The White House, fighting to preserve the Clinton presidency, counterattacked forcefully Saturday against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, claiming his report into the Clinton-Monica S. Lewinsky affair was a "hit-and-run smear campaign" that places politics above fairness.
The president's lawyers issued an acid-worded rebuttal that, point by point, sought to refute Starr's 11 grounds of possible impeachment. The president's advisors, after enduring the release of Starr's report Friday in all its lurid allegations of sex and perjury, now hope to convince the nation that Starr overstepped the bounds of common decency when a repentant Clinton already had asked the nation for forgiveness.
Clinton's lawyers denied that Clinton lied when he testified in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Corbin Jones. Nor did he obstruct justice or attempt to conceal his relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky, the lawyers said.
They said Starr had far exceeded his original mandate to investigate the failed Arkansas real estate deal known as Whitewater.
But some influential members of Congress, including Democrats, acknowledged that even if the worst Clinton has done is lie and perjure himself about an extramarital affair, Congress will apply some punishment.
"I don't think they [voters] will say, 'It's OK,' and I agree," Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) said in an interview. "The range of punishment goes from censure to some type of reprimand to the possibility of encouraging the president to do the honorable thing" and resign from office.
Clinton, in his weekly radio address, acknowledged that it has been an "exhausting and difficult" week. He also strove to appear presidential, hoping to divert attention from the crisis to such issues as the continuing troubles in Russia and problems with the global economy.
Some Democrats think the latest White House attack on Starr is misguided.
"Mr. Starr would normally have been vulnerable but for the fact that Clinton's words and actions have both empowered, strengthened and given credence to Mr. Starr," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.).
Still, Clinton was not without his supporters.
In Hillsboro, Ore., a suburb of Portland where he was attending opening ceremonies of a new light-rail line, Vice President Al Gore told reporters that he still embraces Clinton's defense.
"I do not believe this report serves as the basis for overturning the judgment of the American people that Bill Clinton should be their president," he said.
"He has accepted responsibility for his actions. He has said he did wrong. He has asked for forgiveness. He has addressed the issues he needs to address."
In addition, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Nixon 24 years ago, said the lurid Starr language proved prosecutors do not have a strong case.
"When you got nothing else going for you, you go for the dirt and the filth," Rangel said outside the White House after attending Clinton's radio address. "When you get down to the living rooms, you're dealing with a cheating husband that lied about it."
Clinton Ventures Out Only on the Radio
Clinton's day Saturday was short on public appearances. His radio address was the only shot he took at recognizing the crisis that is increasingly consuming his presidency.
"It's been an exhausting and difficult week in the capital--not only for me but for many others," he said. "But, as I told my Cabinet on Thursday, we cannot lose sight of our primary mission, which is to work for the American people, and especially for the future of our children."
He separately spoke for half an hour with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin about the tumultuous situation there, and he held a foreign policy meeting with top advisors--his first such session since his vacation last month.
The legal team, led by Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, said in its rebuttal Saturday: "This referral is so loaded with irrelevant and unnecessary graphic and salacious allegations that only one conclusion is possible. Its principal purpose is to damage the president."
They said Starr's piling-on of sexual descriptions was totally partisan. "They are simply part of a hit-and-run smear campaign, and their inclusion says volumes about [Starr's] tactics and objectives."
The White House's rebuttal also painstakingly goes through each of Starr's 11 counts of possible impeachment.
On the five counts of perjury, the White House lawyers denied that Clinton ever purposely lied either in his January legal deposition in the Jones civil lawsuit or his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17.
Their position remains that Clinton simply did not consider oral sex to be covered by the broad definition used when he was asked whether he had ever had sexual relations with Lewinsky.
"It is the president's good faith and reasonable interpretation that oral sex was outside the special definition of sexual relations provided to him," the rebuttal said.
On the question of obstruction of justice and witness tampering, the rebuttal maintained that Clinton never tried to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky nor instruct others to hide the truth for his benefit.
The president's actions, they said, were never "meant to or did obstruct anything."
Starr Inquiry Went Too Far, Defense Says
Finally, on the allegation that Clinton abused his power by trying to delay and subvert the Starr investigation through the use of executive privilege, the White House again said Starr was wrong.
Above all, the Clinton team criticized the four-year, multimillion-dollar Starr investigation for ranging too far afield. Begun as a look into the Whitewater scandal, the inquiry generated numerous other investigations along the way.
But in the Starr report, the Clinton lawyers said, the word "Whitewater" appeared but twice. "By contrast," they said, "the issue of sex is mentioned more than 500 times, in the most graphic, salacious and gratuitous manner."
Their rebuttal showed the White House shifting back into the attack mode it had been in through the months that Clinton was denying the relationship with Lewinsky. Once again, Clinton's advisors and supporters are hoping the public will blame the messenger and not their president.
"The majority of the public is going to remain in a position they've been in, which is: We are going to separate personal failings from his ability to do his job," said one senior White House official engaged in the president's defense.
The official, who did not disguise his own anger or disappointment with the president, added: "The question will be: Does the punishment fit the crime?"
"This is not selling weapons to the ayatollah," he said in reference to the Iran-Contra scandal that occurred during President Reagan's second term. "This is not using the IRS, FBI and CIA to harass your political opponents the way President Nixon did. This is not abuse of office."
While the fight is joined on Capitol Hill over Clinton's fate, the effect on the nation's business could be enormous. By the end of September, Congress must send to the White House 13 annual appropriation bills to keep the government operating when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
So far, Congress has sent only one such bill to Clinton. Many of the others contain controversial GOP riders that the president already has threatened to veto. The arguments range on issues from abortion, public housing and education to the 2000 census and the environment.
"The first big challenge for the president will come next month--with the appropriations bills," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). "Many of them are loaded with ideological measures, many of which are repugnant to the president, and so that will be an immediate test of his ability to lead domestically in the face of these charges."
On the foreign policy front, Clinton may also be tested. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) met for 90 minutes Friday with National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger to ensure cooperation in deterring troublemakers around the world from capitalizing on the turmoil in Washington.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.
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* Complete text of the Clinton team's new rebuttal can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/scandal