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Clinton team faces grilling by House inquisitors: Presidential aides deny impropriety over Whitewater

LIKE pupils facing the school board, some of the most senior figures in the White House sat in a row before a House Committee yesterday to deny they had made any attempt to tamper with a government investigation of tangled Arkansas financial dealings involving then-governor, now-President Bill Clinton.

'No, sir,' chimed the so- called 'White House Ten' in unison as the Banking Committee chairman, Henry Gonzales, asked whether they had sought to shield President Clinton or to interfere in the probe of Madison Guaranty, the failed savings bank owned by the Clintons' former partners in the Whitewater real-estate venture.

The 10-man line-up included top advisers Thomas 'Mack' McLarty, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, the deputy chief of staff, Harold Ickes, as well as Mrs Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams - all of them from the inner circle of presidential power. Even Watergate or Irancontra at their height never saw as much White House throw-weight simultaneously assembled for a congressional grilling.

But once again, as the second day of Whitewater hearings on Capitol Hill drew to a close, proceedings threw little new light on an affair that has dogged and distracted the Clintons for more than a year. Instead, it spotlighted the partisan divide between Republican and Democrats. 'McCarthyism,' one Democrat called the work of his own committee.

Earlier, an unrepentant Bernard Nussbaum, the former White House counsel, vigorously defended his contacts with senior Treasury officials over Whitewater, insisting his boss the President could not be left unaware of developments in an affair in which he was indirectly involved. 'You must know enough to respond to press inquiries,' Mr Nussbaum told Republican inquisitors, who argue these meetings were aimed at influencing the investigation by the Resolution Trust Corporation, the Treasury agency handling the savings and loan clean-up.

'You have to be able to defend yourself, to fight back - if not, a President is not going to be able to govern,' maintained Mr Nussbaum, who was forced to resign last March. He insisted he had done nothing wrong, even in pressing the Deputy Treasury Secretary, Roger Altman, a longtime friend of Mr Clinton, to stay in charge of RTC. 'I may be naive, but people shouldn't be allowed to bow out of unpleasant duties for personal or political reasons.'

Faced with as unyielding a witness in Mr Nussbaum as his successor, Lloyd Cutler, had been on Tuesday, Republicans sought to move on to the ten aides - if only to secure a spectacle which is likely to remain in the collective memory long after what its participants had to say.

There was one success for the President yesterday - approval by a joint House-Senate committee of a crime bill, containing a ban on 19 types of assault weapon.