Senate lawyers question Lewinsky

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WITH THE future of the US President hers to decide, Monica Lewinsky was questioned for much of yesterday by lawyers trying to establish the truth of the charges against him. It was the 23rd time the former White House trainee had been questioned under oath about their relationship and probably the most crucial.

Ms Lewinsky and her questioners were holed up behind several sets of closed doors at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, the hotel where Ms Lewinsky has been staying since she returned from California on Saturday.

It was decided not to summon her to the Capitol, for her own convenience and to avoid causing gridlock in Washington.

Outside the Mayflower yesterday, there were broad smiles from passers- by at the flock of reporters now 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, despite the near zero temperature, he sang, appropriately enough: "If it's trouble you want, then I've got it."

The lawyers had arrived shortly before 9am. For the White House, Mr Clinton's private lawyer, David Kendall, and the two female lawyers in the White House team, Nicole Seligman and Cheryl Mills. Plato Cacheris, Ms Lewinsky's lawyer, had arrived shortly before, also accompanied by a female lawyer.

The first four hours of questioning were led by Ed Bryant, one of the 13 Republican "prosecutors" from the House of Representatives who are trying to make the case for Mr Clinton's conviction. Mr Bryant, the Representative from Tennessee, was one of three prosecutors who held a preliminary meeting with Ms Lewinsky the week before and the one, reports said, who communicated with her most easily.

Questions were expected to focus on Mr Clinton's role, if any, in the removal of gifts from Ms Lewinsky's flat and the affidavit she signed denying a sexual relationship with the President.

Advance speculation about a "Perry Mason" style denouement was dampened by one of the House prosecutors, Bill McCollum, who told a television interviewer: "I don't want anybody to think there's some bombshell out there."

Lest their insistence on calling Ms Lewinsky be thought prurient, Republicans have also stressed that their questions would be about lies and not sex.

The afternoon session was allocated to the White House defence lawyers. Two senators presided, one Republican and one Democrat, and the proceedings were videotaped, although the Senate has still to decide whether the tape will ever be made public.

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 the White House had done its utmost to prevent. Apparently close to panic about what she might say, spokesmen, lawyers and Democrat senators had used every argument they could muster.

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. White House lawyers also made an issue of a New York Times report over the weekend claiming that the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, might indict Mr Clinton for obstruction of justice before his term was up.

"The office of the independent counsel has once again engaged in illegal and partisan leaking," objected Mr Kendall, announcing that the White House would file a formal complaint. Mr Starr's office, however, formally denied any leak, saying that no decision on indicting the President had been taken.