Nation Views Clinton’s Taped Testimony Before Grand Jury
Americans for the first time Monday witnessed the unprecedented political drama of their president giving an extensive and at times emotional explanation of his Oval Office affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Television broadcasts of the month-old videotape of President Clinton’s grand jury testimony provided extraordinary insight into his side of the story, even as Congress grapples with whether Clinton should be impeached.
“I’m trying to be honest with you and it hurts me,” Clinton told the grand jury early in the Aug. 17 session, just hours before he would go before the American people and admit to misleading the nation for seven months about the nature of the relationship.
He acknowledged “inappropriate intimate contact” with Lewinsky but insisted to the jurors that because he and the former White House intern did not have “intercourse” his previous statement denying “sexual relations” with her was true.
Throughout the four-hour session, Clinton maintained his composure, even when answering blunt sexual questions posed by off-camera prosecutors. At times, however, his anger was palpable.
The release of the videotape came eight months after the news broke of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation into Clinton’s handling of the relationship.
White House officials said that although the videotape and 3,183 pages of evidence were released by the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee for “rank partisan” reasons, the material could help support the president’s case with the American people.
“That the president’s conduct does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense should now be clear to everyone,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry said in a statement.
The House Judiciary Committee, however, is expected to release still more documents from Starr’s inquiry before a Monday deadline. It will then begin conducting its own investigation of the prosecutor’s case against the president, another step toward possible impeachment proceedings.
* Other documents released included lengthy pages of grand jury testimony and statements to prosecutors from Lewinsky. She emerges as both a sympathetic character used by a powerful world leader as well as a scheming figure desperately trying to hang onto Clinton.
* With Congress not meeting, reaction on Capitol Hill to the broadcast of Clinton’s testimony was scant but predictable. Some Republicans characterized the contents as proof of perjury by the president while some House Democrats launched a vigorous counterattack, chastising Republicans for releasing more “salacious and lurid” details of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky.
* Public reaction was mixed. Most of those asked for comment who had watched the broadcast said that it did not alter their views. Critics of the president said that his evasions and hairsplitting about sex showed that he had committed perjury. Clinton’s supporters, meanwhile, said that he had performed well in what to them was an obvious political smear tactic.
* With his presidency crippled at home by the investigations into what his attorneys have called his “personal failings,” Clinton appeared to win international support. Before delivering a speech to the United Nations in which he called for tougher efforts to fight international terrorism, Clinton received a rare standing ovation from the General Assembly.
At many points during his testimony in the White House map room, Clinton appeared conscious of its historical import, addressing his remarks not only to the grand jurors watching on closed-circuit television in the federal courthouse several blocks away but also to those who would judge his presidency after it has ended.
The president’s testimony was also unusual for the manner in which it was delivered. Rather than limiting Clinton to responding directly to questions, as is the common practice in such proceedings, Starr’s prosecutors, perhaps in deference to Clinton’s office, allowed him to talk at length on a range of topics.
The president also exercised extraordinary control over the session by limiting the questions he would answer. Rather than responding to questions by prosecutors or grand jurors about details of the sex acts he shared with Lewinsky, Clinton read a prepared statement admitting to “inappropriate intimate contact” on “certain occasions in early 1996, and once in early 1997.”
“These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse,” Clinton read, his reading glasses poised on his nose. “They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined.”
Goal Was to Be ‘Not Particularly Helpful’
Explaining how his testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against him could have been honest, Clinton answered:
“My goal in this deposition was to be truthful but not particularly helpful.” Leaning forward in his chair and squinting his eyes for emphasis, he said: “I did not wish to do the work of the Jones lawyers. I deplored what they were doing. I deplored the innocent people they were tormenting and traumatizing. I deplored their illegal leaking.
“I deplored it,” he added. “But I was determined to walk through the minefield of this deposition without violating the law and I believe I did.”
Clinton said that he was relying on a “strange” definition of sexual relations supplied by the judge: “A person engages in sexual relations when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitals, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”
Clinton refused to say which sex acts he engaged in with Lewinsky, citing his desire for privacy and to protect his family. But he attempted to assure jurors that he did not engage in any acts covered by the definition.
