President Clinton's top lawyer and prosecutors investigating the Monica Lewinsky matter have recently opened discussions over whether Clinton would provide grand jury testimony, a senior administration official and a lawyer involved in the inquiry said on Tuesday.
The contact between the president's lawyer, David Kendall, and prosecutors appears not to have resulted yet in any agreement over the timing or scope of the president's testimony.The discussions suggest that the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, could complete the fact-finding phase of the Lewinsky inquiry within the next few weeks, since Clinton would be one of the final witnesses to testify. Negotiations with Lewinsky's lawyers over her providing testimony under a grant of immunity broke down weeks ago.
There are significant political and legal calculations on both sides. The president might be reluctant to refuse a request by Starr that he testify in the Lewinsky case because it would leave the impression that he has something to hide. Such a refusal might even rekindle memories of President Nixon's bitter struggle with prosecutors during Watergate.
Testifying poses both legal and political risks, however. He could be caught by surprise - as he was in the Paula Jones deposition, in which he was asked for the first time about Lewinsky.
Although Starr could simply subpoena the president, rather than try to negotiate his testimony, doing so might make him appear overly aggressive and might force the president to claim executive privilege and refuse to answer questions, a step that could lead to a protracted court battle that would delay Starr's inquiry by months.
At least two senior White House aides - Bruce Lindsey, the deputy counsel, and Sidney Blumenthal, a communications adviser - have refused to answer some of Starr's questions before the grand jury, citing the right of the president to confidential conversations with his staff.
Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said that he was not aware of the details of talks between Kendall and the independent counsel's office.
However, he said, "In the past, when Mr. Starr wanted to talk to the president they have worked out amicable terms to do so."
Lawyers in Starr's office declined to comment on whether they had engaged in discussions over the president's grand jury testimony.
Clinton said shortly after the Lewinsky accusations surfaced in January that he and his staff would cooperate in the investigation. He said he would like to clear up questions raised by the Lewinsky inquiry "sooner rather than later."
The president has said very little about his relationship with Lewinsky. She has told friends that she had a sexual affair with the president but said there was no sexual relationship in an affidavit for the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit, according to lawyers involved in the case. Clinton vigorously denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky or encouraging her to lie about it.
Starr and his predecessor, Robert Fiske Jr., have taken the president's testimony under oath at the White House on several previous occasions on a variety of Whitewater-related matters. Portions of that testimony were later read to grand jurors.
Starr and Fiske have also questioned Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House about the Clintons' business affairs in Arkansas; although once, in early 1996, Starr ordered the first lady to appear before a grand jury in Washington. Her appearance was demanded after a copy of some of the billing records from her old law firm mysteriously surfaced in the residence of the White House nearly two years after they were first subpoenaed.