Clinton says 'I'm sorry' to Lewinsky

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT CLINTON yesterday sent a "personal statement of regret" to Monica Lewinsky, the woman at the centre of the presidential sex scandal. The statement - which, it was said, was not the same as an apology - was presented by lawyers representing Mr Clinton at her Washington hotel.

Ms Lewinsky had expected to be facing hostile cross-examination. But reports, attributed to someone who was in the room during her questioning, said that the three lawyers representing the President had passed up their allotted four hours of questioning to instead read the prepared statement.

The statement, read by Nicole Seligman, the senior female lawyer in the White House team, expressed the President's regret for all that Ms Lewinsky had been through in the past year following the revelation of their affair.

This unexpected turn of events suggests that the White House has accepted the inevitability of witnesses and is intent on making the best of last week's defeat in the Senate.

White House lawyers had been expected to use their four-hour allocation to cross-examine Ms Lewinsky's account, as presented to the prosecutor from the House of Representatives, Ed Bryant, in the previous four hours.

They apparently decided, however, this was either unnecessary or ill- advised, especially if they wanted to avoid their most dreaded scenario - a summons to Ms Lewinsky to answer further questions, in person, in the Senate. The chosen strategy suggested that the White House was abandoning its belligerent hostility to the Senate proceedings and that Mr Clinton was now applying all of his considerable political acumen and personal charm to salvaging his presidency.

Reports of the President's statement of regret could not be confirmed by the White House or by named participants in yesterday's questioning of Ms Lewinsky. All were bound to keep the proceedings secret.

That the White House move leaked out within a couple of hours suggested that the White House wanted to send a message to the two witnesses due to be heard today and tomorrow: Vernon Jordan, the millionaire businessmen who helped Ms Lewinsky to find a job, and the White House aide, Sidney Blumenthal, who is accused of spreading negative reports about Ms Lewinsky.

It was the only "leak" to emerge, apart from unconfirmed reports that Ms Lewinsky - who was testifying under oath for the 23rd time - had added nothing to her earlier accounts of her relationship with Mr Clinton.

Senators will be able to view Ms Lewinsky's videotaped testimony today, but the Senate has still to decide whether the tape will ever be made public. This is one of the issues that could be subject to a vote when the Senate re-convenes on Thursday.

There were few illusions, however, about the difficulty of keeping the contents of the tape secret once Senators had been allowed to view it.

Outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington yesterday, there were broad smiles from passers-by at the flock of reporters who had been banished from the lobby to the opposite side of the road, and some street theatre that included an "almost naked cowboy". Sporting only black underpants and snakeskin boots and not a goose-pimple on him, despite the near-zero temperature, he strummed his guitar and sang, appropriately enough: "If it's trouble you want, then I've got it."

While yesterday's question-and-answer session at the Mayflower was the first opportunity Mr Clinton's lawyers have had to quiz Ms Lewinsky directly, the encounter was one that the White House had done its utmost to prevent.

Apparently close to panic about what Ms Lewinsky might say, spokesmen, lawyers and Democratic senators had used every argument they could muster - from charges of unfairness to warnings that witnesses could perpetuate the impeachment trial indefinitely.

Yesterday, the White House sought - with little success - to distract Monica-fixated Washington with the formal presentation of the US budget for 2000, the first "surplus" budget for a generation. But the public was already embroiled in a new, Monica-related controversy in an apparent "leak" to The New York Times at the weekend.

The paper had reported that the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, whose office initiated the Lewinsky investigation, might indict Mr Clinton for obstruction of justice even before his presidential term had concluded.

Mr Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, said that the White House was taking legal action against Mr Starr's office for "improper violations of grand jury secrecy".

"The office of the independent counsel has once again engaged in illegal and partisan leaking," Mr Kendall said, and he denounced the "leak" as "unfortunate" and "'inappropriate"', given that the impeachment trial in the Senate was still in progress. Mr Starr's office, however, formally denied any leak, saying that no decision on indicting the President had been taken.

The mere suggestion, however, had already spawned a lively legal and media debate about whether the constitution permits the indictment of a sitting president. Some said that impeachment is the only constitutional means of dealing with a law-breaking president and that indictment is only permissible after a president leaves office.

Others - including, according to The New York Times, Mr Starr - have apparently concluded that there is nothing in the constitution to prevent a sitting president from being indicted.

The consensus, like so much connected with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, was that the possibility had never been tested - opening the prospect of a new and epic constitutional battle, should Mr Starr decide to proceed.