Contradicting Lewinsky’s testimony, a transcript of which was also released Monday, Clinton denied touching her breasts or genitalia directly, which he says would be covered by the judge’s definition.
Although the president did not directly admit to engaging in oral sex with Lewinsky, he implied that he did receive oral sex from her, saying that he believed the legal definition of sexual relations did not cover that act.
When a prosecutor asked if Lewinsky would be lying if she said the president used a cigar in a sex act, Clinton’s eyes widened with rage, but he remained calm and referred to his earlier statement.
Clinton also contradicted Lewinsky’s testimony about when their first sexual contact occurred. She said it was in November 1995, when she was still an intern and they had yet to have a conversation. But he said it was in early 1996, when they were already friends.
Despite his contradictory recollections about the details of their sexual relationship, the president’s comments about Lewinsky were compassionate and revealed for the first time some human feelings that he has toward the young woman.
“She’s basically a good girl,” he said. “She’s a good young woman with a good heart and a good mind. I think she is burdened by some unfortunate conditions of her, her upbringing. But she’s basically a good person.” Discussing the way Lewinsky persuaded uniformed Secret Service guards at the White House northwest gate to tell her whom the president was seeing, with a warm expression on his face Clinton reflected that she “has a way of getting information out of people when she is either charming or determined.”
And he said it broke his heart that she was drawn into the mess of the Jones legal case and the Starr investigation.
But Clinton expressed his rage--in a controlled fashion--at Starr, Jones’ legal team and Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s former friend who taped their conversations and theninformed Jones’ attorneys and Starr about Lewinsky’s relationship with Clinton.
‘Trying to Set Me Up and Trick Me’
At one point, Clinton accused the independent counsel’s office of working with Tripp and the Jones lawyers.
“There had been some communication between you and Ms. Tripp and them and they were trying to set me up and trick me,” Clinton said.
Describing Tripp’s role, Clinton said that she had “betrayed her friend, Monica Lewinsky, stabbed her in the back” by recording conversations and telling prosecutors about the relationship.
The president also had some harsh comments for Kathleen E. Willey, who publicly accused him of groping her in an interview on “60 Minutes.” Clinton flatly rejected her story and said it had “shattered” her credibility.
Clinton also complained that Starr’s “four-year $40-million investigation [had] come down to parsing the definition of sex.”
But Clinton did his own share of parsing and quibbling over definitions.
A prosecutor suggested that Clinton’s lawyer’s statement in the Jones deposition that “ ‘there is no sex of any kind, in any manner, shape or form with President Clinton was an utterly false statement.”
Clinton answered: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Since the improper contact with Lewinsky had ended months before the deposition, Clinton said that “anyone generally speaking in the present tense, saying there is not an improper relationship would be telling the truth.”
Defending the impression he gave in the Jones deposition that he was never alone with Lewinsky, Clinton stated: “It depends on how you define alone.”
Prosecutors also asked a series of questions related to whether Clinton obstructed justice by trying to cover up the affair. Clinton denied that he had instructed his secretary, Betty Currie, to retrieve gifts he gave Lewinsky and at length explained that he did not believe that giving the gifts was wrong.
In her testimony, Lewinsky said that Clinton told her it would be “a good idea” for her to give the gifts to Currie.
Repeatedly throughout Clinton’s testimony, his famous memory failed him.
In one instance, he could not recall whether or what he told Deputy White House Chief of Staff John Podesta about his relationship with Lewinsky, even though Podesta is in charge of dealing with the scandal on the White House staff.
When pressed by prosecutors on why he failed to tell the Jones lawyers that his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. had talked with him about Lewinsky’s subpoena in that case, Clinton suggested again that his memory was failing him. Although prosecutors “have made this the most important issue in America,” Clinton said he had many other issues on his mind in January.
“I have been blessed and advantaged in my life with a good memory,” Clinton said. “I have been shocked and so have members of my family and friends of mine at how many things that I have forgotten in the last six years--I think because of the pressure and the pace and the volume of events in a president’s life, compounded by the pressure of your four-year inquiry, and all the other things that have happened.”
White House officials said that the detailed differences between Clinton’s and Lewinsky’s testimonies do not seem weighty enough to end his presidency.
