Drip Drip Drip
Leaks swamp the White House, which fights back by blaming the flood on (that's right) Ken Starr
By Nancy Gibbs/TIME
As midnight came and went on Thursday at the White House, the
honored guests, all starched and silked, indulged in some good
food and stargazing-- at the President and the men who want to
be President and the men who play Presidents in the movies. For
one brief shining moment, the capital's obsession melted away.
There was gentle encouragement from Elton John: "Can you feel
the love tonight?" Bill and Hillary Clinton, told they should
retire by 12, danced well past their bedtime to old favorites
with new meanings: I Heard It Through the Grapevine.
America may be on the brink of war, the Asian markets may be
leaning off a ledge, but when the beepers started going off in
the East Room, it was not the Secretaries of State and Defense
who leaped from their tables and made for the doors. It was
newsman Peter Jennings who "shot out of his seat like a rocket,"
a Clinton aide recalls. White House staff members had heard
rumors all afternoon that something big, something bad was about
to break. The blow came when printouts of a story from the next
day's New York Times began to circulate suggesting that Clinton
had coached his secretary, Betty Currie, to make sure her
version of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky matched his.
The latest leak in a fully liquid story sent reporters and
politicos scrambling to find out just how much further the
President's credibility might be diluted by the testimony of one
of his most loyal aides.
For three weeks now, the leaks have come so fast and steady that
they feel like an official daily briefing. But they are an
underground river in which fact and gossip and memory spin past
the truth and flow straight through any number of agendas.
Lewinsky's lawyers want to keep their client out of jail. The
President's men want to keep their man in office. Independent
counsel Kenneth Starr wants to keep his investigation moving,
and the leaks have a way of flushing out witnesses he may not
know about. And all sorts of other lawyers and witnesses,
dreaming of fame and fortune, have an interest in telling their
own stories their own way.
By the end of last week, the accounts had done so much to
dissolve the President's denials that the White House unrolled a
new strategy. Its best hope was to make a story out of The
Story, implicitly strike at the press for trafficking in
confidential material while attacking Starr's prosecutors for
leaking it--whether they actually had or not. Though the reports
may have come from many directions, it served Clinton's purpose
to focus his fire on his most powerful, least popular enemy, Ken
Starr. The prosecutor's tactics have never been popular with a
public increasingly sensitive to invasions of privacy,
especially by unaccountable officials with unlimited resources
and an army of FBI agents to do their bidding. And if this whole
case were to wind up in an impeachment proceeding in Congress,
it would become a political fight as much as a legal one, with
public perception carrying nearly as much weight as actual
Clinton knows this. In fact the President had so much to gain by
sliming Starr that there were even some who privately wondered
whether the White House might have staged a particularly cynical
scenario: knowing that evidence of obstruction of justice was
going to be disclosed anyway, why not leak some of it, finger
Starr for the disclosure and at least profit from his loss?
Either way, the lead story on the news Friday night was of David
Kendall, the President's normally invisible personal lawyer,
brandishing a 15-page letter charging Starr with an "appalling
disregard" for the law and rules of confidentiality. Kendall
plans to file a motion in federal court asking for contempt
sanctions against Starr.
Starr fired back within a few hours. Noting that Clinton and his
team had had most of the information about Currie for several
days, they might well have leaked it themselves "in order to
lessen the painful impact of such evidence when it is revealed
through official proceedings." Since the content of the leaks
hurt the President, and the fact of them hurt the prosecutor, it
was hard to measure who had the most to gain--or lose--by each
The first blistering revelation came Tuesday morning, when the
New York Times, citing "officials familiar with the White House
logs," revealed that Lewinsky had visited the White House 37
times in the 20 months after she left her job there to work at
the Pentagon. An Administration lawyer conceded that the number
was about right, but noted that just because Lewinsky was
cleared by security doesn't mean she actually visited the Oval
Office. She could have gone to see friends elsewhere, even
across the driveway at the Old Executive Office Building. But 14
of the visits were directly to Currie; of those, 11 occurred
while Clinton was around. The other visits remain unexplained.
That flight pattern looked suspect to anyone who knows the
protocol of the West Wing. The corridor that passes the Oval
Office is the route least traveled by low-level officials. No
one goes without a very good reason to be there. It is library
quiet, the carpet is a little thicker, the air a little heavier,
and if the President is in town that day, the Secret Service
agents stand outside his door, on the balls of their feet,
watching everything and everyone who comes anywhere near the
most powerful 1,000 square feet in the world. There is not a lot
of horsing around in the hallways, not a lot of casual chatting
from desk to desk. And secretaries certainly don't entertain
their friends during office hours.
