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White House Press Secretary Jake Siewert Holds News Briefing on Clinton Deal With Whitewater Special Counsel

Aired January 19, 2001 - 2:01 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We expect to hear from the White House as well as Independent Counsel Robert Ray about the president's last- minute legal deal any minute now. Sources tell CNN as part of the deal, Mr. Clinton will avoid facing criminal prosecution after he leaves office, and his law license will be suspended.

Let's first check in with CNN's Bob Franken, who's up on Capitol Hill. He has a statement from the White House.

Bob, what's it all about?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The exact wording of the statement comes not from the White House yet, but from sources close to the investigation, to say that what was agreed to would be a statement from the president in which he acknowledges, quote, "that he gave," quote, "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers that impeded the due administration of justice." Again, that he, quote, "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers that impeded the due administration of justice."

The key word here is "knowingly." That is considered a very big price that the president has had to pay. Investigators believe that reinforces their belief that the president was, in fact, breaking the law. That's what they believe, but of course they agreed not to prosecute him.

And as you pointed out, as part of the deal, the disbarment proceedings in Arkansas where he was facing the removal from the ability to practice law, having his license taken away, it will now be suspension, a five-year suspension of his right to practice law in Arkansas, in addition to which the Arkansas Bar Association will levy a fine against President Clinton. There will be other financial considerations which we're going to be finding out when Independent Counsel Bob Ray makes his statement. That is going to follow the White House release of the president's statement.

The keyboard here is "knowingly," and that is what the president is going to acknowledge, that he knowingly, in fact, gave evasive and misleading answers. In return for saying that, he avoids the possibility of being indicted by the independent counsel -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Bob Franken up on Capitol Hill.

Also following this story closely over at the White House is John King.

And we understand, John, that we're just moments away now from the White House briefing on all of this. What is the order of business this afternoon?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the order of business: This the final full day for the Clinton administration, the final briefing by White House Press Secretary Jake Siewert. We are told he will come to this briefing with a statement by the president. This statement worked out in those secret negotiations between David Kendall, the president's private attorney, and Robert Ray, the independent counsel who inherited the seven-year-old investigation from Independent Counsel Ken Starr.

Here's Jake Siewert.


JAKE SIEWERT, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Today's announcement I'll have for you shortly brings complete closure to both the Office of the Independent Counsel investigation and the Arkansas Bar Committee case without indictment or disbarment. Neither the president's statement, nor the consent order relates in any way to the president's grand jury testimony. The president believes that that testimony was in no way evasive, misleading or false.

Today represents the conclusion of the Lewinsky investigation by the Office of the Independent Counsel without the filing of any criminal charges, the obtaining of any plea or the acknowledgement of any criminal conduct.

The issue in the disbarment lawsuit was always only about punishment. The president conceded that his misleading and evasive answers in the Paula Jones deposition were properly subject to sanction, but did not agree that they merited disbarment. The question was merely what kind of sanction, and the committee now has formally acknowledged that this is not properly a disbarment case. Had the committee not attempted to disbar him, the president would have settled this case long ago by accepting an appropriate sanction.

I'll now read a short statement by the president that we will make available afterwards, and we will also have for you an exchange of letters between the president's lawyer, David Kendall, and the Office of the Independent Counsel, Robert Ray, which was memorialized this morning. This is a statement by the president.

"Today, I signed a consent order in the lawsuit brought by the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct which brings to an end that proceeding.

"I have accepted a five-year suspension of my law license, agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to cover counsel fees, and acknowledged a violation of one of the Arkansas model rules of professional conduct because of testimony in my Paula Jones case deposition. The disbarment suit will now be dismissed. "I have taken every step I can to end this matter. I've already settled the Paula Jones case, even after it was dismissed as being completely without legal and factual merit. I have also paid court and counsel fees and restitution and been held in civil contempt for my deposition testimony regarding Ms. Lewinsky, which Judge Wright agreed had no bearing on Ms. Jones case, even though I disagreed with the findings in the judge's order.

"I will not seek any legal fees incurred as a result of the Lewinsky investigation to which I might otherwise become entitled under the Independent Counsel Act.

"I have had occasion frequently to reflect on the Jones case. In this consent order, I acknowledge having knowingly violated Judge Wright's discovery orders in my deposition in that case. I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false.

"I have apologized for my conduct and I have done my best to atone for it with my family, my administration and the American people. I have paid a high price for it, which I accept because it caused so much pain to so many people. I hope my actions today will help bring closure and finality to the matters."

And with that, I'll take your questions.

QUESTION: How long had they been in negotiations on both cases? And when did he sign the order? Was that signed today? And what is his mood now. I mean, he's leaving with humiliation.

SIEWERT: The president's lawyers have been involved over the past several weeks in a discussion with both parties. Obviously, they've been in discussions with the Office of the Independent Counsel for a long time, along with the parties in Arkansas. But the case was brought to a close in the last couple of weeks, and the actual exchange of letters happened this morning.

