WASHINGTON -- President Clinton strongly implied yesterday that he believes special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr is out to get him -- even to the point of soliciting perjured testimony.
The president's remarks came about halfway through a 30-minute PBS interview -- taped yesterday and aired last night -- with newscaster Jim Lehrer.
In the interview, Lehrer asked the president about possible problems in the final weeks of the campaign, including the continuing Whitewater investigation. As part of that investigation Starr prosecuted -- and obtained convictions against -- James and Susan McDougal, business partners of Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the early 1980s.
James McDougal is cooperating with Starr in other phases of the investigation, but his former wife was jailed on a contempt charge earlier this month when she refused to answer Starr's questions. Susan McDougal and her lawyer, Bobby McDaniel, said that they believed Starr was "out to get the Clintons."
Asked by Lehrer whether he agreed, Clinton replied: "Well, I think the facts speak for themselves. She said and her lawyer said he felt [the special prosecutor's office] did not want her to tell the truth. They wanted her to say something bad about us, whether it was the truth or not. And if it was false, it would still be perfectly all right. And if she told the truth and it wasn't bad about us, she would be punished for it. That's what her lawyer said."
Lehrer then asked, "Do you believe him?"
"I think the facts speak for themselves," the president repeated. "There's a lot of evidence to support that."
Pressed on whether he concurs with this interpretation, Clinton replied, "Isn't it obvious?"
Knowingly seeking false testimony in order to convict someone is, in itself, a felony. Starr's office had no comment on the president's assertions, but the Republican Party's chief spokesman reacted angrily.
"The only people questioning Starr's integrity are people who have been convicted by a jury -- or their friends," said spokesman Ed Gillespie. "This is just one more example of Bill Clinton's attempts to tarnish the reputation of people who don't blindly accept his and his friends' misleading explanations of their conduct."
Clinton and his aides have consistently attacked as partisan every congressional inquiry into the Clintons' actions, including probes into Whitewater, the 1993 travel office firings, and the improper obtaining of FBI background files on Republicans who previously worked in the White House.
In attacking the special prosecutor, however, the White House is setting its sights on a system designed by Democrats -- and re-signed into law by Clinton himself.
Instead of criticizing the controversial special prosecutor system, which previous Republican administrations have done, Clinton's aides have targeted Starr personally. In background interviews with reporters, they have portrayed him as a partisan Republican, a part-time prosecutor unwilling to take a leave from his lucrative law practice -- and someone who, therefore, continues to represent various clients, including the tobacco industry, who are at odds with Clinton on other issues.
Reached last night, deputy White House counsel Mark Fabiani was asked about Clinton's comments. He replied only that Clinton had accurately characterized the views of Susan McDougal and her lawyer. Asked if Clinton was impugning Starr's integrity, Fabiani replied: "The president's words speak for themselves."
A week ago, a White House official who declined to speak for the record said that the White House was prepared to turn up the heat on Starr if they feel he is getting closer to additional indictments.
Yesterday's remarks, one White House aide said last night, were a "warning shot" fired across Starr's bow. The provocation, this official said, were leaks they believe are coming from his office.
Pub Date: 9/24/96