TRACKING THE STORY
August 17, 1998
After a day of testifying before the grand jury, President Clinton prepares to address the nation on his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Washington Post reporter Dan Balz discusses the day's events.
MARGARET WARNER: When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January, President Clinton had little to say about his relationship with the former White House intern. His first comment came January 21st in an interview with the NewsHour's Jim Lehrer.
JIM LEHRER: No improper relationship. Define what you mean by that.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I think you know what it means. It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.
MARGARET WARNER: The next day the president promised he'd say more soon.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: You and the American people have a right to get answers. I want to do that. I'd like for you to have more, rather than less, sooner rather than later.
MARGARET WARNER: Several days later the president again denied any impropriety with Lewinsky, but he gave no further explanation of the relationship.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never.
MARGARET WARNER: What's of interest to independent counsel Kenneth Starr, however, is what the president said about the relationship under oath earlier that month. On January 17th, President Clinton went to his lawyer's office to give a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Jones's lawyers questioned him about his relationships with a number of women, including Monica Lewinsky. That deposition is the foundation for Starr's inquiry into whether the president committed perjury or encouraged Lewinsky to do so.
MARGARET WARNER: Now for explanation and analysis of what the president said in that deposition we turn to Dan Balz of the Washington Post national staff. Dan, before we turn to the deposition, set the scene for us today for the president's testimony.
DAN BALZ, Washington Post: Well, as has already been said, they met today in the Map Room at the White House, which is in the White House, itself, not in the west wing. It's a signal that this has to do with personal business, not official business. The president, of course, was there, along with his personal attorneys, David Kendall, Nicole Seligman, as well, and in addition to that Charles Ruff, who is the White House counsel. Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, was there, along with a number of his deputies, including Jackie Bennett. They were—the lawyers were, we believe, seated at tables, the president was seated alone, before them, before the television camera. The testimony was transmitted down to the grand jury, which was at the federal courthouse about 12 blocks away, by a closed-circuit television feed, which was scrambled to prevent anybody from seeing it.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, let's go back to the deposition that gave rise to this investigation. First of all, remind us again, why will Paula Jones's lawyers asking the president about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
DAN BALZ: Well, the truth is they were asking his relationship with a number of women, not simply Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones, and what they were trying to do was to establish a pattern of behavior on his part in which in one form or another he obtained sexual favors from these women in return for either enticements, job enticements, or those sorts of things, or pressure that he used to cover up what had gone on with those relationships, so that there were a variety of questions. He was prepared for questions about Monica Lewinsky. They had gone over this, he and his personal attorney, Bob Bennett, had gone over this in advance of the deposition, but it seemed clear he was surprised by the amount of detail that he was asked about in those questions. And what we now have is we now have the most extensive record under oath about what he said about the relationship, and, therefore, it's the key document in terms of determining whether he committed perjury, so important, I think, in terms of how he handled it, that David Kendall, his attorney, went down last week to the federal courthouse to actually view a videotape of his testimony.
MARGARET WARNER: So how did the president describe his relationship with Lewinsky in that deposition?
DAN BALZ: Margaret, I guess, in a word I would say carefully. He was tentative in a number of his answers. He was—sometimes appeared as if he were withholding information. Occasionally, he was expansive. In general, he issued few outright denials and left himself room for the truth to emerge later, if you will, that he—him answering questions he gave himself some room for information to come out later.
MARGARET WARNER: So, for instance, he was asked about whether he'd met alone with her. How did he answer questions like that?
DAN BALZ: Well, he was asked, first of all, questions about did he know her, and it was interesting to see the way he responded to that, because one of the things he did was his first recollection was that he didn't recall how much he knew about her. He described her almost like any other young person around the White House that he had seen her around the time of the government shutdown, when he recalls having met her, that she and other interns were sometimes in and out of the office delivering papers. But he made it all sound in the normal course of business and nothing out of the ordinary. Now, when he was asked, were they ever alone together, his first answer was, I don't recall. But as the questioning developed, he did leave open the possibility that in some form or fashion he and Monica Lewinsky had been alone together. Now, there was one exchange that sort of typifies the way these exchanges went.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we're going to try to put up a graphic of this as you read it to us.