The president -- I think you saw him last night -- and he knew full well then what was happening today. The president is upbeat about his future; looking forward to putting this behind him and returning to life in New York and resuming his duties as a citizen of the United States.

QUESTION: Jake, he might move forward with clean slate, but is he worried that this is going to further stain or sully his presidency?

SIEWERT: I think the president spoke last night very clearly about the goals that he laid out for this administration eight years ago, about renewing American -- renewing optimism in America and its ability to win and compete around the world. Those are things that we've done in large part.

We have a new sense of optimism in America; one that is unquestioned now. America has come back under regime and under his administration and he feels grateful to the American people for having given him a chance to...


SIEWERT: The president statement speaks for itself. He's acknowledged in the past that he gave statements that were false and misleading, and he wants to put that behind him now.

QUESTION: Jake, was this deal contingent on him making this statement while he's still held the office of president of the United States? Why couldn't he have done this next week?

SIEWERT: The timing was something that was agreed to between the president's lawyers and the Office of the Independent Counsel and the parties involved in Arkansas. But that was an agreement that I can't detail for you.

QUESTION: Does the president feel this deal is fair? Does he feel he was pushed into acknowledging wrongdoing? Because it's still, kind of, unfair.

SIEWERT: Well, I think the president felt like the punishment in the disbarment case went well beyond what was ordinary in these cases. But he wanted to put it behind him, and he wanted to bring that chapter to a close.

QUESTION: At the time the president first acknowledged the relationship with Lewinsky, he also went on in that speech to make clear his resentment at the independent counsel inquiry and at what he felt was the inappropriate nature of the personal matters it was looking at. Does he still have those feelings?

SIEWERT: I think that -- I'm not going to get into what he's feeling today about that investigation. I think his views on that are well known.

What I can say is that the Office of Independent Counsel, in this manner, was professional and carried out their duties in a way that was honorable. And our lawyers had good dealings with them and was very cooperative...

QUESTION: As I recall, the president, in several of his exit interviews, has talked about the Whitewater thing as being bogus and without foundation. Does he think the...

SIEWERT: Well, keep in mind that this is not in any way, shape or form -- the Whitewater charges have been dropped after countless years of investigation. They were investigated and investigated, and there was no merit found. And the independent counsel has already decided that they are not going to bring any charges in that matter.

QUESTION: Yes, but does he think that this particular dimension of the Whitewater inquiry is a similarly less appropriate thing for an independent counsel to be investigating?

SIEWERT: This was always tangential to the original investigation. The president has made that clear. This was not what this was all about when it started.

QUESTION: Was he going to be indicted? Is that why he made the deal?

SIEWERT: He made the deal because he wanted to put this behind him.

QUESTION: In a speech earlier this year, the president said he would be eager to stand before the bar of justice. Should Americans assume from this deal that he is not so eager now; he feared indictment, and in fearing indictment also feared a successful prosecution?

SIEWERT: I think the president issued a statement that largely speaks for itself. He wants to put this behind him, enter life as a public citizen without these legal cases hanging over him. And he wants to get a fresh start, and that's what he'll do today.

QUESTION: To follow up, does he think these particular sanctions -- the five-year suspension, not seeking reimbursement of legal fees -- does he think that is "fair" -- quote, unquote -- punishment for what he did, or is he accepting it reluctantly just to get it behind him?

SIEWERT: I think that the president feels as though those sanctions, the five-year suspension, is well beyond what would have been typical in any other disbarment case. But he wants to put this behind him, and he recognizes that an agreement here is necessary to put it behind him.

QUESTION: Jake, the reality is he wasn't going to practice law in Arkansas anyway, he wasn't going to use...

SIEWERT: He had no plans to practice law, but he still believes that the...

WATERS: OK, we're going to go over to the other side of the story now. Independent Counsel Robert Ray is stepping up to the podium. You just heard the statement from the president of the United States about the deal struck between Mr. Clinton and the independent counsel over no further prosecution in connection with the Monica Lewinsky case.

I guess Robert Ray isn't out there yet, John, but there was some question asked about the timing of all of this. Jake Siewert admitting there was some agreement on timing between the parties but could provide no details.

Bob Franken, I guess you're with me. Do you have any information about that?

FRANKEN: Yes, I do have some information about what is going to occur next. What's next, of course, is Bob Ray making his statement. Then the Arkansas Bar Association will put out a statement. That statement will be including a signature from William Jefferson Clinton which he will say he, quote, "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" that were -- moving through the statement -- "prejudice to the administration of justice."

That statement will be in the Arkansas Bar Association's finding in this case, a statement that will be signed, has been signed by President Clinton. So he will be acknowledging and the Bar Association will be acting based on that negotiated statement. It will include, as we heard, a five-year suspension from the practice of law in Arkansas.

