Week of High Drama, Few Facts

Independent prosecutor Starr has won access to a flood of new information - to include Clinton's own accounting.

Even for Washington, the capital of the world's most powerful nation, this was an extraordinary week of political theater, high-stakes maneuvering, and personal drama.

President Clinton has finally agreed to testify for a grand jury looking into his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky - a risky legal gambit with immediate political benefit. Capitol Hill Democrats, fearing that any more stonewalling by the president would cause his public support to plummet and damage his party, heaved a palpable sigh of relief.

The logjam also broke over the two most important women in the case: Ms. Lewinsky will soon testify under a sweeping deal immunizing her from prosecution and has reportedly handed over evidence that may clarify her relationship with Mr. Clinton. And Linda Tripp, the woman who triggered l'affaire Lewinsky by secretly taping her, stepped out of the shadows in her own defense - igniting a new "she-said, she-said" sideshow with Lewinsky over the authorship of the so-called talking points for Ms. Tripp's testimony in a different case.

But the bottom line remains that few hard facts are known about a case that puts the future of Bill Clinton, and the presidency, on the line.

And so, when the president submits to videotaped questioning on Aug. 17, he walks into a veritable minefield of legal risks - including the risk that he may commit perjury.

"It is highly improbable that the White House and President Clinton know everything [independent counsel Kenneth] Starr has," says Bobby Burchfield, who served as general counsel for the Bush campaign in 1992.

"If they are engaging in the assumption that they know of all the evidence, they are in for a rude awakening," he adds.

If Clinton continues to insist that he had no involvement with Lewinsky, as it is widely reported he will do, and is then presented with hard corroborating evidence that he did have sexual contact with her, he could be charged with perjury.

If Clinton changes his position, admitting that some or all of the allegations are true, that is a strategy better pursued outside the legal venue of testimony under oath, say experts on the law.

"The president clearly has considerable skill and charisma ... but he can be certain prosecutors will not allow any ambiguity to remain," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at Georgetown University here.

Unseen land mines

Ultimately, the land mines Clinton must stay away from are those unseen, because most of what is "known" about the case comes from selective leaks by interested parties.

Among the unknowns:

* Was the president ever alone with Lewinsky, and if he was, what happened between them? Learning this would help determine whether the president lied when he told lawyers in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit, under oath, that he never had a sexual affair with Lewinsky, as the former White House intern now reportedly claims.

* Does the dress Lewinsky reportedly handed over to prosecutors this week contain any forensic evidence that might suggest sexual contact between her and the president?

Such evidence could turn the perjury issue away from an unprovable "he said, she said" argument.

Lewinsky also reportedly turned over telephone message recordings with Clinton's voice on them, though they are said not to be of a sexual nature.

* Whose idea was it to find Lewinsky a job in New York - the president's, his secretary's, or close Clinton friend Vernon Jordan's?

An attempt to find Lewinsky work could be seen as an effort to buy a witness and get her to deny she had a sexual affair with the president when confronted by Paula Jones's lawyers.

* And what about the president's numerous gifts to Lewinsky? She reportedly told prosecutors this week that this issue was among the hypothetical scenarios she and the president discussed last December.

When Lewinsky brought up her concern that the Jones legal team had subpoenaed the items, the president reportedly told her that "if you don't have them, you can't turn them over."

The gifts ended up with the president's secretary, Betty Currie, who reportedly handed them to Starr's people in January.

'Damaging testimony'

These questions raise the serious issue of obstruction of justice. According to news reports, the president theorized with Lewinsky that if there are two people in a room, and something happens and they both deny it, it's impossible to prove.

This reported discussion about her legal concerns "is damaging testimony," says C. Boyden Gray, former Bush White House counsel.

While it's not the same as directly telling someone to lie, and therefore not clear-cut obstruction, he says, "it's still coaching a witness."

So far, the evidence Mr. Starr is reported to have against Clinton in the Lewinsky matter amounts to a "skeletal case, but not a slam dunk," Gray sums up.

And in the end, he notes, Congress will handle Starr's eventual report to Congress more as a political matter than a legal one.

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