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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

3 Clinton Advisors Are Left Out of Loop

Staff: Latest allegations of impropriety leave Clinton's confidants turning to the media for information.

January 26, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In normal times, Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala and Douglas B. Sosnik are in the inner ring of President Clinton's circle of advisors.

One is stationed right outside the Oval Office. Another was at Clinton's side throughout the 1992 campaign and knew every detail of the controversies that hounded him all the way to election day. And the third has become one of the president's most constant companions--on the road and in the White House.

But as allegations of sexual impropriety and possible perjury rock Clinton's presidency, these three men have been taken out of the loop. And they're willing, even eager, to say so.

"I don't know anything more about the specifics of the case than anyone who reads the paper," said Sosnik, who advises the president on politics.

Emanuel, who specializes in policy initiatives, said he too is being "kept out of the facts" as Clinton's defense is being developed.

"I'm not interested," stated Emanuel, whose White House quarters connect directly to the Oval Office and who usually makes it his business to be apprised of all political and policy issues facing the president.

It is extraordinary for some of the president's closest confidants to admit to being uniformed, particularly about an issue that could put the presidency in peril.

But they appear to have good reason: A recent court ruling has made it much more risky for White House insiders to be in the know. And the tenacity of congressional investigators and the independent counsel's office has shown that White House officials no longer enjoy protection from investigatory subpoenas, or the huge legal bills they sometimes generate.

In fact, sources close to the deliberations say the only officials who are fully in the loop about what may have happened between the president and Monica S. Lewinsky are the members of Clinton's legal team.

Begala was even willing to advertise his ignorance to a television audience Sunday morning.

"I cannot, because of the odd world we live in, be a fact-finder," Begala said. "Because I'm not his private attorney in this."

The risk of knowing too much? "I will find myself, like many of my friends, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal bills," Begala said. "Because we have here an independent counsel firing off subpoenas as if he's got an Uzi, and running up huge legal bills on people just for having been in a meeting."

It is a different world than in 1992, when Begala was with the president throughout the campaign and could recite all of the intricacies of the political crises the president weathered then, including whether he had smoked marijuana or dodged the draft.

"In the campaign, I knew everything," Begala said in an interview, noting that his knowledge helped him shape Clinton's response to campaign charges.

"I can't do that now," he said. "Only the lawyers can."

The information gap is perhaps more striking for Begala, who returned to the White House last year after a lengthy hiatus.

White House staffers have learned from the costly experiences of colleagues and former colleagues. In one extreme example, Margaret Williams, former chief of staff for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, racked up more than $350,000 in legal bills in connection with subpoenas she received in the Whitewater and campaign-finance controversies.

Peace Corps Director Mark D. Gearan, while serving as a top White House advisor, took notes in a meeting about Whitewater early in Clinton's first term. His legal bills are reported to have topped $100,000.

An already tense environment became even more hostile when the Supreme Court refused in June to review a lower court ruling that effectively eliminated the attorney-client privilege for government lawyers and the employees who consult with them.

The ruling established that only private lawyers enjoy traditional attorney-client privilege. As a result, people like Sosnik, Emanuel and Begala cannot talk about potential evidence in the current controversy without running the risk of becoming witnesses or even co-conspirators.

Taking a back seat in the effort to exonerate the president is very difficult for advisors who "are used to a campaign and used to rapid-fire defense," said Ann Lewis, White House communications director.

"There are a couple of things we learned the hard way. Washington does not need more investigations. We on the White House staff should not try to add that to our portfolio," Lewis said.

"We cannot run around this place like so many Inspector Clouseaus and Miss Marples digging out our own facts."

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