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Clinton Loses A Big One

The Start Of The Deal

A Paula Jones v. Clinton trial would be a dive into a sewer, so it may not happen. The outlines of a deal are emerging from testy exchanges

By George J. Church


(TIME, June 9) -- A trial in the case of Jones v. Clinton threatens to be the most sordid spectacle imaginable. It could well involve testimony about Bill Clinton's genital area, with results made public. Plus, if lawyers on both sides produce even part of the dirt they have been digging for, it could include salacious allegations about the past sex lives of both the President and his accuser, Paula Corbin Jones. Whatever might be proved or disproved, both could come out with reputations so blackened as to make the question of who "won" irrelevant.

Which may well mean there will never be a trial--even though the Supreme Court last week ruled that one could start while Clinton is still in the Oval Office. The Justices decided 9-0 that a sitting President has no immunity against civil suits involving his nonofficial actions, and so a trial of Jones' allegations of sexual harassment by Clinton when he was Governor of Arkansas need not be delayed until after Clinton's term as President has ended.

But the very ruling that took the case out of the deep freeze it had been in for almost three years sharpened the pressure on both sides to work out a settlement that would head off the final dive into the sewer. It was a bizarre negotiation, carried on in large part on TV news shows by lawyers who insisted they were not negotiating. What then were they doing? Issuing threats about how nasty they could make things while simultaneously dropping heavy hints about what kind of settlement might satisfy them. In other words, negotiating.

To be sure, Bob Bennett, Clinton's chief counsel on the case, was talking tough. Having delayed the case long enough to get Clinton safely past the 1996 election, Bennett, who is one of Washington's premier power lawyers (fee: $475 an hour), now says he wants to speed it up. Sources close to the President told TIME that one of Bennett's first moves will probably be to subpoena the affidavit detailing what Jones says are the "distinguishing characteristics" she saw in Clinton's genital area when he made an unsubtle demand for sex in a Little Rock hotel room. Once the President's legal team knows the specifics of her claim, the sources said, they believe it can be easily disproved. The sources also tell TIME that Bennett will take depositions about Jones' employment history (Was she really hurt by turning down the Governor of Arkansas?) and her right-wing backers (Is her suit really aimed at clearing her name or at destroying public trust in Clinton for political purposes?). If push comes to shove, Bennett has said, a trial would leave Jones more embarrassed than the President, a not-so-gentle hint that she might be revealed as something other than a chaste innocent.

Indications are, however, that Bennett's hard charging is aimed at prodding Jones and her lawyers into accepting a settlement that would inflict the least possible political damage on Clinton. Others around the President, notably White House counsel Charles Ruff, are known to be pushing hard for a settlement, precisely on the ground that a trial is a no-win situation; even a complete legal victory would carry heavy political costs. For example, if Bennett has to question Jones about her sexual history, he could outrage the feminists who have been among Clinton's strongest supporters--and who have kept conspicuously silent about the Jones case.

Jones' lawyers are talking tough too, threatening among other things to produce women who can testify that Clinton's alleged lunge at Jones fits into a long pattern of sexual predation. But "we're open to settlement," says counsel Joseph Cammarata. He even outlines what it must contain: a public statement from Clinton clearing Jones' name and--surprise!--money.

Surprise? Yes, to someone who puts complete trust in public statements. Jones' suit does ask for $700,000 in damages, a relatively modest sum (a legal expert estimates that Clinton has spent three times that much in fees to Bennett and others fighting the case). But Jones has repeatedly said she does not really want any profit from this and in fact intends to give to charity any damages she might be awarded. To hear her lawyers talk now, they will have to browbeat her into taking anything--and they fully intend to do so. Says Cammarata: "Gil [co-counsel Gilbert Davis] and I are going to lean on her to take money. This has been very hard, and she is entitled to compensation."

