WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has had extensive discussions with his inner circle about a strategy of acknowledging to a grand jury Monday that he had intimate sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky in the White House, senior advisers have said.
Although Clinton has not settled on this approach, discussions have centered on a plan that would allow him to acknowledge a specific type of sexual behavior while maintaining he told the truth when he testified in January that he never had "sexual relations" with the former White House intern, the advisers said.
Clinton would say he based his previous denial, in a deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit, on a definition of sex approved by the judge in the case. His advisers believe this definition does not cover certain activities, including oral sex.
For months, Clinton has publicly denied any sexual relationship with Lewinsky. So an acknowledgment of some kind of sexual encounter poses considerable political risk, particularly if it were linked to a legal argument that rests on a narrow definition of sex.
But Clinton's advisers have said that telling anything less than the truth to a grand jury about sex with Lewinsky poses an even greater risk. It is not clear how precisely Clinton has described his relationship with Lewinsky to his lawyers.
Once Clinton settles on what to say to the grand jury Monday, he must decide whether, and how, to explain his testimony to the American public.
Several Clinton advisers said thereis a consensus that Clinton should speak publicly, perhaps in a brief televised speech, after he testifies. Several advisers said the feeling is that the president's testimony will somehow be leaked to the public, so he should portray it from his point of view, which would oblige him to offer some specifics about the relationship.
The advisers cautioned that preparations for the grand jury appearance are continuing and strategy could change as the president continues to examine the legal and political implications of various courses.
It could be that the president's advisers are discussing his possible approaches with reporters to gauge the political reaction. The president has been severely limited in his ability to take political soundings, because anyone he talks to other than his private lawyers and his wife is vulnerable to subpoenas from Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel.
The most crucial discussions have been confined to a small group of advisers, who have some recognized privilege that may be invoked against prosecutors seeking to learn of their advice. They include Clinton's wife, his lawyers Mickey Kantor, former Secretary of Commerce, and David E. Kendall, along with other lawyers in Kendall's firm of Williams & Connolly.
Even as the president's advisers review his options, some have prefaced their remarks by saying that it is possible that Clinton will say again, as he has publicly, that he never had sexual relations with Lewinsky.
Rahm Emanuel, a senior political adviser to the president, declined yesterday to discuss Clinton's legal options. "We're not going to speculate on the latest theory of what the president is going to testify to," he said. "As the president said just the other day, he will testify completely and truthfully."
As Clinton prepares to navigate the most politically and legally perilous moment of his presidency, the argument for a public explanation reflects the sense of many politicians that the country wants to see an end to the Lewinsky saga. Democrats and Republicans alike have suggested that even a mild and delicately worded confession from the president might reduce the threat of impeachment hearings based on a report to Congress from Starr.
Even if the strategy of acknowledging sexual activities with Lewinsky succeeds in inoculating Clinton from perjury problems, he may face other legal shoals. Starr's grand jury has also been investigating whether Clinton may have obstructed justice if he discussed with Lewinsky ways that she could conceal a relationship with the president and avoid having to produce gifts that he gave her when she testified in the Jones lawsuit.
An option that is increasingly being considered would be for the president to testify that he was telling the truth last January when he followed a precise definition of sexual relations that the presiding judge had approved in the Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit. Under that definition, some advisers believe, Clinton could plausibly assert that his contacts with Lewinsky did not constitute sexual relations.
In that deposition, when the president was asked whether he had an affair with Lewinsky, his response seemed to be straightforward: "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."
But Clinton was responding to a definition of "sexual relations" that was prepared by Jones' lawyers and then narrowed by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright. The definition agreed to in that case states: "For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in 'sexual relations' when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."
When Clinton responded to a question of whether he had ever had relations with Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas singer and television personality, he replied that, using that definition, "the answer to your question is yes." He had never before publicly admitted to any sexual relationship with Flowers.
When the subject was Lewinsky, Clinton, consulting the same definition, denied a sexual affair.
"There is no perjury here," one adviser to Clinton said, calling the definition of sexual activity the president was working from "cockamamie." Still, the president's advisers believe the definition used in the Jones case may not cover oral sex.
The discussions of this strategy have been extensive enough to include consideration of its major political drawback: It would reinforce his critics' notion of Clinton as a lawyerly manipulator of language used to evade responsibility, as someone who may be technically truthful but fundamentally dishonest.
The president's advisers fear it would remind people of Clinton's careful weighing of his words in 1992 when he and Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on the CBS News program "60 Minutes" after Flowers said that she had been sexually involved with him.
Before the television appearance, a campaign aide said, the Clinton campaign conducted focus groups with voters and learned that older women would react negatively to any discussion of cheating or adultery. As a result, the aide said, Clinton chose a more ambiguous phrase to use during the program -- that he had caused pain in his marriage.
"I don't think there's a legal risk here," said one lawyer. "The risk is really sort of political and public relations."
Since polls show that many Americans already believe that Clinton and Lewinsky had an affair, some White House advisers hope that changing the essence of the president's story would not be as damaging as it would have been months ago.
But the advisers said neither they nor the president have settled on the format in which he should make his case -- or on how far he should go in discussing his involvement with Lewinsky. Part of the uncertainty stems from the fact that many of the advisers who are debating political strategy are not privy to the legal discussions and have no idea what Clinton will tell the grand jury.
Clinton's political advisers have not directly asked him about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky, although they do discuss the politics surrounding it. And while they stand by his denials in public, some have privately concluded that Clinton had some sort of sexual affair with her. They express confidence that he found a linguistic loophole to avoid perjuring himself.
If the president argues that he was using a narrow definition of sex in denying an affair with Lewinsky, he will undercut several of his senior aides, who assured the public in January that he was not splitting hairs.
"Sex is sex," Ann Lewis, the White House communications director, said Jan. 25 on the program "Fox News Sunday." "Maybe only in Washington is this considered something we ought to spend a lot of time on. But, no, a sexual relationship means what it says, and that includes sex."
Pub Date: 8/14/98