With first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side and his voice hoarse with emotion, President Clinton angrily denied Monday that he had had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose tape-recorded accounts of an affair with him threaten his presidency.
In his most emphatic denial since the scandal surfaced last Wednesday, Clinton also rejected accusations that he had urged Lewinsky to lie under oath about their relationship.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Clinton said in comments at the White House that his aides hoped would ease public concerns about his credibility on the eve of his State of the Union message to Congress. “I never told anybody to lie, not a single time - never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.”
But Clinton’s lawyers, in a legal filing Monday, acknowledged that the president was being distracted from that work. They said legal processes “have become a vehicle for parties allied in an attempt to destroy the president,” and accused the news media of playing along, panting to present “raw and salacious material” without checking its credibility.
Compounding the president’s woes, a grand jury hearing tentatively scheduled for Tuesday by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr threatened to overshadow the State of the Union address. Among the witnesses who could be called Tuesday are the president’s personal troubleshooter, Vernon Jordan; Clinton’s personal secretary, Betty Currie, and several former White House interns.
Clinton did not answer questions, and some of his longstanding allies on Capitol Hill said they were not reassured by his remarks.
White House officials continued refusing to explain his relationship with Lewinsky, who, her lawyers have said, received gifts from the president and job referrals from Jordan.
Lewinsky offers to talk
Lewinsky met with her lawyers for nearly nine hours Monday. One of them, William Ginsburg, said he had submitted to prosecutors a summary of what she would be willing to say about her relations with the president if she was given full immunity from prosecution.
There was no sign Monday night that, whatever the details of Lewinsky’s latest offer, the prosecutors had decided to accept it.
One person close to the case said former deputy White House chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman was subpoenaed by Starr on Monday to testify. Current and former administration officials have said that it was Lieberman who moved Lewinsky out of the White House because she was spending too much time around the president.
Earlier trial date sought
With their own filing Monday, Clinton’s lawyers went on the offensive. In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Ark., they argued for an earlier trial of Paula Jones’ sexual misconduct suit against the president, now set to begin May 27. One of Clinton’s legal advisers said that by seeking to expedite the trial, his lawyers would demonstrate to the public that Clinton felt he had nothing to fear.
But his lawyers also said the trial could prove an effective means to discredit the accusations regarding Lewinsky. Declaring that “Paula Jones has no case,” Robert Bennett, one of the president’s lawyers, wrote in the motion that through a trial, “many of the other allegations that are not directly relevant to Paula Jones’ claims will be proven baseless.”
Echoing a rising clamor among Clinton’s aides and friends, Bennett’s filing also criticized the independent counsel: “The Office of Independent Counsel, intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, has joined forces with Paula Jones.”
In denying an extramarital affair, Clinton was compelled Monday to publicly dismiss an accusation that had never been so baldly and forcefully put to a president, much as Richard M. Nixon once found himself declaring that “I am not a crook.”
Clinton was more direct Monday than he was in denying the accusations last week, when in interviews he appeared to fall back on evasive word choice. For example, he used the present tense in saying then that “there is no improper relationship.”
Clinton’s aides did not make the final decision about his appearance until Sunday, after days of debate between his political advisers, who argued that he needed to reassure the public, and his lawyers, who feared that any statement could interfere with their legal strategy.
His aides said that Clinton had not intended to deliver a more detailed denial than he did last week but that he had wanted to deliver a more forceful one.
“He was determined to make a point, which is what he did,” one of his senior aides said this evening.
But Clinton’s denial did not satisfy even some Democrats.
Asked if he thought the president was telling the truth, Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., who has been a close ally of Clinton, said, “I would like to believe the president.” Fazio said he felt “totally out of the loop” and had not talked to the White House about the scandal.
Clinton did receive expressions of support from some of his own top officials. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said in an interview on CNBC, “I absolutely believe his statements with respect to this matter.”
Clinton continued preparing for his State of the Union address Monday, rehearsing it for about three hours in the White House family theater. His aides said they were not concerned about the reception he would receive in the House chamber.
But one Republican senator, Phil Gramm of Texas, told reporters that he was considering skipping the address. Gramm said that his policy disagreements with Clinton were one factor but that he also felt awkward about the accusations against the president.
No confidence in polls
Aides to Clinton said an internal poll Monday showed that his personal favorability rating had fallen, but they insisted that the decline was not drastic. Further, they said, his unfavorability rating has not increased. Rather, more Americans were saying they were undecided about him, suggesting that they were awaiting more information.
Some aides to Clinton said that they were not putting much confidence in any polling right now, because they felt that news related to the Lewinsky episode would take time to sink in.
Clinton’s allies and some former aides again turned their fire Monday on Starr, the independent counsel, who has expanded his investigation to include the accusations concerning Lewinsky.
Abner Mikva, a former White House counsel to Clinton and before that a federal judge and congressman, said that Starr had become “an inquisitor.”
“I think Judge Starr is really performing a very dubious role, and history will judge him very very harshly whatever the outcome,” Mikva said, adding “I’m glad I’m not in the White House.”