President's defense avoids attacks on Lewinsky

Targeting former intern judged a risky strategy

February 10, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Mindful of the political risks, President Clinton's legal defense strategy has steered remarkably clear of Monica Lewinsky's character and credibility, leaving unanswered many of the prosecution's most scathing assertions of presidential wrongdoing.

As a result, prosecution attacks have gone unrebutted. White House arguments have been truncated. The central perjury counts regarding exactly what Clinton did with Lewinsky have never really been challenged.

But, Democratic lawyers say, it would have been far more damaging -- legally and politically -- for the president's attorneys to have targeted Lewinsky. Lewinsky has actually done far more to bolster Clinton's case than to help prosecutors' charges, undercutting the obstruction-of-justice charges at virtually every turn.

Besides, said Alan Baron, a Democratic lawyer and informal White House adviser, "you don't want to unleash the White House on this person who clearly had feelings for the president. It's a miserable way to do things."

Many of the missing defense arguments have been glaring. For instance, White House lawyers:

Allowed prosecutors to imply that Clinton invented the nickname "stalker" for Lewinsky. In fact, Lewinsky has acknowledged that her co-workers applied that unflattering label to her long before the scandal broke.

Never argued that Clinton might have wanted Lewinsky to find a job in New York because her increasingly erratic behavior threatened to expose their relationship and consume him in scandal. House prosecutors have argued that the job search was intended to persuade Lewinsky to conceal her affair with Clinton from Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers.

Decided not to undercut the credibility of Lewinsky's testimony by repeating some of the falsehoods she told her friends about her White House experiences or to remind senators that Lewinsky said she had lied all her life.

And allowed prosecutors to paint Clinton as the aggressor in his relationship with Lewinsky, not mentioning Lewinsky's now-infamous flash of her thong underwear to attract Clinton or her comments that implied she intended, even before she went to Washington, to approach the president sexually.

White House aides say such delicate treatment of Lewinsky is the strongest possible rebuttal to prosecutors' charge that the president orchestrated a smear campaign against her in the first days of the scandal. "It is not just us asserting that the charge is untrue," said James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office. "It's demonstrably untrue."

For Clinton defenders, the reason for this kid-glove approach is self-evident.

"Monica Lewinsky's story corroborates the president's story about 98 percent of the time," said Lanny Davis, a former White House lawyer and a fervent Clinton defender. "There's no reason why the White House would want to undermine her credibility just for that last 2 percent."

If White House lawyers turned on Lewinsky, she could turn on them. Baron said the administration no doubt worried that if it started "to trash her," Lewinsky could turn into a hostile anti-Clinton witness.

Even Republicans concede that the White House has treated Lewinsky kindly since the impeachment proceedings formally began last fall.

"For their political interests, it just wasn't going to look good for them to tear into a 25-year-old girl," said a House Republican aide close to the prosecution team. "No matter how may times Clinton says he's sorry, he wouldn't look too sincere if [his lawyers] went down that road."

Nevertheless, the White House's decision not to impugn Lewinsky's credibility could leave the history books to relate unanswered accusations that put Clinton in a negative light.

In recent days, for instance, attention has been drawn to the "stalker" charge. It is central to suspicions that Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, lied under oath last week when he said he had not informed reporters of a conversation with Clinton in which the president said Lewinsky was known as "the stalker."

But, in truth, Lewinsky was known by that name among White House co-workers, who testified before Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury that they believed Lewinsky was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get close to the president. Indeed, that was one reason she was transferred out of the White House to the Pentagon in 1996.

In the account of her affair that she wrote for Starr, Lewinsky told of a meeting with a White House aide, Marsha Scott, in which Scott promised to "detail her from the Pentagon" to Scott's office, "so people could see Ms. L's good work and stop referring to her as `The Stalker.' "

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