The Starr Report: Clinton lawyer denies charges

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The Independent Online
FAR FROM being a rabbit in headlights, the White House last night joined battle with Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel whose extraordinary, and extraordinarily lurid, report into the President's illicit affair hit the Internet last night.

Just how effective that counter-punch will be nobody can predict, however.

Even before the Starr report began falteringly to flow through to numerous web sites, the White House was engaging its strategy. It began with an emotion-filled speech by Bill Clinton at an annual prayer breakfast with religious leaders, and then moved to a fierce rebuttal to the report, issued by his lawyers.

Two possible elements remained missing. There was no indication that the President was planning a formal appeal for the American people to express their support for him. Nor was there any word that his potential trump card was about to be played: a public appearance by the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in which she offers, once again, public forgiveness to her philandering husband.

In 73 closely argued pages, the lead White House lawyer, David Kendall, refuted the Mr Starr's contention that the President is guilty of 11 criminal misdemeanours, ranging from obstruction of justice, witness tampering and perjury, that would warrant impeachment by the House of Representatives.

"We do not believe that the OIC [Office of Independent Counsel] can identify any conduct remotely approaching the impeachment standard," Mr Kendall wrote. "It appears that the OIC has dangerously overreached to describe in the most dramatic of terms conduct that not only is not criminal but is actually proper and lawful".

Critically, the White House is contending that Mr Clinton was not guilty of perjury in denying that he had had sexual relations when giving his 17 January deposition in the now-defunct sexual harassment case brought against him by Paula Jones. The President, Mr Kendall says, had based his answers on the narrow legal definition of sexual relations laid down by the judge in that case.

That definition said: "For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in 'sexual relations' when the person knowingly engages in or causes ... contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person".

Whether such legalistic pedantry will impress members of Congress or indeed the American public is far from certain. And yet winning back public confidence is now what Mr Clinton must do. The next hours and days will tell whether he will have any success.

The other prong of the counter-attack consists of the President offering the most abject apologies possible for his relationship with Ms Lewinsky. He is trying to overcome criticism of his 17 August television admission of the relationship to voters which was widely thought to lack genuine contrition. He took that effort several steps further at yesterday's prayer breakfast. His voice choked by emotion and his eyes filling with tears, he told his guests, "I have sinned ... I have repented".

For the first time, the President yesterday also expressed remorse for the hurt he has caused all those close to him, his friends, his staff and cabinet. And he included in that list Ms Lewinsky herself.

So far, at least, the President's team of friends and advisers seems to be hanging together, even though the mood inside the White House has been described as chaotic. "They're pretty panicked," one official conceded.

The political, rather than legal, campaign to thwart Starr's allegations will be a long one as will any process of impeachment hearings. There is, of course, one other possible option: resignation by the President. Is he considering that, spokesman Mike McCurry was asked yesterday. His answer was a resounding no.