Turning Up The Heat
By grilling Monica's mom, Ken Starr lays the groundwork for his very reluctant star witness
By Richard Lacayo
(TIME, February 23) -- After 10 days at her father's home in Los Angeles, Monica Lewinsky flew back to Washington last week. And Washington, which was trying hard to care about Iraq, the budget surplus and the tobacco deal, held its breath. All week the legal and political pageantry in That Story favored the President, at least in public. The spectacle of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's putting the screws to Lewinsky's mother, followed by the subpoenas to Secret Service agents, helped consolidate the White House spin that Starr's investigation is a full-speed, partisan vendetta. But the White House and Starr's office both know that everything up to now is merely prelude to the one event that can change the entire dynamic of the scandal: Lewinsky's grand-jury testimony, which could happen as early as this week.
President Clinton's strategy so far has been simple. Say almost nothing; buy time. The time has been needed to get past the first weeks of revelations, to let Clinton marshal his forces and to allow everybody to digest the thought of a goatish President unbuckling with an intern. But if Lewinsky testifies the way she is expected to, the President's "no comment" approach may not work anymore. Lewinsky was prepared two weeks ago to testify unequivocally to a sexual relationship with the President, though she denied that she and Clinton had engaged in intercourse.
If Lewinsky offers that story to the grand jury, even if she does not say that Clinton urged her to lie to the lawyers for Paula Jones, she's on a collision course with the President. Clinton then has two choices. One would be to change his own story to conform more closely to hers, which means stepping back from his earlier denial. Though polls show that more than half of Americans already think he had sex with Lewinsky--and most of them would be pleased to forget about it and move on--they may not be looking forward to watching another episode of Clinton's bending the answers to a question about his personal life into yet another wiggly shape.
Clinton's other option would be to cast doubt on Lewinsky's own credibility. That can be done gently, by depicting her as a cornered victim of Starr's ruthless investigation--or not so gently, by playing up the idea that she's inventing or exaggerating details of their relationship. But that tactic runs the risk of appearing to victimize Lewinsky all over again. In a scandal in which much of the political fallout will center on who's taking advantage of women, the all too warm Clinton or the all too chilly Starr, that's one more tricky path.
On the eve of Lewinsky's testimony, White House officials were already working to explain some of the less helpful details of the curious relationship between the President and the Intern. One detail involves how gifts from the President to Lewinsky, which had been subpoenaed by Paula Jones' attorneys, happened to end up in the possession of presidential secretary Betty Currie. According to Lewinsky's account, given by her lawyers to Starr, Clinton told her if she did not have the gifts, she would not have to turn them over. Numerous press reports have suggested that Currie "retrieved" them. Late last week two sources close to the President told TIME that Monica herself had returned the gifts to Currie. Lewinsky sent them by courier from the Pentagon to the White House. Lewinsky gave them to Currie with this instruction: "Keep these for me. I'll get them back some day."
Lewinsky's attorney William Ginsburg was still trying last week to quash Starr's subpoena altogether, a move that nobody expected would succeed. But he says Lewinsky won't defy the subpoena and will answer any questions once she has been granted some kind of immunity. Ginsburg has also noted cryptically that when Lewinsky gets to the grand-jury room, presidential friend Vernon Jordan may not like what she has to say. And there is evidence that Starr has not lost interest in Jordan: FBI agents have been asking questions around Washington's Park Hyatt, one of Jordan's preferred lunch hangouts.
Starr's office was reluctant to cut a deal with Lewinsky for full immunity in part because she balked at accusing the President of proposing or assisting in the cover-up. In particular, Starr wants her to say more about who developed the "talking points" that Lewinsky allegedly wanted Tripp to use to guide Tripp's own affidavit to the Paula Jones lawyers. Other sources close to the case, however, say her testimony about the talking points will not be explosive because there is no evidence that the points were generated by anybody at the White House.
Starr's concerns that Lewinsky's testimony by itself would not make a complete case against Clinton is what led him and his prosecutors to step up attempts to corroborate the claims she made in the taped conversations. Not all of it is in the form of witness testimony. Starr is in possession of E-mails sent last year by Lewinsky to Tripp. Sources tell TIME that the communications show Lewinsky paid close attention to the President's schedule, activities and whereabouts. All the same, Ginsburg dismisses the significance of the messages. "There is no smoking gun," he says.
