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The President Under Seige

Friday April 17, 1998

- Commentary -

What We Know


Whenever the subject is scandal, President Clinton's apologists argue that his critics fail to distinguish facts from "mere allegations." The public, they aver, should withhold judgment until the facts are in. Implicit is the notion that there is no empirical basis from which to draw inferences and render reasonable judgments.

In the wake of Judge Susan Webber Wright's dismissal of the Paula Jones lawsuit, the Clintonites have been emboldened; they are frantically claiming that we know nothing.

But in fact we know quite a lot. There are many important questions, arising from facts, about whether our president has (among other things) committed perjury, suborned perjury and obstructed justice. Given that the Clinton administration employs a nonstop, dust-in-your-eyes machine, it is important to recapitulate what we know:

  • Monica Lewinsky. We know the president has denied, under oath and in public statements, any criminal wrongdoing and any sexual relations with "that woman." But we also know there are 20 hours of tape recordings between Ms. Lewinsky and her erstwhile colleague Linda Tripp. Ms. Lewinsky goes into detail about her affair with the president, and, according to people who have heard the tapes, she claims Mr. Clinton directed her to testify falsely in the Paula Jones case. We know, too, that Ms. Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, gave Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr a "proffer" of testimony in which Ms. Lewinsky reportedly confirmed a sexual relationship with Mr. Clinton.

Extensive Personal Attention

We know that Ms. Lewinsky told others about her encounters with the president, and that others claim to have heard Mr. Clinton's messages left on Ms. Lewinsky's home answering machine. We know that under oath Ms. Tripp said she was told by Ms. Lewinsky to "lie and deny," and that Ms. Lewinsky passed along to Ms. Tripp three pages of "talking points" giving her instructions on how to lie under oath.

We know the president gave Ms. Lewinsky gifts that have been turned over to investigators, and that she sent courier packages to the president. We know that, according to lawyers familiar with Ms. Lewinsky's proffer who were quoted in the New York Times, the proffer says the president told Ms. Lewinsky she would not have to turn over the gifts, subpoenaed by Ms. Jones's lawyers, if she did not have them in her possession. We know that Ms. Lewinsky turned the gifts over to Mr. Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, who subsequently gave them to Mr. Starr's investigators. And we know that many former and current Clinton aides do not believe the president when he says that nothing sexual happened between himself and Ms. Lewinsky.

We know that Ms. Lewinsky, a former intern, made at least 37 visits to the White House after she was reassigned to the Pentagon, and that Mr. Clinton met with her after she was subpoenaed by Ms. Jones's lawyers. We know that Ms. Lewinsky received extensive personal attention and job-placement help from Vernon Jordan, a Washington power broker and Clinton confidant. We know that Ms. Lewinsky told Ms. Tripp that until Mr. Jordan got her a job, she would refuse to file her affidavit declaring that she never had sexual relations with the president, according to lawyer familiar with the case. We know that Ms. Lewinsky received a job offer from Revlon after Mr. Jordan personally called Ron Perelman, chairman of Revlon's parent company, on her behalf.

We know that Ms. Lewinsky received a job offer from U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson after meeting with him at the Watergate complex, where Ms. Lewinsky lives. We know that according to Ms. Lewinsky's proffer, as reported in the Times, Mr. Clinton told her that if she were in New York, she might be able to avoid testifying in the Jones lawsuit. And we know that Ms. Lewinsky's job offers came from New York.

