Clintons prepare for 'Whitewatergate' day of humiliation: Rupert Cornwell in Washington considers the evidence for a possible presidential cover-up

A FEW weeks ago, partisan Republicans revelling in the Whitewater discomfort of Bill and Hillary Clinton nurtured a secret fear. Would Robert Fiske, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, be tough enough in his efforts to get to the bottom of the affair? This weekend Mr Fiske laid their doubts to rest.

Sunday's headlines may have been captured by the forced resignation of the White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, after a string of blunders that would long since have floored a less intimate friend of the first couple. Far more damaging, however, are the subpoenas that Mr Fiske slapped on 10 White House and Treasury Department officials involved in the infamous meetings to discuss the failed Madison Guaranty savings bank, with whose owner the Clintons had close personal and financial ties.

Next Thursday will be a day of shame for the adminstration, as Mr Nussbaum, Bruce Lindsey, a Clinton confidant, the Deputy Treasury Secretary, Roger Altman, Mrs Clinton's Chief of Staff, Margaret Williams, and half a dozen lesser luminaries troop before a federal grand jury investigating the Madison collapse. Mr Fiske has shown he means business.

Even before he apparently organised those secret sessions, Mr Nussbaum had caused the President much embarrassment - not only on Whitewater. He featured in the fiasco of the White House travel office sackings, and in the affair of Lani Guinier and other botched Justice Department nominations. Most suspicious of all, he and Mrs Williams removed Whitewater documents from the office of Vince Foster immediately after the then deputy counsel committed suicide in July. Revelations of the meetings made a resignation inevitable.

The subpoenas, though, are another matter. Until now, polls have showed, the vast majority of Americans have been utterly unmoved by a small-state financial imbroglio few could understand. Now, however, the word 'felony' is knocking at the White House doors. At issue is possible improper use of federal agencies and obstruction of justice: in plain English, a cover-up. The White House has been ordered not to destroy documents, rubbish or computer records. Grand juries, subpoenas, 'who knew what when' - this is the vocabulary of Watergate as well as Whitewater.

Indeed, one key question to be examined on Thursday will be the extent to which the President and First Lady knew of the meetings. Given that top aides to both took part, said Republican Senator Alphonse D'Amato, 'it's just not conceivable' they did not report back on what took place.

Barring bombshell disclosures, however, Whitewater contains no 'high crimes or misdemeanours' to justify impeachment. But for Bill Clinton it could be as debilitating if the controversy continued, consuming his energy and eroding support for health and welfare reform. Most dangerous, perhaps, it could turn public opinion back on to the 'Slick Willie' track. Although the President's approval rating is in the mid-50s, a survey taken just before the latest eruptions found that Americans by a 56-40 margin 'did not trust' him.

More subtly, the latest developments have refocused doubts about the Clinton style of government, dependent on a coterie of close friends and advisers, like Roger Altman and Bruce Lindsey, whose titles often understate their roles in the presidential inner circle. They have again shown that Mrs Clinton is at least as deeply involved in the affair as her husband.

Mrs Clinton made the investment decisions in the Whitewater real estate venture, which the Clintons co-owned with James McDougal, the former owner of Madison. At Rose law firm in Little Rock she was involved in conflicts of interest as serious as those held against her husband. With unrivalled influence on her husband, she is widely believed to have been a guiding hand in the White House's botched Whitewater strategy.

EVENTS LEADING TO THE INVESTIGATION

March 1992 Clinton's investment in Whitewater Development Company raised in newspaper article. Clinton was partner with James B McDougal, owner of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which failed in 1989. Hillary Clinton and McDougal's wife, Susan, also partners.

Autumn 1992 The federal agency charged with disposing of failed savings and loans asks the Justice Department to look at Madison Guaranty overdrafts granted to Whitewater.

December 1992 McDougal buys out Clintons' remaining interest in Whitewater. Mrs Clinton resigned partnership in firm after presidential election.

July 1993 Clinton lawyer Vince Foster, now deputy to Bernard Nussbaum as White House counsel, is found dead in a Virginia park. Nussbaum removes documents about Whitewater from Foster's office.

October 1993 Jean Hanson, general counsel at the Treasury De partment, meets Nussbaum to inform him of Justice Department investigation.

12 January 1994 Clinton asks the Attorney-General, Janet Reno, to appoint special prosecutor.

20 January Reno names Robert B Fiske to head investigation.

February The deputy Treasury Secretary, Roger Altman, acknowledges talking to Nussbaum about status of Madison investigation.

25 February Altman excuses himself from all actions involving Madison or Whitewater.

5 March Nussbaum offers to quit.

Leading article, page 13

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