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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Clinton Enlists Kantor, Offers Specific Denial

January 25, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and RICHARD A. SERRANO and DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton stepped up his defense against allegations of sexual misconduct, recruiting veteran political warrior and longtime advisor Mickey Kantor to become his personal counsel and signing off Saturday on a set of "talking points" for aides that significantly amplify his denial of a sexual relationship with a White House intern.

The president "certainly denies that he ever had oral sex" with 24-year-old former intern Monica S. Lewinsky, according to the memo to be used by his defenders. Lewinsky herself, in a sworn statement, has denied having a sexual relationship with Clinton. In telephone conversations secretly tape-recorded by a friend, however, Lewinsky reportedly said they had oral sex. The president's previous denials were viewed by some as being worded artfully so that they might exclude oral sex.

Approval of the talking points may be an early sign of the counterattack that some Clinton advisors hope Kantor will help the White House launch after a week of near-paralysis.

Kantor, who began helping the White House late Friday and continued to meet with aides there on Saturday, played a key role in devising the response that saved Clinton's 1992 bid for the presidency when nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers accused the then-Arkansas governor of sexual impropriety. And it is Kantor's political savvy, more than his legal expertise, that will be tested now.

In the tumultuous week since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr began investigating claims that Lewinsky was involved sexually with Clinton, the White House has seen its position steadily erode. Aides, hobbled by legal concerns and unsure about the facts, have been unable to counterattack.

And, as senior administration officials noted bitterly on Saturday, efforts to persuade congressional or other prominent Democrats to speak out for Clinton have almost uniformly failed. Indeed, Clinton's own former chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, publicly suggested it might be best for Vice President Al Gore to take over if the allegations prove true.

What Other Developments Disclose

Against this darkening background, there were these other developments:

* Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, said negotiations with Starr's office are at a standstill. Ginsburg demanded "complete immunity" from prosecution before Lewinsky will cooperate with the investigation into possible perjury, obstruction of justice or other criminal wrongdoing by Clinton.

"That's my line in the sand," he said.

* New excerpts of Linda Tripp's tapes of Lewinsky, released by Newsweek magazine, show the two women discussing Lewinsky's plan to lie about her relations with Clinton, as well as pressures she was under to cover it up.

* Television film was unearthed showing Clinton surrounded by voters at an outdoor rally in November 1996, with a broadly smiling Lewinsky standing right in front of him and then leaning forward for a presidential embrace.

* After a debate over tactics, the White House decided not to avoid today's television talk shows but instead to send three politically oriented aides, Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala and Ann Lewis, before the cameras to defend the president.

The decision to bring Kantor onto the team reflected a realization by Clinton and his inner circle that events, and with them public opinion, were outrunning their efforts to protect themselves.

Not only was almost no prominent figure rising vigorously to the president's defense, but the torrent of leaks about the supposed nature of Clinton's alleged relationship with Lewinsky was so shocking that by Saturday, talk of impeachment and resignation was commonplace. "There's nobody for him," one veteran Democratic operative said, reflecting the pervasive gloom. "Even Nixon had a few people for him at the end."

Tacitly acknowledging the downward slide and the difficulty in arresting it, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said: "When the president has not more vigorously challenged those who make these allegations but speaks in terms of legal jargon, it creates a bad situation."

Said a senior administration official: "We are dealing with a rapidly moving legal situation caused by an extremely aggressive independent counsel. To some extent, the press is moving this story faster than it is possible for us to respond to."

It was not just the speed of press revelations that hampered the White House.

While his lawyers urged caution from the beginning, Clinton's political advisors, at first, argued for prompt disclosure of all the facts--taking it for granted that Clinton, as he had so often in the past, could make his case successfully to the public.

Only gradually have some senior aides come to realize that such a press conference or other public appearance might not be feasible.

"The political people are catching up with the legal people about the facts, and they recognize that the facts may be such that it would be better to wait and see what develops before he goes out" in public, one senior official said later Saturday.

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