Clinton accused: White House struck dumb as crisis deepens

It may look as if the White House is gambling that keeping the President away from the cameras will make the Lewinsky scandal go away. But, as David Usborne in Washington wagers, the truth is quite the opposite. They know the crisis is only deepening and they are in a panic about how to confront it.

His presidency and place in history in jeopardy, Bill Clinton failed to come before the American voters yesterday to offer a fresh explanation about the sex claims that have crashed around him as his advisers in the White House desperately squabbled about his best course of action.

There was no sign, meanwhile, of any let-up in the explosive crisis that has grown out of allegations that the President had sexual relations with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, in 1995 when she was only 21, and that he may have committed perjury and attempted to suborn Ms Lewinsky to commit perjury.

With the atmosphere in the White House already balanced somewhere between political paralysis and outright panic, it found itself served with sweeping subpoenas yesterday by the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who has been investigating alleged improprieties by the President since 1994.

Meanwhile, Washington positively reverberated with the possible prospect - though probably still a distant one - of a presidential resignation or impeachment. One senior administration official was heard to observe of the charges: "If true, it will cost Clinton the presidency. At a minimum, it will be disruptive for at least a year and make it a lot harder to push through our policies."

Under intense pressure from his political advisors to offer a new and comprehensive denial of the allegations, Mr Clinton is now facing the deadline of his annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday. It seems inconceivable that the address can be delayed as has been suggested in some quarters in Washington.

But while some in the White House argue that Mr Clinton's earlier attempts to dismiss the allegations in brief interviews on Wednesday failed and that he must try again with either a press conference or fresh interviews before Tuesday's address, his legal advisors are pressing him to wait. Their concern, apparently, is that the White House still has not got its own facts straight in a way that would be convincing.

Mr Clinton for the first time discussed the crisis with his cabinet, ostensibly summoned to discuss the contents of the State of the Union speech. Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, said afterwards: "He started out by saying that the allegations are untrue and that we should stay focused on our jobs and that everything will be fine."

Yesterday was notable also by something else that did not happen: a deposition by Ms Lewinski to lawyers representing Paula Jones, whose own lawsuit against the President is to go to trial in May, was postponed by an Arkansas judge. There had been huge anticipation ahead of the deposition, first planned for yesterday, to see if Ms Lewinsky decides to take advantage of her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions.

At issue is the suspicion that Ms Lewinski will feel obliged to contradict an earlier affidavit given to Ms Jones' team in which she denied having had sexual relations with Mr Clinton.

Tapes now in the possession of the special prosecutor Starr allegedly contain conversations between Ms Lewinsky and a friend and former colleague, Linda Tripp, in which Lewinski discusses having had such relations.

Ms Lewinsky, who faces possible criminal charges for perjury, reportedly said in her affidavit: "I have the utmost respect for the President, who always behaved appropriately in my presence. I have never had a sexual relationship with the President."

Mr Clinton is believed similarly to have denied having had sex with Ms Lewinsky when he was asked about her during his own five-hour deposition to lawyers of Ms Jones last Saturday. It is that which may open him to perjury charges. Mr Starr is also pursuing suspicions that the President and his close friend, Vernon Jordan, may have leaned on Ms Lewinsky to lie in her own deposition.

The lawyer representing Ms Lewinsky lashed out at Mr Starr, saying that he was unethically targeting his client. He also suggested that Mr Starr was resisting giving Ms Lewinsky the protection of immunity from criminal charges if she comes forward to corroborate the allegations.

"She has been targeted. She is a target," attorney William Ginsburg said yesterday. In what could become an important issue in any trial, Mr Ginsburg also raised questions about the legality of Mr Starr's investigative tactics, in particular his decision to wire Ms Tripp for one more conversation she had with Lewinsky in a Washington area hotel a week ago.

Meanwhile, the President faces still worse peril from a team of investigators dispatched by the Jones team to try to unearth other women who may have been sexually involved with the President.

Jones' lawyers have reportedly served a subpoena on the widow of Larry Lawrence, the former United States ambassador to Switzerland who achieved posthumous notoriety when he was recently disinterred from the Arlington military cemetery after it was found he did not qualify as a military hero.