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Clinton Reaches Agreement With Independent Counsel to Acknowledge he May Have Misled in Testimony

Aired January 19, 2001 - 12:04 p.m. ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: And this is, of course, Bill Clinton's last full day as president, and it appears he will be making news up until the last.

We're joined by out senior White House correspondent John King now with a developing story --John.

JOHN KING, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Frank, CNN has learned from two senior administrations sources -- Clinton administrations sources -- that the White House will announce today that the president has reached an accommodation with the independent counsel Robert Ray.

It was Robert Ray who inherited Ken Starr's investigation, the Monica Lewinsky investigation. It began originally as the Whitewater investigation.

The president will issue a statement later today, we're told, in which he will acknowledge that he may have misled people under oath in his testimony in the Paula Jones case and in the various Ken Starr investigations. In exchange, we're told, Mr. Ray will agree to shut down the seven-year investigation of the president as he leaves office. Mr. Clinton will not be prosecuted in any way, but he must admit that he misled people under oath.

The exact details still being worked on by the White House counsel's office at this hour, but we are told this announcement will come later today on the president's last full day in office, clearing the legal cloud that was over him as he prepared to leave office. There had been some talk that perhaps he might be indicted by the independent counsel, but we are told once Mr. Clinton issues his statement, Mr. Ray will agree that he is going to fold his investigation.

Again, seven years now the independent counsel has been investigating this president. That legal cloud, we're told by sources, will be removed as Mr. Clinton leaves office.

SENSO: John, recognizing that this is still being worked out and the story is developing, as we say, what is the significance, so far as we know it, as to timing, and what impact does this have on any discussion of disbarment in Arkansas for Bill Clinton? KING: Well, I can't -- I can't speculate about the disbarment procedures. Those stemmed, of course, from his conduct in the Paula Jones case. The judge in that case saying that she believed Mr. Clinton did mislead -- was misleading, was lying, in his testimony under oath. Those proceedings, of course, are continuing in the state of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton's lawyers fighting them.

As for the other legal cloud over the president, there had been speculation that perhaps Mr. Ray, once Mr. Clinton left office -- there's a constitutional debate about whether you can indict a sitting president -- some prosecutors in Mr. Starr's office, now Mr. Ray's office, we're told, wanted to indict the president for perjury and perhaps for conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Starr investigation.

But we're now told that this -- under this agreement, Mr. Ray will agree that in exchange for the president's public statement that he may have misled people, Mr. Ray that he will pursue no charges against the president and shut down his investigation.

SENSO: And Mr. Ray, of course, being the independent counsel. John King, stand by. We'll some back to you.

I want to go to Bob Franken now, national correspondent.

Bob, you've tracked this story literally for years. You've interviewed Robert Ray and more. Give us some background on what the legal case here is all about.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the legal case is really just a repeat of what occurred during the investigation into President Clinton, where the independent counsel decided a sitting president could not be indicted. Ray made it clear publicly and by his actions that he was, in fact, revisiting the possibility that, in fact, there should be an indictment, building on the case that was lead by then independent counsel Ken Starr.

This has been an ongoing procedure. It was known that he was waiting until President Clinton had left office. It was known that there were any number of other people involved in this case. And to review very quickly the case, it grew out of, of course, the Paula Jones case -- the woman who had charged that when Governor Clinton was the governor of Arkansas in 1986 that he had in fact tried to sexually molest her in a hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Out of that lawsuit, it became a political firestorm. It was a lawsuit that brought President Clinton in January of 1998 to testify at a deposition before the federal judge who was overseeing that case. And then there were the charges that he had committed perjury in that deposition -- and obstruction of justice.

Those were the charges that the independent counsel was pursuing. It was part of the larger umbrella of the White Water matter. This all began -- the independent counsel was originally appointed to investigate an obscure real estate deal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton when they were in fact living in Arkansas, early in their political careers. It has all grown to this point. The independent counsel had been looking for ways to, in fact, wrap this up in some way, and had said all along that indictment a good possibility.

We are hearing now, by the way, that sometime shortly after 2:00 Eastern time this afternoon to expect an announcement outside the independent counsel's office by the independent counsel. We're told that obviously is about the arrangement that is being made right now, but it's in its advanced stages.

SESNO: Bob, take us specifically into the independent counsel for just a moment. What will -- if anything is leave for this independent counsel to do -- or will the office and Robert Ray basically go away. And address the issue of pressure that has been brought on the independent counsel from the legal community, the political community, with respect to indicting Bill Clinton?

FRANKEN: Well, let me take the last part of that first. It is less a matter of pressure than it is a matter of context. This is what I was told by various sources close to the investigation. For instance, I was told I should pay attention to those top political officials who were saying that they there should be a pardon of President Clinton. That was one of the things that weighed in. Another thing that I was told is is that part of the context might be the fact that President Clinton, who will soon be ex-President Clinton, faces the possibility of disbarment in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A large part of this context is the possibility that the independent counsel would pursue an indictment and would not be successful. One of the standards for indicting by U.S. attorneys, and they were following those standards, was that you have to believe that there is a probability that you're going to reach a conviction. The fact of the matter is is that most people were counseling the independent counsel that there was no jury in the United States that would probably have an appetite for in fact convicting Bill Clinton.