The search for corroboration led to the parade of witnesses now appearing before Starr's Washington grand jury. He began two weeks ago with Ashley Raines, a former White House aide who reportedly claimed that Monica shared details of the affair with her and played telephone messages that Clinton had left on Lewinsky's answering machine. Last week Starr also questioned Neysa DeMann Erbland, 24, a longtime friend of Lewinsky's who reportedly testified that Monica told her she had oral sex with the President. Erbland, who has known Lewinsky since they were both students at Beverly Hills High School, is part of a family well known in the entertainment business. She arrived at the courthouse accompanied by her father, Freddy DeMann, the record producer who co-founded Maverick records with Madonna. Her husband Chris Erbland is a writer for the NBC sitcom Mad About You.
But even as Starr was picking up bits and pieces of a case, the White House could still take comfort from the fact that he was also employing a hazardous strategy: squeezing Lewinsky's mother by bringing her before the Washington grand jury for seven hours of questioning over two days, with a third possible this week. Marcia Lewis and her daughter are close confidants who share an apartment in the Watergate complex. Starr wants to hear Lewis say her daughter told her stories of a sexual relationship with the President that corroborate what Lewinsky said in the conversations secretly taped by Linda Tripp. If she also testifies that Monica told her Clinton tried to get her to lie to lawyers for Paula Jones, Starr could move his case beyond one of sexual conduct to criminal conduct.
But to get her on the stand, Starr had to thrust himself into the public relations nightmare of forcing a mother to testify against her own child. Though Starr was operating within the law, not many people have seen up close how rough the law can get when a determined prosecutor pulls out all the stops. And the very notion of turning mother against daughter plays into the hands of the critics who say that the independent counsel is on a mad tear. If Lewinsky were accused of a violent crime, maybe terrorism or espionage, it might seem reasonable to apply heat to her family. But the underlying claim in this case is sexual misbehavior. At the White House, a derisive staff member summed up Starr's strategy: "Throw Momma in front of the train."
It didn't help that Lewis emerged from her second day of testimony looking like the train had hit her. She had been made to listen to some of Linda Tripp's secretly recorded tapes of Monica's conversations, in all their graphic detail. Lewis reportedly screamed and suffered an anxiety attack--to the point where a nurse and a wheelchair were brought to her side. In the end, Lewis didn't require either. But she left the proceedings looking pale and shaken. "He's tortured her," Lewinsky's attorney Ginsburg told TIME. "It was intended to be a clear signal to others, including Monica, that he's going to be rough." Starr ventured into controversial territory a second time by trying to get testimony from Secret Service agents who protect the President. Lewis Fox, a retired agent, was summoned to the courthouse after he was quoted in the Washington Post saying that on a weekend afternoon late in 1995 he ushered Lewinsky into the Oval Office, where she and Clinton were alone for 40 minutes. Clinton has said he doesn't recall ever having been alone with Lewinsky. Fox's attorney Michael Leibig claims Clinton told Fox that day that Lewinsky would not just be dropping off documents but would be there for a while. But Leibig also says his client did not know whether the pair was alone in the large office, which has several other doors through which people could have entered and left without passing Fox.
The prospect of being sucked into Starr's machinery set off alarms among other agents, who worry about being compelled to report on a President's words and actions. If bodyguards can be forced to become hostile witnesses, Presidents may end up sometimes trying to shake them, with unhappy results for presidential safety. So Fox left the courthouse last week without being questioned, because Starr's prosecutors were negotiating with officials of the Justice and Treasury departments over ground rules for such a session. Under an agreement reached on Friday, Starr will be permitted to pursue "limited questioning" of Fox, so long as the "protective techniques and procedures of the Secret Service are not disclosed." But the two sides are still bargaining over how to interrogate other agents, including one on active duty whom Starr has subpoenaed.
