An allegation that President Clinton was caught in the spring of 1996 in an “intimate encounter” at the White House with 24-year-old former intern Monica Lewinsky surfaced Sunday in the midst of the swirling scandal threatening the presidency.
The charge, aired on ABC news and attributed to an alleged witness who has made disclosure to independent counsel Kenneth Starr, is the first indication that evidence of a Clinton-Lewinsky liaison goes beyond Lewinsky’s tape-recorded conversations with Pentagon aide Linda Tripp. According to ABC, it was after Clinton and Lewinsky were seen together in the White House theater that she was transferred to a Pentagon job.
A week that saw Clinton plunged into the most serious crisis of his presidency also saw continuing decline in his job approval ratings. A new NBC poll showed a 15-point drop over the past seven days in Clinton’s favorable rating.
Significantly, the poll also showed 69 percent of those surveyed felt the president was “guarded, or less than honest,” about charges that he told Lewinsky to lie under oath about their affair to lawyers for Paula Jones, who is suing Clinton for sexual harassment.
Rahm Emanuel, a senior policy adviser at the White House, refused to comment on the latest ABC disclosure or “any story based on a leak.”
“The story here is to get it right, not to get it right away,” Emanuel said. “What we have is a media frenzy of innuendo and gossip. Yet there are only two facts: Did the president have a sexual relationship with this young lady? No. Did he ask this young lady to lie? No. What matters is the truth and the truth will bear that out.”
Emanuel flatly denied reports that there is talk of the president’s resignation among White House staff demoralized by the crisis.
Asked why Clinton didn’t offer an explanation to end the speculation, Emanuel said, “He is dealing with the State of the Union, Iraq, the Middle East and he is determined that he will not allow this to deter him from his agenda. He does want to address this question but you are not dealing with political content here, you are dealing with legal content, and an independent counsel walking around with a loaded subpoena.”
As morning television talk shows were abuzz about the Clinton scandal, the president and first lady attended church services at Foundry United Methodist Church, where the pastor, J. Philip Wogaman, delivered a sermon focusing on the themes of comfort, hope and love.
Although Wogaman made only brief mention of the president’s crisis, the service seemed strongly evocative of the powerful emotions sweeping the nation. Among the choir’s selections: the gospel song that begins, “My God is a rock in a weary land … shelter in a storm.”
David Gergen, an adviser to a series of presidents, including Clinton, said the presumption of innocence was paramount. Yet he advised that if there is any truth in the allegations that have been brought against Clinton, “He should confess serious error when he goes before the nation for the State of the Union (Tuesday night), and beg forgiveness.”
Rep. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., asserted, “The president is expected to be a moral leader. If these charges are true, he has disgraced himself and his office and should resign.”
However, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, cautioned against drawing premature parallels with the Watergate scandal which toppled Richard Nixon in 1974.
“Watergate was a seminal event that ended in the destruction of a president and his administration, and we certainly have not reached that here. But in terms of media and national attention, this is every bit as big,” said Hyde.
In response to a question about whether there was enough evidence to start impeachment proceedings against Clinton, Hyde said, “There is not enough evidence to prevail. You can always start something but I doubt if there would be enough Democratic support for a guilty vote on impeachment.”
Hyde said if Clinton had to admit that he had sex in the White House with a young aide, he should resign.
“That is my personal opinion,” he noted.
Yet he emphasized that current speculation was premature.
“This is very serious, yet these are still allegations and charges and they need credible and substantial evidence to create anything that would be impeachable. And we must remember that the presumption of innocence has to be maintained. But the quicker Clinton can dispel this, the better.”
Hyde noted that it must be difficult for Clinton to govern effectively in the current atmosphere.
“It must be difficult to maintain the moral stature necessary in negotiations with the United Nations and Saddam Hussein,” he observed.
Hyde predicted that the atmosphere at the State of the Union address will be “surreal” because of the unresolved crisis.
“‘It’s going to be weird,” he said, and forecast that the congressional reaction to the president will be “civil, polite, restrained applause, just that.”