All of those things enter in. At the same time, the president had his own interest in not being disgraced by an indictment, and his lawyers had been talking to them in secret. The investigation had been ongoing. We are told that there was a discussion with Monica Lewinsky and her lawyers again as they pursued this investigation and in effect negotiated and marked time until the president office.

Now, what's left for the independent counsel? He could write a final report. It would be a final report that really traces the investigation from its beginnings, at the beginning of Clinton administration, for all practical purposes, until now. An investigation that started it out -- as I said -- with that Whitewater real estate deal. It then moved into the FBI files case and to the travel office firings and ultimately into the Monica Lewinsky investigation that so consumed the United States for over a year as the -- it ended up with the impeachment of President Clinton.

He was impeached. He was obviously not thrown out of office by the Senate, and obviously now it looks like he will not be indicted.

SESNO: All right, Bob.

Let's go back over to John King.

John King, here we are on the eve of the Inauguration of President bush, President-elect Bush. It's final day of Bill Clinton -- final full day of Bill Clinton's term. We're here at the labor department overlooking the capitol. Talk for a moment about the timing and the politics of this: on the very last day, this moment investigated president is having this rather dramatic development.

KING: Well, Frank, this legal cloud -- and of course, the Clinton team would say unfairly in many cases -- but this controversy about the president's dealings, dating back to Whitewater, as Bob Franken said, has been there since day one of the Clinton administration. Indeed, that came up during the 1992 presidential campaign, so I guess it should perhaps be no surprise that we would be reminded of, again, on the very final full day of the Clinton presidency.

We're told -- Bob was discussing the conversations within the independent counsel's office -- we're told by sources that the president Oked these discussions and encouraged these discussions between his legal team, led by David Kendall, who became a familiar figure, of course, during the impeachment proceedings. Mr. Kendall has been the one conducting the negotiations with Mr. Ray, we are told.

Quite striking -- after the election, in the middle of the recount drama, David Kendall was a periodic visitor to the White House. He was a periodic visitor throughout this administration in times both good and bad. Remember, this is a president who has amassed millions of dollars in legal bills, has raised money privately to pay those bills off -- still a few million more to pay off.

Mr. Kendall at the White House, even in recent weeks as the president prepares to move out -- because he told the president the president needed to be prepared to fight in court if Mr. Ray went ahead with those plans for an indictment, or at least to seek an indictment.

Now, of course, Mr. Kendall later today part of these discussions, and we're told within the next hour or so that the president's statement will come first, then Mr. Ray will make his statement. The seven-year-long independent counsel investigation, some 60 million dollars -- I believe even a little more spent -- on investigating the president. Most people, of course, remember it most for the Lewinsky investigation, but it did start with that arcane Whitewater real estate deal back in Arkansas

And Mrs. Clinton, who is now a member of the United States Senate -- she will figure prominently, as well, in any final report, of course, because some of those investigations also traced her dealings: She was involved in Whitewater, she was involve in the firing of the travel office workers.

So this an attempt by the president, we're told, to get a clean slate as he moves out of office, to remove any legal cloud over him as he now moves out of the White House and into private sector and as wife begins her political career.

SESNO: And again, John, as we contemplate this Inaugural -- President-elect Bush likely to call on the nation to unite -- it is worth noting that a lot of President Clinton's political adversaries were very much hoping that the independent counsel ultimately would indict him. They felt that there needed to be accountability and follow-up to this thing.

KING: He certainly was, but even President-elect Bush, soon to be President Bush has said that would prefer that this investigation be shut down, that he believes it's time to move on. Now, he says that, of course, in recognition of the political climate here in Washington. He did not win the popular vote. He won a very narrow and controversial victory in the Electoral College. He will take office with an evenly divided Congress. This a president who very much needs to work with Democrats to get anything done.

And one legacy of the Clinton years certainly will be this investigation. But one legacy as well will the very partisan, sometimes poisonous, atmosphere in Washington because of the impeachment debate. Many Democrats, the president himself saying he again in recent days he believes that was way overboard. That impeachment was not a punishment that fit the "crime," if you will.

So the partisan atmosphere in Washington one Clinton legacy that President Bush could do without. This, of course, I think will be viewed by the Bush camp as a distraction the day before he takes office, but probably as something that they think might be helpful in calming those partisan tensions.

SESNO: OK, John, and finally this -- and very briefly, in case we have some viewers who are just now joining us: Let's go back and recap what you have learned and what we're confirming with respect to the independent counsel, Robert Ray, and President Bill Clinton on his final day in office.

KING: We are told by two senior administration officials that within the next hour or two, there will be a statement out of the White House. But we don't know the exact language of that statement yet; yet it is still being worked on. But in that statement, President Clinton, we're told, will acknowledge that he may have misled people in his sworn testimony that has been part of this investigation, and that includes his testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

In exchange for that statement from President Clinton, the independent counsel Robert Ray, who inherited Ken Starr's investigation, will announce -- once that statement is released -- that he is closing down his investigation and that there will be no criminal prosecution of Bill Clinton, soon to be the former president of the United States.

SESNO: All right, John King, thanks very much.



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