Bennett, naturally, scoffs that underneath her talk of clearing her name Jones has always been out for money. "Who's kidding who?" he said in an interview with TIME. "This case has never been about Paula Jones' reputation. It has always been about money." Nonetheless, the President's lawyers readily concede they are prepared to pay (or, rather, to have the two insurance companies that have been picking up their fees on the President's behalf pay). How much? Well, it would have to be enough to satisfy Jones but not so much as to give a public impression that Clinton was paying her off to keep her quiet, and thus inferentially admitting guilt. So, the President's lawyers hint, the amount could not be the $700,000 demanded or anything very close, but maybe something in excess of $100,000.

As to the statement, some Clinton advisers think there might be an inverse relationship between that and the money: the more cash they offer Jones, the weaker the statement she might accept. Even so, drafting a statement that does not quite admit Clinton did anything Jones says he did, while also not calling her a liar or even disputing her contentions, is no mean trick. Settlement negotiations have already come apart once on that very point and might do so again.

Two impulses have often been at war within Clinton. As an almost total pragmatist, the President has nearly always done whatever seemed necessary for political survival or effectiveness, letting ideology or values go hang. But he also seems incapable of ever admitting he has done anything wrong--inhaled marijuana, dodged the draft, committed adultery, whatever. Aides say he has been every bit as adamant in the most private discussions with them--insisting that he cannot recall ever meeting Paula Jones, for instance--as he has been in public. Says longtime adviser James Carville: "The thing about the President is, there's this quarter-inch of softness, but you'll break your finger if you mistake that for going all the way through."

An old Arkansas friend who is still a member of Clinton's inner circle thinks that if the President can get off the hook by saying something like "I kinda remember her being in the hotel, but she's a good girl and didn't do anything wrong," he should do it--and fast. But, adds the friend, to get Clinton to go even that far, "there will have to be a lot of yelling and screaming and 'Goddammit, Mr. President' " by his advisers. Even then, this source speculates, Clinton may not yield unless advised to do so by his wife--which could well happen. Whatever her private thoughts about Paula Jones, Hillary Clinton is a thoroughgoing political pragmatist.

Bill Clinton's political survival, of course, is no longer at issue. The voters elected him in 1992 despite Gennifer Flowers and returned him last November despite Whitewater, campaign-finance scandals and Paula Jones. But his effectiveness for the rest of his second term, and possibly the way his presidency is remembered by history, could be at risk.

Some hint of what is at stake is provided by the way the President's aides reacted to the news of the Supreme Court decision, which they got while waiting at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris for the start of the meeting between Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Clinton's entourage was thunderstruck, depressed and a little resentful. Here was a historic accomplishment--Russia's acquiescence to the admission of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary to the NATO alliance, virtually reversing the 1945 Yalta agreement--and it was about to be elbowed off the front pages and TV screens by sex and sleaze. Some voiced suspicion that the timing reflected deliberate partisanship by the court. Yes, Clinton's appointees, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined in the decision--but didn't Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a longtime Republican, control when the decision was announced?

In fact, Clinton's European tour did get extensive coverage. But he may not always be so lucky. Foreign affairs aside, Clinton is not planning any bold policy initiatives. His presidency is coming to focus on moral exhortation: to develop an AIDS vaccine, mend race relations, shun "heroin chic" fashion advertising. And continuing scandal can only weaken, if not undermine, his authority to sermonize from the bully pulpit. To begin with, the flare-up of the Jones case just before the White House convenes its conference on character building next week is a coincidence of timing that seems almost too bad to be true.

No more remarkable, though, than the idea that an unsophisticated, poorly educated and, initially, spectacularly ill-advised young woman could win a major Supreme Court case and put so much pressure on the White House. Paula Corbin, as she then was (she married Stephen Jones in December 1991), kept quiet for more than two years about what she says happened on May 8, 1991. She was afraid, she said, that nobody would believe her story--which was, essentially, that Clinton, who was then Governor, noticed her at a desk in the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, where she was handing out name tags for a conference, had a state trooper bring her to a private room, and there made a crude request for oral sex, in the process giving her a look at what she would later call the "distinguishing characteristics" of his genital area. In fact, the idea that Clinton would drop his shorts in front of a woman he had just met initially sounded unbelievable, even to Gennifer Flowers--though Flowers now passes word through a spokesman that she has become a convert and is eager to testify on Jones' behalf at a trial. Presumably Flowers would recount once again her own story of a 12-year affair with Clinton.