Many lawyers involved in the case are waiting for Starr to issue subpoenas to six women who have already testified under oath that they did not have an affair with Clinton. Starr's goal is to determine whether anyone induced them to cover up for the President. The six were deposed by attorneys for Paula Jones as part of Jones' lawsuit against Clinton. Five of them have been responding to rumors that they had been involved with Clinton since the early 1980s. The sixth is Shelia Lawrence, widow of M. Larry Lawrence, the former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland whose body was removed last month from Arlington National Cemetery. Lawrence, who was rumored to have had an affair with Clinton during the 1992 campaign, has stated publicly that in her deposition to the Jones lawyers, she flatly denied "a sexual or romantic relationship of any type with President Clinton."
Starr was facing more accusations last week of being too closely involved with the Paula Jones legal team. Robert Bennett, Clinton's attorney in the Jones suit, had filed a subpoena requesting Kirkland & Ellis, the law firm in which Starr still serves as a private attorney, to turn over any materials related to work it may have done on behalf of Jones. Though the firm has never formally represented Jones or any other party to the case, Bennett wants to know, among other things, who at Kirkland & Ellis faxed the Chicago Tribune a copy of an affidavit in the Jones case several days before the affidavit was officially filed in court last fall.
Speculation about Starr's having an improper connection to the Jones case took an added twist late last week. In a story first reported Saturday by the Washington Post, and confirmed by TIME, Linda Tripp secretly met with one of Jones' lawyers on Jan. 16, the night before Clinton gave his deposition in the Paula Jones case, to tell them about Lewinsky's alleged affair with the President. That briefing gave members of the Jones legal team more ammunition for detailed questions they asked Clinton the next day, including whether he had ever given her gifts or been alone with her. But it also raised questions about whether Starr knew that Tripp, who was already working with his investigation, was also assisting the Jones team. Jones' lawyers insist that they did not know then that Tripp was working with Starr.
Starr is moving fast to wrap up the Lewinsky part of his investigations. For one thing, as soon as he's off stage, the White House strategy of making him the issue loses steam. And since legal experts are divided on whether a sitting President can be charged with a crime--like most of them, Starr leans toward no--he's also not expected to indict Clinton himself, even if he does decide he has sufficient evidence to charge the President with perjury or obstruction of justice. Instead Starr is likely to hand off the whole mess to the House Judiciary Committee, where its 35 members would have to decide if what Starr gives them amounts to the kind of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that justify an impeachment proceeding.
Republicans are hardly unhappy to see Clinton in his present predicament. All the same, they are in no hurry to move to an impeachment inquiry that could carry as many risks for them as it does for him. Clinton's approval rating is at an all-time high. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last week, it reached an upper atmosphere 79%, a number so tall that White House aides are playing it down because it only invites future headlines about Clinton's approval rating dropping. What it means for Republicans is that any impeachment proceeding would be a complicated gift. A vote in the full House would be presided over by Speaker Newt Gingrich, a man with some of the lowest approval ratings in America. "The Republicans don't have a lot of credibility on this stuff," says a cautiously confident aide to the President. "Everyone thinks they're partisan." The prospect of a conviction in the Senate, where the trial stage of any impeachment would be held, is also slim. It would require a two-thirds majority to convict a sitting President, which in turn would require 12 Democrats to join all the Senate Republicans in a vote against Clinton.
But a lingering accusation of perjury against Clinton that never comes to any conclusion is also not much of a win for the Democrats. Republicans may be content to draw out the role of Congress in the inquiry as a way to bleed the Democrats through this year's election and into 2000, making the whole process a dagger aimed directly at the heart of Al Gore. Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde could choose, for example, to hold "preliminary" hearings before ratcheting them up to full-scale impeachment hearings, after taking the maximum amount of time to study the truckload of documents dumped by Starr on his doorstep.
And if Clinton's approval ratings remain stubbornly high, Republicans might even forgo taking any action at all, hoping all the while that even without the drama of an impeachment hearing, Clinton's authority, and his ability to push through the rest of his agenda, will simply wilt under a continuing barrage of ridicule and distaste. It's not exactly a political advantage for the President to seem like his own perennial bimbo eruption. Hillary Clinton insisted to some reporters last week that the crisis will "slowly dissipate over time." That could very well be. But while that's happening, the Clinton presidency is not likely to prosper.
--Reported by Margaret Carlson, James Carney, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington