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No Deal

The judge throws out Lewinsky's immunity deal, which puts her right back in Starr's crosshairs. What will he do next to make her tell him what she knows?

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME magazine

(TIME, May 11) -- Great celebrity photographers have a way of making their subjects feel loved, so when Monica Lewinsky slipped into a little black dress and danced barefoot in the Pacific for a Vanity Fair shoot with Herb Ritts, it was the next best thing to a seaweed wrap and full-ego massage. "She's not feeling good about herself, and she's depressed," explained her lawyer William Ginsburg, who had told reporters "her libido" was suffering. "She's been imprisoned like a dog for four months, and she's angry at all the gossip writers who say trashy things about her. The press and gossip columnists are all snakes, always making things up. So yes, I pamper her when I can. It was a way of saying, 'Honey, you're beautiful and sweet, and we want the world to know.'"

The timing was lucky since the respite was fleeting; by the middle of the week she was back in Kenneth Starr's crosshairs, after it was disclosed that Judge Norma Holloway Johnson had rejected Ginsburg's claim that Starr was obliged to honor a blanket-immunity deal that would have guaranteed her never having to get used to prison food. Lewinsky represents Starr's best chance to nail down a case of obstruction of justice against the President, a pattern of persuading associates to keep his secrets to themselves.

The other Starr witnesses looked a lot less promising. He could indict Susan McDougal for criminal contempt before his Arkansas grand jury packs up and goes home this week, but she has already shown that she prefers ankle chains to testifying against the President. And although Starr indicted Clinton pal Webb Hubbell last week (along with his wife Suzanna, his lawyer and his accountant), it was only for alleged tax crimes that are typically handled as civil matters, which even some of Starr's supporters felt was a stretch. Sources tell TIME that Starr's office is weighing still more charges out of the Little Rock grand jury against Hubbell for false statements he allegedly made to a federal agency during the original Whitewater probe. But none of this is likely to faze one of the President's closest friends. Starr, Hubbell declared last week, "can indict my dog, they can indict my cat, but I'm not going to lie about the President, I'm not going to lie about the First Lady or anyone else."

So in a largely circumstantial case, Starr's ace is Lewinsky, whose lawyers have made clear from the start that they weren't going to let her go to jail, and whose florid romantic aspirations left a trail behind her like rose petals: e-mails and phone calls, beeper pages and presents. And affidavits. Though Lewinsky swore in early January that she had no sexual relationship with the President, a later proffer to Starr reportedly admitted to just that, was vague on the question of obstruction and said nothing at all about the mysterious "talking points" she gave her friend Linda Tripp.

As fate would have it, word of Johnson's decision leaked 20 minutes after the White House announced that the President would give his first solo press conference of the year. By then it was too late to cancel. "We'd already jumped out of the plane," said an aide. The plan had been to celebrate a shiny economy, the successful vote to expand NATO and any other foreign and domestic accomplishments he could drape on his presidency; but however much this all mattered to Clinton and the voters and the future of the country, the questions turned again and again to sex and Starr. While Clinton ducked them all, it was telling that so many of them turned this time on the scandal's impact on his moral authority, his public character, his ability to get things done and the impact it has all had on his friends. "I really believe it's important not to say anything," he replied to a question about whether private moments matter. "I'm the last lead a national conversation about this," practically acknowledging that his standing on the question was shot.

The tortuous negotiations over Lewinsky's immunity had been a gift to the White House. Without a star witness, prosecutors were left trying to hunt down bookstore receipts and credit reports in order to give credibility to tapes recorded by the politically suspect Tripp. The President's polls rose; Starr's fell. And Lewinsky got out of the hot spotlight. But even as he was stringing Lewinsky's lawyers along, Starr was spending the winter and spring building his case around her. The story Starr has pieced together from White House records and the testimony of Lewinsky's confidants, including her mother and presidential secretary Betty Currie, corroborates many revelations in Lewinsky's own voice captured in those 20 hours of conversations with Tripp, according to lawyers in the case. "As time passed, she was less and less relevant," one lawyer told TIME. "That is no less true now."

