Everyone's Talking Trash
Ken Starr now hopes to bring Monica back center stage, since last week's slugfest helped distract him in ways the White House could have only dreamed
By Nancy Gibbs And Michael Duffy
(TIME, March 9) -- Every week the story has tried to find its muse: at first it felt like Sophocles, a tale of charges so dangerous that a second presidency in a generation might go up in flames; later it belonged to Danielle Steel, all heavy breathing and valentines, and by turns Dickens (Who else could have invented the bottom-feeding Mr. Drudge and the nosy Ms. Tripp?) and John le Carre (Starr is now investigating the White House for investigating Starr's investigation of the White House). Last week the City of Fear went completely haywire. A town of people who like to watch the quorum calls on C-SPAN finally just sat back on the couch and turned the story over to Jerry Springer.
The scene belonged on trash TV, full of staged bluster and righteous fury and lots and lots of diversions. There was James Carville, the President's alpha attack dog, daring independent counsel Kenneth Starr to subpoena him by mocking both his faith and his fervor. "He goes down to the Potomac and listens to hymns as the cleansing water of the Potomac goes by, and we're going to wash all sodomites and fornicators out of town," Carville said. There was Starr deploring what he described as an "avalanche of lies" that had paralyzed his investigation, by which he meant 30 phone calls he got from reporters trying to confirm allegations about one of his assistants. "Welcome to the club," said a White House spokesman. "We get that many in a morning."
For weeks Starr's operation had been exchanging fire with the White House over who was doing more leaking, lying, manipulating and stonewalling. Last week, after TIME reported that the White House had been waging a covert campaign to discredit Starr's deputies, perhaps with the help of private investigators, the prosecutor prepared to respond with some hardball of his own. But by subpoenaing White House spinmeister Sidney Blumenthal to probe his contacts with the press, Starr succeeded in undermining himself in ways the White House could have only dreamed.
While it looked as though he went after Blumenthal to defend the honor of the independent counsel's colleagues, there was actually a prosecutorial purpose as well, the shrewder minds at the White House quickly realized. "We don't think it's because Ken Starr is so thin-skinned he can't take a little criticism," said press secretary Mike McCurry. "This is an exercise about something else." The maligning of his staff looked to Starr like the work of professionals. In that light, the dirt digging provided him with an opportunity: Blumenthal and private investigator Terry Lenzner, also subpoenaed last week, might shed light on what prosecutors suspect is a network of gumshoes possibly hired by Clinton friends to protect the President in matters ranging from Whitewater to Monica.
The alleged White House "dirty tricks" campaign gave Starr a fishing license to look into all sorts of activities by all sorts of hired guns. Last week the independent counsel subpoenaed two private investigators in Arkansas to explain how they came to be checking out rumors for the National Enquirer that Starr himself was having an affair with a Little Rock heiress. As it happens, the Enquirer and Bill Clinton have the same lawyer: David Kendall. But they denied any investigative duet.
So Starr is likely to turn his fire back to those who might have helped keep damaging witnesses quiet--starting, front and center, with Monica Lewinsky's personal headhunter, Vernon Jordan, this week. Whether Starr can convince a grand jury that Jordan sought to silence Lewinsky is uncertain: lawyers on the case told TIME that Jordan first met with Lewinsky to discuss job prospects on Nov. 5, 1997, a full month before she learned she would be subpoenaed in the Paula Jones suit. And a source involved in the case told TIME that Starr is investigating at least one other instance of possible witness tampering--by a private eye.
Those probes may yet give Starr the break that has eluded him for four years. But it is possible that he is after something other than high crimes and misdemeanors. It is widely agreed that politically, the House of Representatives at the moment is in no mood to impeach Clinton even if it could. What Starr might do, however, is paint an intricate portrait of a President who shades truth, pressures associates and bends the law--all in the service of staying in office long enough to make history.
On the other hand, Starr's narrative effort poisons itself. The real beauty for the White House in last week's spectacle was that at some point the audience simply changes the channel. As long as the whole scene looks like a snarly Washington grudge match, most viewers would much prefer to watch the Dow snuggle up against record highs on CNBC and tune out the capital altogether. And the White House realized as much. On the defensive early in the week about its aggressive tactics, Clinton's team was so delighted by Starr's conduct, it just decided to stay out of the way. "He's working for us," a senior official clucked. His tactics left even old Starr associates dismayed. "I can't get over it," said a former Starr prosecutor. "He's completely out of control. I can't begin to defend this."
