Starr poised to unleash report on Washington

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The Independent Online
THE PRESIDENCY of Bill Clinton, already in the early stages of disintegration, could begin finally to unravel this week as the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, prepares at last to release his report into allegations of sexual misconduct in the White House and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Legal sources disclosed yesterday that the report is all but complete, and that it could be submitted to Congress before the end of this week.

If its contents prove as damaging to the President as many believe, it could trigger the worst constitutional crisis since the Watergate affair. Few now doubt the report will carry a grievous punch. The sex acts between Ms Lewinsky - the details of which she, presumably, supplied to Mr Starr herself - are likely to be described.

Most expect there to be more allegations of criminal misconduct by the President, such as perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

Richard Nixon was facing only one article of impeachment - obstruction of justice - when he was persuaded to resign from office.

On television yesterday, the Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said proof of perjury alone would enough to warrant impeachment. Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, will this week urge that at least a summary of the report be released to the public without delay. He wants it published on the Internet.

"There is a crisis of the regime," Mr Moynihan said. He urged Mr Starr to release the report as fast as possible and said Congress, due to disband on 9 October until next year, must remain in session until the Lewinsky matter is resolved. "This is a distraction that is doubly dangerous because of what is happening in the rest of the world," he said.

The political landscape has been in convulsion in Washington since last Thursday, when Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut took to the Senate floor to brand the President's conduct in the Lewinsky affair "immoral and disgraceful". He said it deserved a "formal rebuke".

Since then, Democrats around the country have rushed to distance themselves from the tarnished President. Few called outright for the President to stand down, but remarks such as these from Jeff Woodburn, chairman of the party in New Hampshire, were typical: "You can't be blindly loyal."

The concern is that the scandal will hurt all Democratic candidates in November, if only by depressing turn-out among traditional supporters.

"Clinton knows what's going to be in the [Starr] report, we don't," said Pauline Woods, of the Democratic National Committee. "If it's something that will hurt every candidate, he needs to step down. If not, he needs to stay and fight."

However, a key Democratic senator who sharply rebuked the President over his conduct said Mr Clinton had the capacity to be a moral leader and salvage his presidency.

But Congressman Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat and staunch Clinton loyalist, said the President faced his most difficult test and would have a hard time regaining the credibility needed to lead the country.

"I'm confident he can restore the full moral authority of his presidency and go on to finish [his] full term honourably," he said in an interview on NBC's Meet the Press.

But a censure of the President by Congress now looks unavoidable - a humiliation only one other president, Andrew Jackson, has suffered. Few in Washington now dare to bet that much worse can be avoided - that is, impeachment.

Mr Clinton has few options left. Aides hint that he may attempt one more effort at penitence, when religious and Congressional leaders gather in the White House on Friday for a prayer breakfast. The President said he was "sorry" for his affair with Lewinsky for the first time last Friday in Dublin.

In the hothouse of Washington - and not since Watergate has the fever been so high - it is easy to forget that polls taken after his admission to his affair with Ms Lewinsky have continued to show resilience in the President's approval ratings.

If his numbers stay good, Mr Clinton could remain insulated. If the ratings crumble - and signs of a souring of the domestic economy will not help - the President will have problems that even he, the "Comeback Kid", may not be able to overcome.