WASHINGTON - On his last full day in office, President Clinton admitted for the first time that he testified falsely under oath when he said he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. The admission freed him from facing any criminal charges.
Independent counsel Robert W. Ray accepted Clinton's admission - made to conclude an Arkansas legal ethics investigation - in return for ending his remaining criminal investigation of the president and promising to seek no criminal indictment.
"For the president and Mrs. Clinton, it's all over," said a source close to the weeks-long negotiation to end the risk of criminal charges, which could have been lodged once Clinton had left the White House.
The legal bargain, made final yesterday morning, tainted Clinton's waning hours in office and brought two new layers of official punishment: a five-year suspension of his license to practice law in Arkansas and a $25,000 fine.
The extraordinary announcement overshadowed the eve of George W. Bush's inauguration. And for the second day in a row, an action by Clinton, who gave his farewell address Thursday night, competed for attention with Bush's inaugural celebrations.
Adding to the day's surprises, Linda Tripp, whose secret tape recordings of conversations with Lewinsky sparked the impeachment scandal, was fired from her job at the Pentagon. Her attorneys called the move "vindictive, mean-spirited and wrong" and said they would take legal action to try to get her job back.
The White House said Tripp's termination was routine for political appointees who refuse to resign at the end of a presidential administration, as is customary.
Clinton's admission of false testimony related only to his sworn deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. It did not amount to a concession that he had lied to criminal investigators during questioning over the Lewinsky sex scandal.
"I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false," Clinton said in a statement released by the White House.
The president was referring to his January 1998 deposition in the Jones lawsuit. He had been ordered by a federal judge to say whether he had ever been alone with Lewinsky and whether they had had sexual relations.
He said no to both questions - the same testimony that led to his impeachment two years ago. The Senate acquitted Clinton of the House's charges.
Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a newly elected senator from New York, have never been charged with criminal wrongdoing during any of the independent counsel's investigations. The president settled the Jones lawsuit for $850,000 and paid a civil penalty of $90,686 for contempt of court for the same testimony that led to yesterday's admission.
Ray, who succeeded Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who produced the Lewinsky evidence, spoke moments after the White House disclosed the deal.
"I trust that the decision made today meets the expectations of the American people, who deserve a resolution that acknowledges the president's conduct, respects American institutions and demonstrates sensitivity to our constitutional system of government," Ray said. "This matter is now concluded."
Clinton's aides and his lawyer insisted that the president's statement were not an admission that he had broken any law. What the president did say was that he had "knowingly violated" an order from U.S. District Judge Susan Weber Wright to testify truthfully about his relationship with Lewinsky.
In Congress, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who led the impeachment inquiry, contended that "the action taken today vindicates the House impeachment proceeding and reaffirms that our actions were in defense of the rule of law rather than merely a political initiative."
Lewinsky herself expressed relief yesterday.
"I was terrified I would have to testify yet again," she told the Associated Press. "I am grateful this sword of Damocles that was hanging over me has finally been removed."
Under the deal, Clinton gave up his right to ask that the Justice Department reimburse his legal costs in defending himself during the Ray and Starr investigations.
The deal was a surprise because Clinton, as recently as last month, had defiantly vowed to "stand and fight" any criminal charges.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the president-elect learned of the impending deal late Thursday but was focusing on his inauguration.
It reportedly was crucial, both to the special prosecutor and to the Arkansas legal ethics committee, that Clinton admit some wrongdoing while he was still serving as president.