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THE STARR REPORT

Both Sides Urge Clinton to Admit He Told Lies

September 14, 1998|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton and his attorneys came under growing pressure Sunday from Democrats as well as Republicans to concede that he lied under oath, as alleged by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and to throw himself at the mercy of the American people and Congress.

As the swirling debate in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter began to focus more intently on finding a way out of the wrenching national dilemma, Clinton supporters and critics alike said some form of punishment short of impeachment may be in order, such as a congressional reprimand or censure. Some expressed hope the matter could be resolved expeditiously, perhaps before the November elections.

Their suggestions amounted to a public entreaty to Clinton and his attorneys to consider striking the equivalent of a plea bargain with Congress to salvage his presidency and let the country move forward.

Clinton's lawyers have steadfastly denied that he purposely lied, either in his legal deposition in January for the Paula Corbin Jones civil lawsuit, or in his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17. The president himself said that night in a televised address that he was "legally accurate" when he denied having engaged in sexual relations with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

In a series of talk show appearances Sunday, the president's attorneys reiterated that position, which holds that Clinton did not consider his activities with Lewinsky to be covered by the broad definition of sexual relations presented to him by Jones' attorneys.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), speaking publicly for the first time since Starr's report was released Friday, flatly rejected that argument.

"I think the evidence there is overwhelming that he did lie," Lott said on "Fox News Sunday," adding that the apparent perjury "may well be" grounds for impeachment.

"Unless something changes," Lott said, "I don't see how [the House] can avoid" impeachment proceedings. Lott later expressed his hope that "it won't come to that" and suggested that Clinton "could" consider resigning.

A Clinton aide said Sunday that the president still has not read the 445-page report.

Lott and other key lawmakers suggested that the president's efforts to admit fault and seek forgiveness appear to be at odds with the ongoing legal strategy of denying that he committed perjury.

"One of the problems is, if the president reaches out, or he tries to be contrite . . . while simultaneously aggressively attacking through his lawyers the whole process and splitting legalistic hairs, there's a disconnect there," Lott said.

Speaking on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) agreed that the legal defense may be undercutting Clinton's public shows of contrition.

"I don't know if he's perjured himself," he said. "But if you come and say to the American people that 'I'm legally correct, I didn't have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky,' you're going to lose."

Ally Calls for Clinton to 'Come Clean'

In an interview, one influential House Democrat from California and a longtime Clinton ally, ardently agreed that the White House legal strategy is creating political problems for the president.

"Until the president stops putting up the false front--that he didn't perjure himself or didn't lie--contrition isn't possible," said the congressman, who asked to remain anonymous. Only after Clinton has "come clean," he added, "can we get on with how to assess the penalty and bring this to closure. I'd like to do it this year. . . . Too much is at stake to mess around with a legal defense."

With Congress returning to town today, its members and lawyers for Clinton engaged in a pitched battle for public opinion as the House Judiciary Committee ponders whether to commence an impeachment inquiry.

Over the weekend, committee members began sifting through 17 boxes of unreleased material that form the basis of Starr's allegations. Just how quickly any impeachment proceeding might unfold is difficult to say with certainty.

Some members, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), have proposed a lame-duck session of Congress to resolve the controversy after the November elections. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has said he remains inclined to let the House adjourn for the year by early next month. Lott, for his part, said he does not "see any way" to complete an impeachment process in the current 105th Congress.

"I think we should not delay," he said. "At the same time, I do not think we should rush to judgment."

The president spent the day at the White House. Skipping church, he tended to an array of public business, according to deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta. Although Podesta said Clinton had not read Starr's report, the scandal clearly was on his mind.

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