In his conspicuous choice of witnesses, Starr seemed to be
focusing on that particular bit of real estate, especially the
rooms and hallways adjoining the Oval Office and the President's
private study, where his encounters with Lewinsky allegedly
occurred. And so he called White House steward Bayani Nelvis,
whose post in the tiny pantry would put him within sight lines
of the office, the study and the private dining room. When the
President is in the office, the steward shuttles between the
dining room and the White House mess down the stairs. And when
the President is eating, the steward waits in the hallway
outside--right beside the agents.
Like generations of stewards before him, Nelvis was
Philippine-born, Navy-trained and chosen for his discretion,
efficiency and reserve. Though he made no public comment after
his grand-jury appearance last week, on Wednesday afternoon the
Wall Street Journal posted a story on its Website claiming that
Nelvis had told the grand jury that he saw Clinton and Lewinsky
alone together in the study--a fact that Clinton had denied in
his own deposition to Paula Jones' lawyers. He also reportedly
cleaned up tissues with lipstick and other stains on them and
told Secret Service agents about the encounter because he was
"personally offended" by it. Nelvis' lawyer, Joseph Small,
however, called the Journal's report "absolutely false and
irresponsible," claiming that his client had told the grand jury
no such thing, a rebuttal that the Journal included when it ran
the story in the next morning's paper.
But it is the story of Betty Currie that has the potential to do
the greatest damage. Of all the vivid images of the past three
weeks, few were more disturbing than the sight of an exhausted,
frightened Currie emerging into the flashbulbs after her hours
before the grand jury two weeks ago. She had already been cast
as a central player in this drama, this woman who is among the
most beloved in the White House. It was Currie who cleared
Lewinsky into the West Wing, who signed for some of the packages
Lewinsky sent over between October and December, who asked White
House aide John Podesta and Clinton friend Vernon Jordan to help
Lewinsky get a job. And it was Currie who, when the storm broke,
was one of the first to tell the prosecutors what she knew.
Clinton's personal secretary arrives at work at 7:45 a.m. and
leaves at 8 p.m. six days a week; so Sundays are a precious day
off, time for church and visits with family. But on occasion the
President has to call her in for business that cannot wait, and
that's what he did on Jan. 17. Clinton had spent six long hours
being deposed by Jones' lawyers, who probed his relationship
with a variety of women--and, in particular, with Monica
Lewinsky. Was he ever alone with her? Had he given her gifts,
called her at home. Had they had an affair? He said there had
been no sexual relationship; any gifts were innocent souvenirs;
and he could not remember ever being alone with her.
When he got back to the White House, he called Currie and asked
her to come in the next day. According to the Times' account,
Clinton proceeded to run through his story in detail, laced with
leading questions: "We were never alone, right?" The implication
was that he was coaching a witness so she could back up his
story; the White House responded that he was innocently testing
his recollection, to make sure he had testified accurately.
Currie's lawyer denied "any implication or suggestion that Mrs.
Currie was aware of any legal or ethical impropriety by anyone."
But that was not all. The Times also reported that when Lewinsky
was subpoenaed by Jones' lawyers in December, she was worried
about having to turn over the gifts Clinton had given her. She
reportedly told Starr that the President had offered some
incriminating advice: If you don't have the gifts, he said, you
can't very well hand them over, can you? A box from Lewinsky
containing a dress, a hatpin and a brooch later found its way
into Currie's possession. She also reportedly told investigators
that Clinton and Lewinsky had indeed been alone together.
White House aides may portray Starr as a leaker and a bully, but
he doesn't really have to answer to anyone; he just has to build
a case. And it may have been a calculated gamble he was making.
"He's trying to lock in all the other witnesses and figure out
all the other stuff they know," says a former prosecutor
familiar with the case. "That way, he can question Monica. If
you're a little bit dubious about the trustworthiness of your
star witness, it's not a bad strategy to lock down everything
she might not recall."
Thus the parade of witnesses: Nelvis the steward, who is in the
White House day and night; and Currie the personal secretary,
who works long hours; and George Stephanopoulos, who was
Clinton's alter ego; and Leon Panetta, the former chief of
staff; and then Kris Engskov, the body man who carries Clinton's
coat. Starr has subpoenaed the phone logs and entrance logs and
sought the testimony of Secret Service agents. And he has done
all this in the same 10-day period during which he was searching
Monica's apartment, questioning relatives, pursuing leads from
her proffer and all the while refusing to grant her immunity.
He was certainly building the pressure on the only other person
who knows what did or did not occur when the doors were closed.