What broke Jones' silence was an article in the January 1994 issue of the American Spectator magazine that implied that someone called "Paula"--Jones was certain everyone she knew could fill in the last name--had been a willing sexual conquest of Clinton's. Jones hired Daniel Traylor, a Little Rock lawyer who had specialized in real estate and was clearly out of his depth. Traylor signed Jones to a since-terminated contract giving him one-third of any money she might make through radio, movie or TV contracts. That has been one-third of nothing, but the move made it easy for the White House to portray Jones and her lawyer as moneygrubbers.

Traylor then compounded the damage by having Jones tell her story for the first time in public at a Feb. 11, 1994, press conference in Washington where she shared a stage with Clinton haters. That helped to convince many that Jones was a tool, witting or unwitting, of the rabid right. Though Jones is said by partisans to be oblivious to politics, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, a friend and counselor who describes herself as a "conservative Christian activist," says Jones was indeed used by extreme rightists, and was too naive to realize it.

The press conference was not even the worst. Jones later appeared in a vicious video called The Clinton Chronicles, put together by Clinton haters to accuse the President of all manner of implausible crimes. She was dressed in a sort of Little Bo Peep outfit, presumably meant to suggest virginal innocence. Penthouse by then had published nearly nude pictures of Jones in suggestive poses, taken years earlier by a former boyfriend and sold to the magazine without her knowledge; in fact, Jones tried to get an injunction to stop their publication. Even so, the ludicrous contrast between her appearance in Penthouse and in the video did nothing to help her credibility.

Nonetheless, Jones hired new attorneys, Davis and Cammarata, both in the Washington area, and pressed ahead with preparations for a sexual-harassment lawsuit. The White House responded by hiring Bennett, which at least some of the press took as a signal that it was more concerned by Jones' story than it had let on. The two sides opened negotiations in which Jones' lawyers for the first time raised the claim that she could identify distinguishing characteristics on Clinton's body, and Bennett mentioned the Penthouse pictures--which had not yet been published--a foretaste, perhaps, of the much worse nastiness that might come out at an eventual trial.

Even so, the two sides came close to a settlement that would have headed off the lawsuit. Bennett faxed Jones' lawyers a statement that the President was to make publicly. Clinton was to say that he had "no recollection" of meeting Jones in a hotel room, but "I do not challenge her claim that we met there," and that in any event "she did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct." Contrary to later reports that the matter was just about settled, both sides now say that Jones' lawyers did not fully accept this wording and wanted to negotiate further. Still, they were close, but then some overeager spinner at the White House leaked word to CNN that Jones was about to drop her suit because she knew she had no case. That tore it. The suit was filed May 6, 1994--almost exactly three years after the alleged encounter--and at the last possible moment under the relevant statutes of limitations.

For the next two years, many still thought Jones did not have much of a case. But last November journalist Stuart Taylor changed some minds with an article in the American Lawyer magazine contending that "Jones' evidence is highly persuasive." Principal reason: Jones told a friend, Pamela Blackard, about her encounter with Clinton within 10 minutes of returning to her desk in the Excelsior lobby; and another, Debra Ballentine, about an hour and a half later. Both have said that Jones appeared very upset and told them almost exactly the story she was later to make public, in all its repellent detail.

There are weaknesses in Jones' case too. Danny Ferguson, the trooper who took her to the room where she allegedly met Clinton, has said she did not appear at all upset afterward. To the contrary, he says, she told him she would be willing to be Clinton's regular girlfriend. (Jones says he is lying and in fact has made him a target of her suit.) On the central matter of harassment, Jones contends that Clinton made some remarks about knowing her boss before trying to grope her and at the end of the encounter told her, "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves." Those certainly could be interpreted as threats to Jones' employment as a clerk for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. On the other hand, Jones would have trouble proving anything bad had actually happened to her. She continued to work for the commission after she went public and even got raises--though only cost of living increases, not merit raises, according to her suit.

