Now what?

Time may be running out for Kenneth Starr if he wants his investigation to result in anything but political impasse.

By Jonathan Broder

Published March 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON --After six weeks of investigating President Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky and more than three years of examining the murky bog known as Whitewater, time is finally running out for Kenneth Starr.

That is the view of legal and political experts in Washington as Starr finally began his questioning of the principles in the Lewinsky affair -- leading off with Vernon Jordan -- and members of Congress begin to think about things other than a possible impeachment of the president -- like their own reelection campaigns later this year.

"The big question now is: When does it become a pointless exercise in terms of the political calendar?" says Stuart Taylor, the legal affairs columnist for the National Journal who has been following the Clinton scandals closely.

On Thursday, Clinton close friend and personal advisor Vernon Jordan testified for a second day before Starr's grand jury, emphasizing once more that the help he gave Lewinsky in finding a job and a lawyer was not aimed to buy her silence about the alleged sexual affair with Clinton. "I did not in any way tell her or encourage her to lie, and secondly, my efforts to find her a job were not a quid pro quo for the affidavit that she signed," he told reporters, referring to Lewinsky's sworn affidavit, provided to lawyers in Paula Jones' sexual misconduct case against Clinton.

Jordan remains under subpoena and may still have to return for further questioning. According to sources close to the investigation, Starr also plans to recall Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, who already testified three weeks ago. And Starr is reportedly eager to call Lewinsky before the grand jury. In a sign that Starr may be moving in on the former White House intern, the independent counsel met with Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, in the chambers of presiding U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Thursday to determine under what conditions Lewinsky will testify.

Ginsburg is seeking total immunity for Lewinsky, an offer he says Starr offered and then rescinded. Sources close to the investigation say Lewinsky is prepared to testify that she had oral sex with Clinton and that he encouraged her to be "evasive" about their relationship if questioned on the subject by Jones' attorneys.

But that is not enough for Starr to prove that Clinton suborned perjury, and the sources said Starr is unwilling to grant her full immunity for such inconclusive testimony. If no deal is reached, Lewinsky faces a possible perjury indictment on the grounds that she falsely swore in her affidavit that she never had a sexual relationship with the president, after telling Linda Tripp on a secret tape that the two had been sexually intimate.

Outside of the independent counsel's office, it is impossible to know definitively what kind of evidence Starr has amassed so far to prove his suspicion that Clinton engaged in a pattern to obstruct justice in both his involvement with the Whitewater affair and in his alleged sexual relationship with Lewinsky. But Jordan's testimony, which appears to support the president, the legal wrangle between Starr and Ginsburg and a host of other legal hurdles, ranging from the White House's claim of executive privilege to Starr's right to question Secret Service agents, underscore one important fact: Starr seems very far away from presenting a serious case against the president.

Taylor believes Starr must act quickly -- within the next two months -- to allow time for the House to overcome the inevitable partisan deadlock that would result from an impeachment recommendation. Time will be needed, probably the spring and summer, he says, for congressional hearings so that the Democrats and the American public can absorb the most damaging evidence against Clinton before the midterm election campaign begins. "That means Starr has to send up his report by mid-May," said Taylor.

If Starr recommends impeachment, the case against Clinton then becomes a political affair, and many political observers say it is not at all clear how members of Congress will line up. Until now, Republicans have been content to let the scandals surrounding Clinton continue to roil inconclusively, confident that the Democrats will be bled dry by the time the presidential election of 2000 rolls around. Taylor says Democratic support for the president could erode if congressional hearings produce compelling evidence of presidential wrongdoing and senior Democratic lawmakers conclude that Clinton is hurting the party. At that point, Taylor says, someone like Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York or Sen. Robert Kerry of Nebraska might ask Clinton to step down "for the good of the party."

But without compelling evidence against Clinton, an impeachment recommendation from Starr would create a nightmare for Congress, says Joseph DiGenova, a former Republican federal prosecutor. "With polls showing that the American public is happy with the job this president is doing and willing to give him a pass on this affair, even though they believe he's lying, there aren't going to be too many members of Congress who are going to want to get involved in an impeachment proceeding," said DiGenova. "It becomes a very sticky wicket for them, particularly if it all comes down during the election."

If Starr sends up his report after the election, then another political dynamic comes into play: Will the public approve of an impeachment proceeding against a lame-duck president with so little of his term remaining? Taylor believes the House is very sensitive to this question and wants to avoid such a scenario.

"The House won't do anything to impeach Clinton, no matter how serious the evidence is, if (Starr's report) comes in too late in his term," Taylor says.

So while witnesses continue to parade before the grand jury and the White House continues a highly successful damage control operation, time is running out for Starr. Observers like DiGenova say the independent counsel could still pull it out in a timely political fashion, especially if he extracts damning Whitewater-related testimony against Clinton from former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who has recently agreed to cooperate with Starr's investigation. Many observers, especially in Arkansas, do not believe Tucker has that kind of information. And everyone agrees that if Starr has the goods on Clinton, he'd better start producing them soon.

"I'd say around May 15th is when it gets to be too late," Taylor says. "Anything Starr submits to the House after May 15, he might as well not bother. And I don't think he has anywhere near that fast a timetable."

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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