Still, when it comes to obstruction, there are some things only Lewinsky can give Starr. She alone can provide a seamless narrative, fill in gaps in the tapes, trace the help she got in her job hunt from Vernon Jordan, explain the 37 visits to the White House, describe precisely what encouragement she received from the President to keep her story to herself, and describe the trail of gifts between them. The "talking points," which Lewinsky allegedly handed Tripp in an effort to alter her testimony to Paula Jones' lawyers, apparently came from Lewinsky's computer, but if they were drafted by a Clinton supporter, only Lewinsky can name the author.

Part of Starr's calculation is that nothing less than an airtight case will persuade Congress to hound a popular President in an election year. So if there is any more negotiating over immunity, the bar is higher, and Lewinsky will have to give Starr something irresistible. That means moving beyond the bare-bones account she submitted to Starr and submitting to rigorous questioning by prosecutors, who know what they need to strengthen their case. Last winter Ginsburg refused to present her for such interrogation and broke off negotiations. Proffers and immunity negotiations depend on a certain amount of mutual trust between the two camps, and in this case, any that once existed has long since evaporated.

Starr has another alternative: he can indict Lewinsky for perjury and obstruction. That way, if Lewinsky doesn't help Starr make his case to Congress, he will have a chance to make it in a court. She would be defendant, not star witness, and through her prosecution Starr could introduce Tripp's tapes and the evidence he has gathered in the past three months. "This is a law-enforcement issue, not a political issue," says a lawyer in the case. "If you don't think Congress will do anything with it, why not try it and let it come out in court?"

Ginsburg remains outwardly confident this won't happen, crediting Starr with a sharper political sense than he has displayed so far. Indicting Lewinsky, says her lawyer, would be a p.r. disaster. Many outside lawyers generally agree: she can deny having sex with the President, say she was fantasizing on those tapes and stalking and hanging around, but nothing more. If she calls the President to testify on her behalf, he'll say the same things. Everything else Starr has is largely circumstantial, so long as everyone sticks to the script. And to indict her for lying about sex in a civil case that's been dismissed, on a matter not even central to that case--Starr could do it, but that would be a small trophy for the $40 million he has spent to get there.

The most likely scenario, legally and politically, is the one that Starr was busy downplaying last week: that he will summon Lewinsky to testify and grant her limited immunity on the spot, which would prevent him from using her testimony against her but still allow him to prosecute her on the basis of other evidence. While her lawyers say flatly she will not testify without immunity, and have been holding out for much more sweeping protection, in practice it may not make much difference. It is extremely hard to prosecute someone who testifies under any kind of immunity grant, and Starr's goal is not to see her in jail, but to squeeze her into telling all she knows. When she finally does talk, her lawyers say, she won't be hiding anything. "She is not going to serve jail time to save any President," Ginsburg says. "She is not part of any cabal. If my defense of Monica helps the President, fine. If it hurts the President, fine. All I care about is Monica Lewinsky."

--Reported by Cathy Booth/Los Angeles and Jay Branegan, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

Why Starr Needs Monica

Lewinsky knows the truth behind the testimony of Starr's other witnesses; she remains the key to an obstruction case.

President Clinton: Will Monica back up Clinton's claim that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"? Will she say he encouraged her to move to New York to be beyond the reach of Paula Jones' lawyers, as she allegedly has claimed?

Betty Currie: Will Monica back the secretary's story about why Clinton's gifts to the intern were returned to his secretary? Were the Oval visits to see Betty or Bill?

Vernon Jordan: Was the job Jordan arranged for Lewinsky an explicit trade for her affidavit in the Jones case denying sex with Clinton? What did the two say in that limo?

Linda Tripp: Will Monica say she lied when she told Tripp on 20 hours of secretly recorded tapes about an affair with Clinton? Will she say she pressured Tripp to lie?

TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 11, 1998

No Deal
No More Days At The Beach
The G.O.P. Mantra: Keep Dobson Happy
The Lives Of The Saint
A Terminal Case Of Telling The Truth
Notebook: Reputation Long Gone

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