The White House made a dramatic effort Friday to preempt independent counsel Kenneth Starr's allegations, sending its own report to Congress declaring that the president did not commit perjury, obstruct justice, tamper with witnesses or abuse the power of his office.
"Impeachment is a matter of incomparable gravity. Even to discuss it is to discuss overturning the electoral will of the people," President Clinton's personal and White House lawyers wrote."We do not believe the OIC (Office of Independent Counsel) can identify any conduct remotely approaching" the impeachment standard, said the 73-page rebuttal written by attorney David Kendall and White House Counsel Charles Ruff and their associates.
"Instead from press reports, if true, it appears that the OIC has dangerously over-reached to describe in the most dramatic of terms conduct that not only is not criminal but is actually proper and lawful," they added.
The report was released by the White House less than an hour after lawmakers voted to make public a report by Starr that is expected to accuse him of 11 impeachable offenses.
The Clinton rebuttal was part of a massive counteroffensive, carefully planned in secret over the past few days by the president's top troubleshooters. It was preceded earlier in the day by a dramatic and emotional statement by the president himself that included his first public apology to Monica Lewinsky.
"I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," he said, his eyes glistening. He promised, though, to vigorously battle the allegations against him.
Although Clinton has apologized several times publicly in recent days as the House prepared for possible impeachment proceedings, Friday's remarks to a gathering of religious leaders were the first time he had included a direct mention of Lewinsky.
Reading from notes as his hushed audience of more than 100 ministers, priests and other religious leaders listened, the president said he had a broken spirit but still hoped to regain the nation's trust.
"If my repentance is genuine and sustained, and if I can maintain both a broken spirit and a strong heart, then good can come of this for our country as well as for me and my family," he said.
That remark drew hearty applause.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the rebuttal, dispatched to a half-dozen House leaders, was not based on any advance peek at Starr's report. "We don't know what's in the report, but we can read the newspapers," he said.
The White House report was sent to leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and House Oversight Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, Lockhart said.
The document offered a point-by-point rebuttal of allegations expected to be contained in Starr's report. The White House was not permitted an advance look at Starr's document.
The White House rebuttal said that Clinton had acknowledged "a serious mistake" in his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.
"This private mistake does not amount to an impeachable action," the report said. It went on to say that Starr's report was based "entirely on allegations obtained by the grand jury" and said that grand juries "are not designed to search for the truth."
Denying all the allegations of criminal misconduct, the report asserted: "This means that the OIC report is left with nothing but the details of a private sexual relationship, told in graphic details with the intent to embarrass."
Afterward Friday's prayer breakfast, some clergy praised the president for what they saw as a heartfelt penance.
"He couldn't be more contrite," said the Rev. Fred Davie of the First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Anybody who couldn't see that has another agenda altogether."