Lewinsky and her lawyers began the week thinking they were about
to tell their story at last. Ginsburg sent in his written
proffer on Monday along with the agreement written by Starr's
office granting Monica immunity. The two sides, Ginsburg claims,
agreed on a schedule of interviews in which Lewinsky would sit
down through the week with FBI agents in California. Satisfied
that the immunity dance was finally over, the whole traveling
circus left town for a brief reprieve and a visit with
Lewinsky's father in Los Angeles.
But nothing resembling peace awaited her there. Christened the
"stir-crazy sexgate siren" by the New York Post, Lewinsky was
greeted by tour buses cruising past on their way to O.J.
Simpson's house; by T-shirt vendors selling ZIPPERGATE '98
shirts; by stalker photographers snapping every move; and
finally by word on Wednesday that any deal she may have thought
she had with Starr was off.
Ginsburg got a call from Starr's office that "they had changed
their minds." The Washington Post reported that Starr had
rejected Ginsburg's proffer as too full of contradictions and
too vague in its recollection of the behavior of the President
and his friend Jordan, who was suspected of trying to help
Lewinsky get a job to keep her quiet. Starr was now refusing to
do a deal before talking to her face to face: "There is no
substitute," he said, "for looking a witness in the eye, asking
detailed questions, matching the answers against verifiable
facts and, if appropriate, giving a polygraph test."
This sent Ginsburg round the bend. From the start he felt that
Starr had been squeezing Lewinsky without mercy, threatening her
family with subpoenas, intimidating, misleading, baiting and
switching. Under the terms of the deal Ginsburg thought had been
reached, Starr could spend all the time he liked with Lewinsky
and even give her a lie-detector test if he chose. Any
implication that she was avoiding interrogation, Ginsburg
charged, was nonsense.
What Ginsburg could not realize, however, was how much less
dependent on Lewinsky Starr became with each passing day. As
late as Thursday, before the Times story broke, Ginsburg still
argued that his client was the only hope Starr had. That, within
a few hours, proved to be wrong. Last week Starr subpoenaed
attorneys working for Paula Jones for notes, pleadings and
depositions involving other women linked to Bill Clinton. One
possible line of inquiry: Were the women asked by any agents of
Clinton to soften their testimony regarding their former
relationships with him?"
If it couldn't stop him, the White House hoped at least to slow
Starr down a bit. Legal experts say that Kendall's action in
court this week is no small matter; it will at the very least
cause a fair bit of heartburn for the independent counsel. A
senior Justice official went so far as to suggest to TIME that
given the thick conflicts of interest in the case, a special
prosecutor might have to be appointed to probe an independent
counsel. As a lawyer on the case put it, "This isn't exactly
charted territory." Ginsburg, meanwhile, announced plans to take
Starr to court to enforce the immunity deal.
The President remained his own best witness, as his joint press
conference with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair made clear.
Press conferences with foreign leaders are normally awkward
affairs in which the questions and the answers arrive in
separate languages, on separate topics, with separate
translators. So Friday's performance was downright surreal: the
two golden boys of the Third way, Bill and Tony, speaking the
same language, practicing a style of politics one had virtually
copied from the other, both touting the virtues of a middle
class that works hard and plays by the rules. Except that
Clinton had somehow got very far out of bounds.
The President was "nervous as a cat" before the press
conference, says one who was with him at the time. Clinton stuck
with a safe "I'm honoring the rules of the investigation" line,
even though the rules don't apply to him: he can say whatever he
likes. But twice reporters broke through the glaze, first when
he was asked if he would resign. Clinton's answer captured his
entire attitude about this crisis: he sidestepped the question
of whether he had done anything wrong and said instead that the
people looked past his character to his performance. His single
answer is the only one a President can ever give: "Never."
And when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked if Clinton would like to say
anything to Monica Lewinsky, whose life has been changed
forever, a question so gently wrapped that it all but hid the
sharp knife within, Clinton just narrowed his eyes and smiled
and waited, until the room laughed and he said, "That's good."
And then he thought for a long moment. "That's good. But at this
minute, I'm going to stick with my position of not commenting."
Coming after all the Talmudically glossed questions about the
nature of his relationship and all the parsed notions of when
sex wasn't sex and the almost nationwide realization that he
splits hairs on the heads of bald men, this was as close as he
had come to saying, "Can't fool you, can I?" It was the only
moment of the morning that worried White House aides--because,
as one low-level handler put it, "he left the mask off for a
--Reported by James Carney, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak and
Karen Tumulty/Washington, and Cathy Booth/Los Angeles