with Linda R. Tripp and Jones' lawyers and had overstepped its investigative authority.

Kendall criticized the "interrogation" of Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide. In short, in a Whitewater investigation of questionable origins and conduct, Kendall argued, Clinton had already testified under oath three times and had submitted written answers to questions more than once. The president had "cooperated in every possible way," the lawyer said.

Within days, the president scored a substantial victory when a federal judge dismissed the Jones suit.

Bittman persisted. Two days later, he was writing again. He accused the Clinton team of backpedaling and of "misdirection" in letters and in the president's public statements.

"Having tried and tried, I will now try once again," Bittman wrote. "Please give me a straightforward yes or no answer." Would the president testify?

Accusing Starr's office of "stonewalling" and of shoddy investigative techniques, Kendall replied two weeks later that until the prosecutors disclosed information about their own conduct, he was unwilling to agree to Clinton's testimony.

Hammer drops

Starr's office waited a while before dropping the hammer on July 17 with a letter quoting Clinton's now-famous January promise to provide "more rather than less, sooner rather than later."

"The grand jury simply can wait no longer for the President's voluntary cooperation," Bittman wrote in a letter accompanying a subpoena. It ordered Clinton to appear before the grand jury on July 28 at 9: 15 a.m.

There was enough negotiating room to allow Clinton to testify from the White House, and a few weeks past the target date.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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