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THE CLINTON INVESTIGATION

Documents Suggest White House About-Face on Lewinsky Tactic

Scandal: Soon after the story broke, the president's allies adopted a strategy that would not alienate the former intern, Starr papers reveal.

October 03, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the first days after the scandal became public on Jan. 21, President Clinton spoke to a few close allies about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, offering various explanations that were damaging to her credibility.

But very quickly, fearful of doing or saying something that would alienate the young woman who could testify about his conduct, Clinton stopped the verbal assault and urged his aides to stop as well.

The documents released Friday shed light on how the president and his attorneys developed a strategy for dealing with Lewinsky intended to keep the young woman happy and quiet, in hopes that she would not cooperate with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

They show the president fumbling with how to manage the crisis before deciding--with the help of a secret public opinion poll--on a route of denial.

Situation Called for New Approach

The strategy differed greatly from tactics previously employed by Clinton's team when dealing with accusations from a woman about sex and the president.

The day the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton quickly turned to former political advisor Dick Morris for help. Morris, who resigned from Clinton's 1996 campaign because of a sex scandal, first advised Clinton to tell all and apologize. "The one thing you've got to avoid is getting trapped like [President] Nixon into a rigid posture of denial," Morris testified that he told the president.

But after ordering an overnight poll, Morris reversed himself. "I'm wrong," he told the president. "You can't tell them about it. They'll kill you."

The next day, Morris told the grand jury, a reporter called him and said that on the tapes of Lewinsky's conversations with her former friend, Linda Tripp, Lewinsky described having sex with the president while he was talking with Morris, who was having sex with a prostitute in his hotel room.

Morris said he told the president that he would call a press conference and use it to blast Lewinsky's story as "the fevered fantasy of a teenage mind."

"I'm getting ready to just rip her tomorrow," Morris said.

Clinton seemed to egg him on but then suggested that Morris should be "careful." Clinton quizzed Moris on what days he held the phone up to the prostitute's ear, according to Morris' testimony. Morris said it was only a dozen times.

After thinking about it for a day, Clinton urged Morris to drop the idea.

"My people don't think it would be a good idea for you to have that press conference because we're not all sure that Lewinsky is going to cooperate with Starr," Clinton said, according to Morris. "We think there's some chance that she won't and we don't want to alienate her."

The president's decision took several days to evolve. Certainly it came after he had explained his relationship with Lewinsky to Sidney Blumenthal, a senior advisor and former New Yorker writer who is close to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and to many journalists in town.

The president talked to Blumenthal the day the story broke, after Mrs. Clinton had told Blumenthal that the president was being wrongly attacked, the presidential aide said. He was merely ministering to a "troubled" young person as is his habit, the first lady explained, according to Blumenthal's testimony.

"If you knew his mother, you would understand it," Mrs. Clinton is quoted as telling Blumenthal, referring to the late Virginia Kelly. "She was a very open-hearted person."

Meeting with Clinton later in the day, Blumenthal related what Mrs. Clinton had told him. Clinton confirmed that Lewinsky had been "troubled" and that he had "helped" her. He told Blumenthal that he could not help himself from ministering to people in need.

"It's very difficult for me to do that given how I am. I really want to help people," the president told Blumenthal, according to the advisor's testimony.

Then Clinton told Blumenthal that Lewinsky had "made a sexual demand" on him--and that the president had rebuffed her. She threatened him that she would tell others that they had had an affair.

"I've gone down that road before. I've caused pain for a lot of people and I'm not going to do that again," Clinton said, according to Blumenthal.

The president told the advisor: "I feel like the character in the novel, 'Darkness at Noon.' " For his part, Blumenthal advised Clinton to cut himself off from such troubled people because they could lead him into "incredible messes," the aide testified.

Other advisors heard other versions of the story from Clinton.

In a meeting with Deputy Chief of Staffs John Podesta and Sylvia Matthews and Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the president denied reports of the affair in the broadest terms.

"I want you to know that this story is not true," Clinton said, according to Podesta's testimony. "He was forceful when he spoke to us," the official said.

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