DAN BALZ: Okay. James Fisher, who was the lawyer for Paula Jones, asked the president at any time have you and Monica Lewinsky ever been alone together in any room of the White House. The president replied, "I have no specific recollection, but it seems to me that she was on duty on a couple of occasions, working for the Legislative Affairs Office, and brought me some things to sign, something on the weekend. I have a general memory of that." Now after that, Jones's lawyers continued to ask about the possibility that he and Lewinsky were ever alone together in areas around the Oval Office, in some of the private areas off the Oval Office, the very tiny kitchen, the private dining room, the hallway that leads off the Oval Office. He recalls several situations where this might have been the case. He recalls perhaps that she had helped deliver pizza during the government shutdown; that there might have been a couple of instances like that. But, interestingly, he always puts—or often put Betty Currie, his personal assistant, in the room, or in the area at the same time, that, in fact, his recollection is in general Betty Currie was probably there. Now, there was one other interesting point about the exchanges in the part of the testimony, and that is that he was never asked specifically whether he and Lewinsky were alone together in the private study just off the Oval Office. Now, we believe that she has said that they were alone together. So, in essence, he was never fully pinned down about the details of encounters that might have occurred off the Oval Office.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's go to the major question about whether they had a sexual relationship. What did the president say on that point?
DAN BALZ: Well, the president was unequivocal in his denials. There were two exchanges that were pertinent. Let me read the first one. It went this way. Fisher, Jones's attorney, asked, did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky? President Clinton replied, no. Fisher then asked if she told someone that she had a sexual affair with you, beginning in November of 1995, would that be a lie—the president replies to that. It's certainly not the truth. It would not be the truth. Now, after that exchange, Mr. Fisher realized that he had used the phrase "sexual affair," rather than sexual relations, and so he went back and he restated the question, and that exchange again goes as follows: Fisher said, and so that the record is completely clear, have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in deposition Exhibit 1 modified by the court? The president was then presented with that definition, and he replied, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."
MARGARET WARNER: And how broad was that definition of sexual relations, that they had agreed to use?
DAN BALZ: Margaret, it's fairly broad and quite graphic, if you will. I mean, I think to the non-legal eye it covers virtually any form of sexual contact. There is some debate about that, in part, because there was a multiple part definition of sexual relations that the Jones lawyers offered at the beginning of the deposition. Judge Wright, who was presiding over the deposition at the time, ruled all of those out initially and then ruled in part of it for the questioning involving Lewinsky. There are some Clinton supporters who have suggested that the single definition that was put before the president might not cover a particular form of sexual activity, and there are others who have suggested that because there were definitions kind of flying back and forth at various times during the afternoon, but there may have been some confusion on the president's part as to exactly what definition was being used. Now, it may be on that basis that the president was prepared to acknowledge some kind of sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky during his testimony and today, without acknowledging that he had committed perjury.
MARGARET WARNER: Which was the story that a lot of White House sources were putting out as a possible scenario. Finally, the last big question is: Did he—is the obstruction of justice—did he encourage her to lie? Did he get other people to encourage her to stay silent with job, seeking health and so on? How did he handle that, those questions?
DAN BALZ: It's interesting. His answers on those were often less direct and I would say less crisp than some of his other answers. They were a little bit convoluted. He certainly acknowledges no instance in which he asked her to lie or did anything to try to get her to cover up, or even to participate in helping her to get a job in exchange for her denial that they had engaged in a sexual relationship. But his answers go as follows: There was one interesting exchange where he is asked something to the effect of how—what he had known about it at the time. He acknowledges that he knew she was on the witness list, but not that she had talked to her directly about the subpoena or about her testimony. He doesn't give up much in terms of what Vernon Jordan may have been doing throughout the discussion on these questions. He generally puts Betty Currie in the middle of it and says whatever he knew he learned from Betty Currie.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, we put up a graphic while you were describing in general what he had said, but maybe if you could just—was this—could you just read us that forth one, if you have it there. This was about whether he knew—all right—I'll read it. Let me read it. When Fisher said, "Have you ever talked to Monica Lewinsky about the possibility that she might be asked to testify in this lawsuit," President Clinton said, "I'm not sure. It seems to me the last time she was there in the White House to see Betty"—Betty Currie—"we were joking about how you all were going to call every woman I'd ever talked to. And so I said, ‘You would qualify.' I don't think we ever had more of a conversation than that about it." Is this sort of typical of the way he handled that?
DAN BALZ: This is very typical of it. His answers were such that he was often tentative. He hesitated. The more he was asked, the more information he revealed, but it was a kind of thing in which he suggested he was trying to have his memory jogged and did not have sort of a forthcoming response to most of those questions. The more he was asked, the more he made clear he knew things were going on, but always kind of as a third party watching, being informed by Betty Currie or occasionally being informed by Vernon Jordan.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks again very much.
DAN BALZ: Thank you.