  • Betty Currie. We know that on a Sunday in January, the day after his deposition in the Paula Jones case, Mr. Clinton met with Betty Currie. According to lawyers familiar with her testimony, he posed and answered a series of questions to guide her through an account of his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. We know that in his deposition the president placed Betty Currie at the center of all Lewinsky-related matters, and that Mr. Clinton told Ms. Lewinsky (according to those familiar with her proffer) that she could explain her White House visits as trips to see Ms. Currie. And we know Mr. Clinton took Ms. Currie, one of the crucial witnesses in the Starr investigation, on his recent trip to Africa.
  • Kathleen Willey. We know that when Ms. Jones's lawyers subpoenaed any letters from Kathleen Willey, Mr. Clinton falsely denied that he had any such documents. Two months later, after Ms. Willey went public on "60 Minutes" with her allegations of presidential groping, Mr. Clinton personally approved the release of 15 notes and letters in an effort to discredit her. We know Mr. Clinton claimed through his lawyer that he had "no specific recollection" of his meeting with Ms. Willey, and later said that he "has a very clear memory" of the meeting. We know that according to Ms. Willey's sworn statement, she was sexually molested by the president. We know that two months after Ms. Willey was subpoenaed in the Paula Jones case, Democratic fund-raiser Nathan Landow flew her to his estate, where, according to sources familiar with Ms. Willey's grand jury testimony, Mr. Landow pressed her not to say anything about her encounter with Mr. Clinton.
  • Gennifer Flowers. We know that Hillary Clinton told "60 Minutes" in 1992 that "part of what I believe with all my heart is that the voters are tired of people who lie to them." We know that during the same interview Mr. Clinton denied that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. And we know that six years later, when asked under oath if he ever had sexual relations with Ms. Flowers, Mr. Clinton answered yes. We know that on the matter of the affair, Mr. Clinton is on tape telling Ms. Flowers: "Deny it." And we know Ms. Flowers is on tape telling Mr. Clinton: "The only thing that concerns me . . . at this point, is the state job," to which Mr. Clinton replies, "Yeah, I never thought about that. . . . If they ever ask if you've talked to me about it, you can say no." And we know that Ms. Flowers testified under oath that when she told Mr. Clinton she had lied to a grievance committee, he said, "Good for you."
  • Stonewalling. We know that while publicly pledging cooperation, the White House has followed a strategy of stonewalling and blocking inquiries from both Ms. Jones's lawyers and Mr. Starr's office. We know that for weeks the president made the fictitious claim that he could not comment on the Lewinsky matter because he was legally required to keep silent. We know that in January the president said of the Lewinsky matter: "You and the American people have a right to get answers. I'd like for you to have more rather than less, sooner rather than later. So we'll work through it as quickly as we can and get all those questions out there to you." And we know that in February, after having answered almost none of the key questions surrounding the Lewinsky story, Mr. Clinton said, "I've told the American people what is essential for them to know about this."
  • Executive privilege. We know that Mr. Clinton has invoked claims of executive privilege that are even broader than Richard Nixon's--claims few legal scholars defend. We know the president is now claiming his lawyers are asserting executive privilege without his knowledge: "The first time I learn about a lot of these legal arguments is when I see them in the paper," Mr. Clinton told a reporter. We know that in 1994 Mr. Clinton said of asserting executive privilege, "It's hard for me to imagine a circumstance in which that would be an appropriate thing for me to do." And we know that in 1994, then-White House counsel Lloyd Cutler wrote a memorandum in which he said it is White House practice "not to assert executive privilege" in circumstances involving communications relating to investigations of personal wrongdoing by government officials.
  • Procuring and silencing women. We know that state troopers who served on Mr. Clinton's Arkansas security detail have sworn under oath they procured women for then-Gov. Clinton; that Mr. Clinton acknowledges that he spoke to the troopers' former supervisor, Buddy Young, about their disclosures; that three state troopers have testified under oath that they or their families were threatened by Clinton associates if they talked; and that Dolly Kyle Browning said under penalty of perjury that her own brother, a 1992 Clinton campaign worker, warned her that if she talked about her alleged sexual relationship with Mr. Clinton, "we will destroy you." We know that people have testified under oath that Mr. Clinton helped secure government jobs for women with whom he had affairs, and that lawyer John B. Thompson has said under oath that his friend M. Samuel Jones told him Mr. Jones was paying women for their silence.
  • Private investigators and attempts to discredit the independent counsel. We know that on Feb. 22 the White House issued a categorical denial that it "or any of President Clinton's private attorneys has hired or authorized any private investigator to look into the background of . . . investigators, prosecutors or reporters." We know that the next day Terry Lenzner said that his firm, Investigative Group Inc., had been retained by the law firm representing Mr. Clinton in Mr. Starr's investigation, and that Mr. Lenzner said if his investigators were looking into the backgrounds of members of Mr. Starr's staff, "I'd say there was nothing inappropriate about that." We know that James Carville declared "war" on the independent counsel, something no one acting on behalf of an administration had ever done before. And we know White House officials have talked about "our continuing campaign to destroy Ken Starr."

We know, too, that if the president is innocent of the felony allegations against him, a vast number of people, representing all points on the political spectrum, must have committed perjury.

The steady march toward impeachment hearings is not surprising; abuse of power, obfuscation, thuggery and an ends-justify-the-means mentality are the coin of the Clinton realm. In 1992 Mr. Clinton promised us "the most ethical administration in the history of the republic." Since then, five independent counsels have been appointed to investigate high administration officials; Attorney General Janet Reno has asked Mr. Starr to expand his mandate on three separate occasions; and even before the latest scandals broke, Mr. Clinton presided over one of the most scandal-plagued administrations in the history of the republic.

The infamous acts include the improper acquisition of some 900 FBI files; the mysterious reappearance (in the Clintons' private living quarters) of subpoenaed billing records, crucial to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. investigation, that had purportedly been missing for two years; the administration's misrepresentation about Mrs. Clinton and her commodity trades; the half-million-dollar payments to Webster Hubbell after he was forced to resign in disgrace (including $100,000 from one of James Riady's Hong Kong companies and, with Mr. Jordan's help, $63,000 in "consulting fees" from a holding company controlled by Mr. Perelman); the selling of the Lincoln bedroom; the illegal fund-raising calls made from the White House; the president's videotaped statement to donors that, contrary to his previous denials, he was illegally raising soft money to pay for reelection ads; the White House's failure to turn over to congressional investigators videotapes of Mr. Clinton's coffees with political donors until months after they were requested; its failure to turn over subpoenaed notes by White House aide Bruce Lindsey until the day after the Senate's Whitewater Committee's authorization expired; the improper use of the FBI to bolster false White House claims of financial malfeasance in the firing of the White House Travel Office; and the efforts to obstruct the Resolution Trust Corp.'s investigation of the failed Arkansas thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan.

Salt in the Soil

The effects of the Clinton scandals will be severe--particularly if the president, because of public indifference and congressional diffidence, escapes accountability until the history books are written years from now. If that happens, it will undercut efforts toward the moral education of the young, increase cynicism and further erode public trust in our political leaders. Indeed, Mr. Clinton has already devalued the office of the presidency. It is axiomatic that the actions of the president strongly influence what the nation talks about; consider, then, the nature of our public discourse these days. He is bringing us down. Through his tawdry, reckless, irresponsible conduct, he has plowed salt in America's civic soil. For that, and for much else, he has rightfully earned our obloquy.

[Mr. Bennett is author of "Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice From the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems and Speeches" Simon & Schuster, 1997.]

Copyright © 1998 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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