Clinton denial keeps jurors glued to TV

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Delivering his keenly-awaited testimony in the current Whitewater trial in Little Rock, President Bill Clinton yesterday flatly denied that when Governor of Arkansas in 1986 he illegally pressured a Little Rock investment banker to make a $300,000 loan to his former business partners.

Addressing the most serious allegation against him in the controversy which has dogged him since the 1992 election, Mr Clinton said simply and unequivocally of his purported involvement with the loan to Jim and Susan McDougal: "It never happened."

He insisted he put no pressure on banker David Hale to advance money to the McDougals, co-owners with the Clintons of the loss-making, now dissolved, Whitewater real estate venture.

Mr Clinton gave his evidence at a videotaped session in the White House a fortnight ago, after being subpoenaed as a defence witness in the trial of the McDougals and Jim Guy Tucker, his successor as Arkansas Governor, on fraud and embezzlement charges brought by Kenneth Starr, the special Whitewater prosecutor.

Yesterday, the federal court in Little Rock began to hear the four and a half hours of testimony. Jurors watched a giant television screen as the President, dressed in a dark suit and tie, rebutted Mr Hale's accusations. "Any suggestion I tried to get money from him or tried to put pressure on him is simply not true. It never happened."

A verdict in the trial could come as soon as next week, a month earlier than expected, after surprise decisions by both prosecution and defence to rest their cases last night. Even so, the sight of a sitting president in a criminal trial is a political embarrassment the White House is trying to minimise - above all by preventing the tape falling into the hands of Republicans for use in election campaign advertisements.

Thus far the tactics have worked, as the trial judge ordered the video sealed, but troubles continue to rumble on other legal fronts for Mr Clinton. A Congressional committee yesterday instigated contempt proceedings against three senior White House officials for withholding documents relating to "Travelgate", the 1993 mass sacking of the White House travel office, while an appeals court has refused to block Paula Jones's sexual harassment case against the President.