Clinton grilled for hours by Starr

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ALL POLITICAL life in Washington was on hold yesterday as President Bill Clinton entered the Map Room of the White House to give the testimony that could save or ruin his presidency. He arrived at 12.59, one minute early, and was expected to answer questions for the best part of four hours about his relationship with the former White House trainee Monica Lewinsky.

He is the first American president to testify to a federal grand jury in defence of his own conduct. In two concessions agreed as a condition of his testimony, he was permitted to testify over closed-circuit television from the White House and be accompanied by his lawyers. The questioning was led by Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor appointed four years ago to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by the Clintons.

Mr Clinton was expected to amend earlier denials of sexual contact with Ms Lewinsky to admit there was a sexual aspect to their relations. However, he was also expected to stand by previous sworn denials that there was "a sexual relationship" or an "affair", as defined in earlier legal proceedings.

On Sunday Mr Clinton's lead lawyer, David Kendall, issued a statement saying "the truth is the truth. Period. And that's how the President will testify".

According to some accounts, Mr Clinton would be shown videotaped excerpts from the testimony of Ms Lewinsky, who appeared before the grand jury 10 days before, and be asked to respond. Ms Lewinsky, 25, reportedly admitted an affair that involved sexual contact "of a certain kind" but not intercourse. She was also said to have admitted to discussions about how to conceal the relationship but denied Mr Clinton had exerted any pressure on her to keep it secret.

As Mr Clinton made last- minute preparations for his testimony, some members of his staff described yesterday as "one of the most difficult and painful days" of the Clinton presidency. The mood in the White House was said to be grim, with some officials privately expressing disappointment and a sense of betrayal.

While Mr Clinton's wife and daughter both spent the weekend at the White House with the President, other Clinton allies were conspicuous by their absence, including the Vice-President, Al Gore, who is halfway through a two-week holiday in Hawaii. Yesterday's showdown was the culmination of an investigation started seven months ago, when a Pentagon employee, Linda Tripp, passed tapes of conversations with Ms Lewinsky to Mr Starr's office.

The tapes, in which Ms Lewinsky recounted in detail an 18-month affair with the President, appeared to contradict sworn denials of an affair by both Ms Lewinsky and the President. Mr Starr's zeal in investigating the sex allegations has led Clinton allies to accuse him of turning a strictly judicial inquiry into a personal and political vendetta.

Moment of truth, page 9