WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has ordered two top White House aides to testify before a grand jury, noting that if President Clinton committed any crimes in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he probably told his close aides about it only privately and made no record of their talks.
Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, making public yesterday a ruling she reached early this month but had kept under seal, declared that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr "cannot feasibly" obtain evidence of what Clinton said from anyone other than his top advisers.
Among other topics the president and his aides discussed, the judge revealed, was the potential effect of the sex scandal on possible impeachment of Clinton and the efforts of White House lawyers to find out what witnesses had told the grand jury Starr is leading.
The aides, White House lawyer and Clinton confidant Bruce E. Lindsey and White House media adviser Sidney Blumenthal, may know "some of the most relevant and important evidence" in Starr's inquiry, the judge said.
In a related matter, Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, dropped a strong hint that there "may" have been a sexual relationship between his client and Clinton, though Ginsburg later denied that his comments were intended to confirm such a relationship.
Since January, Starr has been investigating whether Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, in which the president denied having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House aide.
Starr is also looking into whether Clinton tried to persuade Lewinsky and others to lie and whether Lewinsky lied in a sworn statement in the Jones case in which she denied having a sexual relationship with Clinton.
Starr, in short, is trying to determine whether anyone committed the federal crimes of perjury; suborning, or encouraging, perjury; and obstructing justice.
Right to executive privilege
Johnson did rule that the president had a right to claim "executive privilege;" that his close aides had a right to claim it for their conversations with Clinton, among themselves and with Hillary Rodham Clinton; and that the president had a right to claim that some conversations were covered by attorney-client secrecy.
All those claims, the judge said, could be put forth by the president and the aides in an effort to shield Lindsey and Blumenthal from having to testify.
And she rejected Starr's argument that all the conversations he wants to investigate involved purely personal matters and that any claim of privilege was, as Starr put it, "frivolous."
But Johnson went on to rule that, in each case, Starr had shown a "specific need" to know what was said in those conversations.
That need, she said, outweighs all the privilege claims, and Lindsey and Blumenthal must go before the grand jury.
In ruling that the two aides must testify, the judge spoke pointedly about why Starr is interested in their testimony.
"If there were instructions from the president to obstruct justice or efforts to suborn perjury, such actions likely took the form of conversations involving the president's closest advisers.
"Additionally, if the president disclosed to a senior adviser that he committed perjury, or suborned perjury, such a disclosure not only was unlikely to be recorded on paper, but it also would constitute some of the most relevant and important evidence to the grand jury investigation."
The White House treated the ruling as a partial victory, even though Lindsey and Blumenthal were ordered to testify.
Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, noted that the media had been wrong in early May in saying the judge was preparing to reject flatly the president's or his aides' right to advance their privilege claims.
The judge, Ruff said, "recognized and held that the claims were valid and appropriately made."
In doing so, the president's in-house lawyer said, Johnson had rejected arguments that Starr had made against the very assertion of the privileges.
But, Ruff conceded, the judge had concluded that Starr "could not obtain the information sought in his questions in any other reasonable way and therefore was entitled to ask them."
Lindsey had no immediate comment.
Blumenthal said in a brief statement that, if summoned before the grand jury, "I will testify truthfully and completely to all questions posed to me by Ken Starr, including all questions about my contacts with members of the media."
Starr's camp had accused Blumenthal of providing news organizations with negative information about the backgrounds of two of Starr's prosecutors who had been criticized earlier in their careers.
In light of the White House's favorable reaction to Johnson's decision, it was unclear whether it would proceed with previously discussed plans to appeal any adverse ruling to higher courts and probably on to the Supreme Court.
Ruff's statement said nothing about that.
If Starr considers the ruling a threat to his investigation, because others close to the president might now make the same privilege claims to resist testifying, he could pursue his own appeal.
His office had no comment last night.
Starr a 'dangerous creature'
In a scathing "open letter" to Starr released yesterday, and to be published in the June issue of California Lawyer magazine, Lewinsky's lawyer, Ginsburg, called on Clinton to fire Starr, whom Ginsburg called "an anticonstitutional monster."
"It's time to rid ourselves of this dangerous creature," Ginsburg wrote.
In comments that could be interpreted as damaging to his client, Ginsburg said:
"Congratulations, Mr. Starr! As a result of your callous disregard for cherished constitutional rights, you may have succeeded in unmasking a sexual relationship between two consenting adults. doing so, you've also ruined the lives of several people, including Monica and her family."
Clinton and Lewinsky have both said under oath that they had no sexual relationship.
The Los Angeles lawyer denied that he was suggesting that Lewinsky did have a consensual sexual relationship with Clinton -- and thus committed perjury.
In a statement to CNN, Ginsburg said the letter was meant only to convey his displeasure with Starr's tactics and was not intended to shed any light on Lewinsky's relationship with the president.
"I'm not saying anything about Monica," Ginsburg said.
Calls to Ginsburg's office for clarification were referred to the Lewinsky family's new spokesman, Judy Smith, who did not provide a response.
Pub Date: 5/28/98