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Clinton defends his wife over Whitewater: Scandal and suspicion are eroding the First Lady's authority, writes Patrick Cockburn in Washington

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton yesterday vigorously defended his wife, Hillary, who has come under increasing attack for her role in the Whitewater affair. He said: 'Her moral compass is as strong as anybody's in this country. I do not believe for a moment that she has done anything wrong.'

At a White House press conference Mr Clinton repeatedly denied wrongdoing, but he is clearly worried at the political damage done to the administration by the Whitewater affair. He said: 'There will not be a cover-up, there will not be an abuse of office in this White House.'

Mr Clinton said he was unaware of two White House meetings where his advisers discussed the progress of the investigation with Treasury department officials. As in the past he portrayed his involvement with the Whitewater real estate company as a minor business deal that went wrong 16 years ago.

He said the White House had now 'literally erected a firewall' between itself and the investigative agencies looking into the affair. Mr Clinton said the report of the special counsel, Robert Fiske, on Whitewater and related matters would show that he was innocent.

Mr Clinton said he had started to look for a successor to the White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, who resigned on Saturday after criticism that he was obstructing the investigation. Ten administration officials subpoenaed by Mr Fiske wil give evidence to a grand jury on Thursday.

As in the past Mr Clinton, looking a little haggard, counter-attacked briskly, saying that the Republicans were seeking to derive short-term political advantage that might rebound on them. 'The American people will be outraged if anybody uses this as an excuse for not doing the people's business,' he insisted.

Allegations of obstructing the Whitewater investigation are sapping the authority of Hillary Clinton within the White House where she has been the greatest influence on shaping policy after her husband. In recent weeks she has cancelled two-thirds of her commitments to devote time to dealing with the scandal.

She is still the main strategist and publicist for the administration's health care proposals. But her ability to sell them to Congress and the public is being undermined by accusations that she, rather than Bill Clinton, was the central figure in stalling investigators.

Repubicans and the right-wing media have long demonised Mrs Clinton as an unelected radical but only recently have they started to draw blood. The Washington Times, which is viscerally anti-Democrat but so far accurate on Whitewater, said yesterday that during the 1992 presidential election Hillary Clinton had repeatedly called couriers to the governor's mansion in Arkansas to take papers to be shredded at the Rose Law Firm, where she was a partner.

The shredding started after the Clintons' involvement in the troubled Whitewater real estate company was revealed, but there is no information about what documents were being destroyed. Unfortunately for Mr and Mrs Clinton the White House record of deviousness over the affair is so well-established that everything they now do is regarded with suspicion.