Whether the truth or falsity of any of this will ever be tested in court is doubtful. The odds favor a settlement that will leave Paula Jones a titillating footnote to the history of the Clinton years. But there is just enough prospect of a courtroom parade of sleaze to keep connoisseurs of salaciousness eagerly waiting, and citizens concerned for the dignity of the presidency in a nervous dread--at least for a while.

--Reported by John F. Dickerson, Viveca Novak and Karen Tumulty/Washington and Elaine Lafferty/Los Angeles

Possible Resolutions Of The Case

The devil will be in the details, and a solution could take months

This is the least painful outcome for Clinton. His attorney Bob Bennett will try to persuade Judge Susan Webber Wright to dismiss the case before the trial begins, arguing first that even if everything Jones says is true, it doesn't add up to a violation of the civil rights law under which she has sued. In other words, it's not at all clear that propositioning someone transgresses that person's civil rights. Wright could also rule on summary judgment that Jones can't prove her claims about what happened at the hotel.

No President has ever been hauled into court for so potentially demeaning an inquiry. New rules will make it harder, though not impossible, for Clinton's team to discredit Jones by laying bare her past in front of the jury. Clinton runs a higher risk that his own sexual history will land in court, but the judge must be convinced of its relevance. Clinton might have to undergo a medical exam--or more likely submit photographs or testimony by a physician--to test Jones' affidavit about distinguishing characteristics on his body. The President's submissions would probably be kept under seal.

Bennett needs to look like a fighter now to show that he has not been cowed by the high court's unanimous decision--but it doesn't mean he won't settle. Normally, serious talk of a deal wouldn't come until after the judge rules on a motion to dismiss. But this is no normal case. Jones, who has asked for $700,000 in damages, would probably get some money, perhaps couched as funds to help cover her legal expenses. Clinton would, at a minimum, have to acknowledge that he met her and that she did nothing improper or sexual. Both Jones and Clinton might require each other to say nothing further about the case.

The Clinton-Jones Dance

Steps have been carefully choreographed by spokesmen and lawyers

1 Feb. 11, 1994 The First Paula Jones Press Conference

JONES: She claims that when Clinton was Governor he had her brought to a hotel room, where he tried to kiss her and asked her to perform "a type of sex."

THE WHITE HOUSE: "It is not true. He does not recall meeting her. He was never alone in a hotel with her."

2 May 5, 1994 Working Out the Language of a Possible Deal

WHAT JONES WAS TO SAY: "I am grateful that the President has acknowledged the possibility that he and I may have met at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, and has acknowledged my good name and disagrees with assertions to the contrary. However, I stand by my prior statement of the events."

WHAT CLINTON WAS TO SAY: "I have no recollection of meeting Paula Jones on May 8, 1991, in a room at the Excelsior Hotel. However, I do not challenge her claim that we met there, and I may very well have met her in the past. She did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct. I regret any untrue assertions which have been made about her conduct which may have adversely challenged her character and good name. I have no further comment on my previous statements about my own conduct."

3 May 6, 1994 Jones Files Suit

JONES: "This case is about the powerful taking advantage of the weak."

ATTORNEY BOB BENNETT: "This complaint is tabloid trash with a legal caption."

4 May 27, 1997 The Supreme Court Rules

ATTORNEY JOSEPH CAMMARATA: "If the President were to come forth with something that would indicate that she was a good person, that she did nothing wrong in that hotel room and that she is to be believed, well, that may be sufficient for Paula Jones."

BENNETT TO TIME: "I believe Mrs. Jones and her counsel did a great disservice to the country, filing this complaint, and while I would like to put this matter behind us, we will not settle on their terms by apologizing for what the President never did or admitting what never occurred."

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