The decision to grill Blumenthal instantly transformed a city where people have black belts in Not Taking a Stand. It sent everyone scurrying madly into one of two camps: either you were part of the vast right-wing conspiracy trying to get the Clintons or you belonged to the vast left-wing conspiracy trying to topple Starr. It made news organizations, many of which had relied on leaks to move the story along, suddenly jump off the fence and swear fealty to the First Amendment. The New York Times deplored Starr's undermining of "important legal and constitutional principles," calling his behavior "bone stupid."
But Starr felt strongly that he had to defend the family, the little team of prosecutors that is derided as cowboys by the White House but that acts increasingly like an old-fashioned clan. There are only 10 in Starr's Washington office, and so on Friday night, Feb. 20, as reporters' questions started pouring in--some based on public records, some based on obscure documents that only a bloodhound could track down, many on tips from Clinton supporters--Starr felt he had to fight back, if only for the sake of morale. Before the night was over, three of the prosecutors, including one who was bedridden with pneumonia, were forced to become their own defense lawyers, knocking down incomplete stories until 2 o'clock Saturday morning.
The Blumenthal subpoena was partly a brushback pitch--if you throw at our hitters, Starr's lawyers apparently figured, we'll throw at yours. But it also served a larger strategy that has driven Starr's efforts from the outset. He and his prosecutors have long believed that Clinton loyalists get to witnesses and neutralize their testimony before they can be of help to prosecutors. Starr suspects that in the Whitewater matter, Clinton's team tried to shut up potentially damaging witnesses like Webb Hubbell through hush-money payments. Pleadings filed by Paula Jones' lawyers suggest they have evidence that some of the women allegedly propositioned by Clinton to make denials in depositions. Starr wants to know who might have paid for any such intercessions and how any results were circulated to the White House.
Lenzner is a good candidate to have done the digging. He is known to have done work for the firms of Clinton's private lawyers, Robert Bennett and Kendall. All last weekend Clinton's aides denied hiring Lenzner, but by Monday they admitted he was indeed working for Kendall, collecting "background" on the prosecutors. Lenzner was subpoenaed early last week; a subpoena was also prepared for Mickey Kantor--who is helping Clinton's defense in the Lewinsky case--but was dropped after the former Commerce Secretary insisted that he is shielded by the attorney-client privilege.
And so by midweek Starr, put on the defensive, was busy trying to pivot back to his earlier Lewinsky inquiry--the relationship between the President and the intern. Starr focused on Lewinsky's career path, looking for fingerprints and favors, anything to support the notion that she was rewarded for her silence. Among the Clinton aides questioned before the grand jury Wednesday was Timothy Keating, who until last year was chief of staff in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. "I made the decision to hire her because she had performed her assignments well as an intern," he said afterward. "She was transferred because of dissatisfaction with her performance in the correspondence section." A source familiar with the testimony said Lewinsky had a way of spending more time wandering the West Wing and crashing photo ops than answering mail. "Letters she was supposed to have done for OMB [the White House's Office of Management and Budget] were left undone for months."
Meanwhile, the situation at Camp Lewinsky was touch-and-go. For weeks its members have been waiting for her to be called, preferably with an immunity deal in hand. But there is still no deal, and it looks as if she might turn out to be a defendant instead of a witness. Starr, still unsatisfied with discrepancies between what Lewinsky told Linda Tripp on tape and what she has offered to say in testimony, may tighten the screws again with an actual indictment of Lewinsky for perjury as well as obstruction of justice. To which Lewinsky's lawyers say, Fine, we'll see you in court. They aren't scared of a perjury charge because they slice the definition of "sexual relationship" as thin as the President does. That still leaves them with questions to answer about obstruction and all the incentives Lewinsky allegedly offered Tripp if she would just become the soul of discretion. But after six weeks of waiting, Lewinsky's defense team just wants a chance to sink its teeth into Starr. "We will be happy to go that route," says Nathaniel Speights, her co-counsel. "We want it over with now." In that respect, Speights is not alone.
--With reporting by Michael Weisskopf/Washington