WASHINGTON — The investigation of President Clinton's dealings with a former White House intern is now focusing with intensity on how and why a handful of gifts that Clinton gave to the woman were later returned to the executive mansion.
Investigators are seeking to determine whether the president or one of his top advisors, Deputy Counsel Bruce R. Lindsey, suggested that the former intern, Monica S. Lewinsky, return the gifts, lawyers familiar with the matter said. Lewinsky returned the gifts to Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary.
The examination of this episode is crucial because it could shed light on whether there was a White House-directed attempt to encourage false testimony or to obstruct justice.
These are among the most serious matters being investigated by staff of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and, if established, would be grounds for prosecutors to take action against Clinton, Lindsey or others.
Starr has been authorized by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and a special panel of federal appeals court judges to investigate whether perjury, the encouraging of perjury or obstruction of justice occurred. Under law, the independent counsel is empowered to bring criminal charges and, in the case of the president, to report to Congress evidence that may reflect any criminal conduct.
Despite Clinton's soaring public-opinion ratings, the controversy, including the handling of the gifts, is viewed as very serious by lawyers familiar with the investigation.
"Why were the gifts returned?" asked one of the lawyers familiar with the investigation. "At whose request? When you cut through it, who actually initiated the return? That's the big issue."
At issue immediately is whether there is a benign explanation for Lewinsky's actions, or whether they were orchestrated to help mask an intimate personal relationship--a relationship that both the president and Lewinsky were about to be asked about under oath in connection with the sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Clinton by Paula Corbin Jones.
Investigators, aided by a friend of Lewinsky's who secretly taped conversations with her, believe the president gave Lewinsky clothing, a brooch and other items during the two years she worked as an intern and a staff member at the White House and then as a public affairs aide at the Pentagon.
In December, after Lewinsky was subpoenaed to testify in the Jones case, she reportedly took the items back to the White House. Details of how Currie collected them were reported on Friday by the New York Times, which said that Currie had turned the items over to Starr's investigators.
Asked at a news conference about his relationship with Lewinsky, Clinton again declined to discuss the subject. "I'm honoring the rules of the investigation" by remaining silent, he said. Lindsey did not return calls seeking comment.
Lawyers familiar with the investigation noted that by giving back the items, Lewinsky could testify truthfully, if asked, that she had no gifts from the president. Attorneys for Jones had heard rumors about an alleged relationship between Lewinsky and Clinton.
Another possibility that investigators are assessing is whether Currie arranged for the return of the gifts, solely on the basis of her conversations with Lewinsky about the Jones lawsuit subpoena and with no encouragement from either Clinton or Lindsey.
Indeed, the 58-year-old Currie, described by colleagues as a friendly, "mother-hen" presence just outside the Oval Office, has been a central figure in Starr's investigation of Clinton's dealings with Lewinsky. She testified on Jan. 27 before a federal grand jury.
Currie was the White House aide who often cleared Lewinsky to enter the executive mansion; the former intern visited the executive mansion about three dozen times after transferring to the Pentagon in April 1996.
Investigators have questioned Currie about her conversations with the president after Jan. 17, the day on which he was questioned under oath in the Jones case about his rumored relationships with various women.
The New York Times reported that Clinton summoned Currie to come to work the next day, a Sunday, and recounted to her some of questions that Jones' lawyers had asked him. The newspaper's account said that, while Currie listened, Clinton posed--and then implied answers for--a series of sensitive questions related to his dealings with Lewinsky.
On Friday, Currie's lawyer, Lawrence H. Wechsler, harshly criticized the New York Times story, as did White House aides, who branded it as a distorted leak of information from Starr's office.
Said Wechsler: "I want to be absolutely clear: to the extent there is any implication or the slightest suggestion that Mrs. Currie believed that the president, or anyone else, tried to influence her recollection, that is absolutely false and a mischaracterization of the facts."