“On some things, he says ‘a’ and she says ‘b.’ Are we going to remove the president of the United States over that?” asked one senior official.
That official added that the president’s memory lapses will not be problematic: “Even a skeptic will say he’s making a good faith effort to remember.”
Among other evidence released Monday, the new material from the Lewinsky testimony indicated that it was Tripp who talked her out of cleaning a dress stained with Clinton’s semen.
That is important because it was Tripp, who had an outspoken dislike for Clinton, who later tipped off prosecutors about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
“When I told Linda I was thinking about wearing the dress, she discouraged me,” Lewinsky testified. “She brought me one of her jackets from her . . . closet.”
Heart-to-Heart White House Session
In another example of the new material released Monday, Clinton allegedly poured out his heart to Lewinsky during a heart-to-heart session in the White House executive dining room.
The meeting occurred in May 1997, and it became what she remembered as “dump day”--when the president ended their relationship.
According to an account from Starr’s office, pieced together from Lewinsky’s interviews with them: “The president stated that he did not feel right about their relationship; it was not right, and the president said he could not do it anymore. Lewinsky was crying.
“The president told Lewinsky that he had been with hundreds of women in his life until he was about 40 years of age. The president told Lewinsky that when he turned 40 his life was falling apart.
“Lewinsky recalled that the president may have told her that he entertained thoughts of ending his life. . . .
“The president told Lewinsky that it was difficult for him to resist being with other women. The president struggled with it every day. The president told Lewinsky that he kept a calendar on how long he had been good.
“The president explained that during his life he had been two people and kept up two fronts. The president said that, starting in the third or fourth grade, he was a good boy with his mother and stepfather but also began telling stories and leading a secret life.
“Lewinsky’s impression was that the president was telling her he wanted to be right in the eyes of God.”
Other new details included Lewinsky’s testimony that she told presidential friend Jordan about her trysts with Clinton. Both men have denied that she told Jordan of the intimate relationship. She said Jordan told her that maybe there was a chance for her to have a deeper relationship with Clinton after he left the presidency.
“Mr. Jordan said: ‘Well, maybe you two will [be involved] when he’s out of office,’ ” Lewinsky said.
She added: “Mr. Jordan kind of knew with a wink and a nod that I was having a relationship with the president.”
Lewinsky also testified that she once warned Clinton she would tell her parents everything about their relationship, and that he told her it was “illegal to threaten the president of the United States.”
“My mom knew, you know, that I was having some sort of a relationship with the president,” Lewinsky said. “My dad had no idea.”
Testimony Called ‘Picture of Evasion’
In Congress, Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, called the Clinton testimony “a picture of evasion.” He predicted that the process toward a House impeachment inquiry will proceed.
From the other side of the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) criticized House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee for releasing the documents on Rosh Hashana and while the president was making an important address to the United Nations.
“It’s unfortunate that on a partisan, very harsh partisan basis, our Republican colleagues in the House have chosen to be partisan in releasing this tape,” Daschle said.
Even before the videotape was broadcast on television, Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill were giving their own spins to the story, suggesting ways in which the new documents boosted their positions.
The Democrats put out a special four-page “highlights” document in which they sought to show that Clinton was being persecuted and that some of his attackers had questionable motives and credibility problems.
The Democrats noted that Lewinsky admitted she had lied on numerous occasions, including her admission to Tripp that she had told “a whole bunch of lies.”
They also stressed that Starr’s office pounced on Lewinsky after Tripp told the prosecutors last January about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Immediately under questioning by prosecutors, Lewinsky was warned that she might get 27 years in prison if she did not cooperate.
It was “just so frightening. It was so incredibly frightening,” she told the grand jury.
Times on the Web
* See video excerpts of President Clinton’s testimony, the complete transcript and supporting documentation on The Times Web site. https://www.latimes.com
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.
* BROADCAST: Viewers react with a collective shrug. A18
* LETTERS: Correspondence between Clinton, Lewinsky. A17
* WORLD REACTION: Many say video shouldn’t have aired. A18
* EXCERPTS: Extensive excerpts of Clinton’s deposition. A19-21
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