Clinton must wait as Monica decides

IT HAS to be a burden to be 24 years old and realise that the fate of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth could depend on your word, on a choice at once simple and harrowing between responding to a straight question with a yes or a no.

Monica Lewinsky's burden is made heavier by the knowledge that if she refuses to make the choice, if she declines to answer at all, her own fate is in the balance. While President Bill Clinton would remain at the White House, she could be in jail.

Ms Lewinsky, the former White House trainee caught in the eye of the biggest political storm since Watergate, has been summoned to appear before the grand jury in Washington tomorrow to answer questions about her relationship with the president.

While she has indicated that she would refuse to answer questions before the grand jury, invoking her Fifth Amendment right to protect herself against self-incrimination, she would still not be off the hook. For if she takes the Fifth, Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the president's alleged misdemeanours, would have the legal authority to compel her to testify under limited immunity. In such an event the statements she made to the grand jury could not be used against her in a court of law, but she would remain open to criminal charges based on any other evidence Mr Starr might obtain.

Such evidence might include testimony from Ashley Raines, a close friend of hers from the White House who, according to Newsweek, confirmed earlier reports before the grand jury last week that the president had left messages on Ms Lewinsky's answering machine.

Should Ms Lewinsky turn down limited immunity, should she still persist in her refusal to co-operate with Mr Starr, he would then be in a position to charge her with contempt of court. The consequence of that, in all probability, would be jail.

"She is not going to jail," her lawyer, William Ginsburg, declared on Monday. "Nobody's going to abuse her. I'm not going to let that happen."

To that end Mr Ginsburg was expected to file an urgent motion in court yesterday aimed at squashing the subpoena requiring his client to appear before the grand jury, a fact-finding body invested in this matter with the authority to establish the legal plausibility of Mr Starr's case against the president.

Ms Lewinsky could have got away scot-free had she agreed to co-operate fully with Mr Starr in exchange for an offer of total immunity from perjury charges arising from what, according to all indications, was the false affidavit she gave lawyers prosecuting Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against the president. In the affidavit she denied having sex with the president. Logically, that must have been a lie for otherwise it would be a mystery why Mr Ginsburg should have spent the last three weeks engaged in exhaustive negotiations with Mr Starr over an immunity deal, why Mr Ginsburg should even be contemplating the notion that Ms Lewinsky could end up in jail.

According to the plethora of leaks, Ms Lewinsky was prepared to acknowledge under oath that she did indeed have a sexual relationship with the president, in direct contradiction of his vehement public denials and his legal denial when he himself testified under oath before Paula Jones' lawyers.

Such an admission alone from Ms Lewinsky would expose Mr Clinton to a possible perjury charge. But Mr Starr was greedy. He made it clear to Mr Ginsburg that he would only grant his client full immunity if she testified that the president, in collaboration with his close friend and Washington power-lawyer Vernon Jordan, had gone out of their way to persuade her to lie to Ms Jones' lawyers. Armed with that testimony from Ms Lewinsky, Mr Starr would be in a position to bring cases of subornation of perjury or obstruction of justice against the president and his friend. Whereupon the possibility of impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill would become very real.

In the event that Ms Lewinsky agrees to testify under limited immunity that she did have sexual relations with the president, the White House would have little option but to wage a campaign against her credibility.

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