WATERS: All right, Bob Franken keeping watch.

Jake Siewert is still talking with reporters. We're still waiting for Robert Ray, apparently, so let's listen to more of what the White House spokesman has to say.


QUESTION: ... on his last day in office, a day that's normally a very special day for presidents?

SIEWERT: The president is looking forward to returning to life as a private citizen. He's had a great eight years in many ways. There have been some difficult times, but he's putting this behind him now. And his record of economic achievement, of bringing leadership on issues of peace and prosperity to the United States are unchallenged at this point.

And he talked about that very directly last night in his farewell address.

QUESTION: Will this somehow stain the last day, though?

SIEWERT: You can all make that judgment for yourselves. The president has acknowledged making a personal mistake, one that he regrets, mostly because of the pain it inflicted upon his family. But he has always worked extraordinarily hard for the American people; kept at his job at a time when most people were focused on other things. And he wants to move on now and leave this behind him.

QUESTION: Jake, what would you say in reaction to allegations about Linda Tripp's lawyer in that she was fired in a last vindictive act by President Clinton?

SIEWERT: She was treated as any other Schedule C employee was. Most Schedule C employees were -- virtually all were asked to submit their resignations, and if they didn't do so, they were terminated.

QUESTION: Jake, several prominent Republicans have in the past couple of weeks, Senator Orrin Hatch and the president-elect among them, said it's time for the nation to put this behind them when asked about President Clinton's troubles.

Was this initiated simply as an action between the White House and the Office of the Independent Counsel, or was there some influence on the Office of the Independent Counsel from the Republican side?

SIEWERT: Oh, I have no idea. You'd have to ask them that. But hopefully this will give America a chance to put this particular episode behind them and move on.

QUESTION: He always said that he didn't think there was a jury in this town that would really convict him. And was he told that he was going to be indicted?

SIEWERT: You should check with the president's lawyer, Mr. Kendall, on that.

But, obviously, the president's wants to move on from this. He's issued a statement that should allow him to close this particular chapter and get back to a life as a regular U.S. citizen.

QUESTION: Do you know how many other Schedule C employees have been terminated?

SIEWERT: How many other?


SIEWERT: Oh, roughly all of them. I think that roughly...


QUESTION: Need to turn in their...

SIEWERT: Oh, that didn't turn in their resignation? I don't know that particularly. But I think most people submitted their resignations, as they were asked to do so. But there were several cases in which people either forgot or deliberately didn't, in which they were removed.

QUESTION: Jake, you said the president acknowledges he knowingly violated the Arkansas code. Does he feel he actually lied, or is that too strong a verb?

SIEWERT: I think the president acknowledges that, looking back now, some of the statements he gave in that deposition were false.

QUESTION: He did not realize at that time?

SIEWERT: At the time he was trying to be truthful.

QUESTION: Is he saying then, acknowledging then that he broke any laws?


QUESTION: Wasn't anybody concerned -- did they knew in the upcoming new administration about this?

SIEWERT: Excuse me? I'm not aware that they knew...


SIEWERT: I'm not aware that we consulted with them on this matter, at all. QUESTION: Jake...


SIEWERT: Not yet. You'll have your chance at him, but not today.

QUESTION: How does the president feel if the people of this country will look at him, in history, as a liar who, during the indictment, was thinking that he was talking about the truth, but now he's telling in different words, "I was lying"?

SIEWERT: I think it's very important to put this in perspective. The president has acknowledged many times that this was a very painful, personal episode in his own life.

When he gave that deposition, he was trying to be truthful, but he did not want to talk about the relationship that at that point has been over for an entire year.

So he did his best to try to tell the truth but without being particularly helpful to people who were trying, frankly, to embarrass the president in a quest for information that was not particularly relevant and was in no way material to that case.

So the president has said before that that was a painful episode. He has apologized for misleading people about what happened there, but he wants to put this behind him. And he wants people to remember that every day that he was here that he was working hard on the issues that matter to them, and that's the reason why they elected and re-elected him.

QUESTION: So how to separate these two things that he says that he knowingly violated the judge's order, but he didn't knowingly give misleading and false answers?

SIEWERT: Obviously, these are very -- these are documents written by lawyers that were negotiated in a very particular way. And I think I would probably refer you to Mr. Kendall as we get into the more arcane notion of this.

QUESTION: But the bottom line is...

SIEWERT: The bottom line is that looking back now the president can see where his testimony was false.

QUESTION: But he is not saying that he knowingly gave false testimony?

SIEWERT: That's right.

QUESTION: Is he giving pardons today?

SIEWERT: Yes, we should have those, hopefully, later today. We are working...

QUESTION: How many?

SIEWERT: I don't know exactly how many. We'll try to provide you with more information. I think you can expect a fair number. There are a lot of -- obviously, the president's had a lot of cases have come in virtually from...




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