As the Senate commences President Clinton's impeachment trial, relieved citizens might assume that the fate of the presidency is at last beyond the abusive grasp of Kenneth Starr. But by announcing the indictment of Julie Hiatt Steele Friday -- the same day that Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the senatorial jury were sworn in -- the independent counsel gave a clear signal that he intends to influence the proceedings on Capitol Hill, and that he possesses powerful means for doing so.
Indeed, Starr's undiminished pursuit of Clinton may present the single greatest obstacle to a fair trial of the president, because he seems perfectly willing to misuse his prosecutorial power to threaten potential witnesses.
Steele is the former friend of alleged Clinton grope victim Kathleen Willey, who says that Willey asked her to lie to Newsweek magazine and others about the incident in the Oval Office in November 1993.
When Steele recanted her earlier confirmation of Willey's accusations, both publicly and in her grand jury testimony, she blew a big hole in Starr's plan to use the Willey incident against Clinton. Now the independent counsel has revenged himself by indicting Steele on four counts of obstruction of justice and perjury.
Starr's action against Steele recalls his earlier attempts to intimidate Whitewater witnesses, most notably the years of abuse of Susan McDougal. The independent counsel has been muscling Steele, a 52-year-old single mother, for months; she has been summoned to testify before grand juries in both Virginia and Washington, along with her daughter, her brother, her accountant and her former attorney. Starr also has seized her tax returns as well as her bank, credit and telephone records, and Steele says his aides even threatened to investigate whether she properly adopted her 8-year-old son, though Starr denies this.
What is most remarkable about the Steele indictment is its citation of her television interview on "Larry King Live," where she again refuted Willey's charges, as evidence of obstruction of justice.
All this was too much even for the Washington Post's editorialists, who are no friends of the president and rarely critical of Starr. A Post editorial Monday termed the Steele indictment "mystifying" and "disturbing," and went on to complain, "It seems peculiar that of all the people who have either admitted to or been accused of lying under oath, Ms. Steele is so far the only one to face criminal charges."
The reason behind Starr's action isn't really so mysterious. In both timing and substance it seems designed to affect the Senate trial. The impeachment prosecutors led by House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde already have suggested that they intend to revive the Willey story as part of their case against Clinton. If the trial proceeds to the stage of taking live testimony, according to some members of Hyde's team, they may even call Willey as a prosecution witness.
In accusing Steele of lying under oath, Starr has assisted the impeachment prosecutors in at least two ways, by implicitly bolstering Willey's credibility, and by discouraging the indicted Steele from testifying as a defense witness for the president.
As the Post editorial noted, Steele isn't the only Starr witness who might be credibly accused of lying. Willey certainly appears to have lied in her deposition in the Paula Jones case, where she claimed that she had not contacted the president or the White House after the alleged groping incident. In fact, as documents released by the White House proved, she had repeatedly called and written notes to Clinton and his aides in 1994 and 1995, seeking a job and pledging her loyalty.
And Linda Tripp, another potentially crucial witness in the impeachment trial, may have testified falsely before Starr's grand jury. Under questioning by a Starr aide, she insisted that her taping of Monica Lewinsky had nothing to do with a possible book deal brokered by her agent-provocateur, Lucianne Goldberg. Actually, however, Goldberg was secretly taping Tripp during their first conversations about Lewinsky. Transcripts of those tapes, released by Starr's office, clearly show Goldberg and Tripp discussing how to leak Tripp's story through Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff while holding back enough detail to create interest among publishers.
"I think we can make a deal with Isikoff that protects you totally, that gets the surface of this out, and then you stand back to fill in the pieces, and I get you a publisher that will be happy to do that," says Goldberg on her own tape. "All right," Tripp replies. In a later taped chat, Goldberg assures Tripp that even liberal publishers hate Clinton, and that "the climate is extremely good for this kind of information." Tripp responds that "I would have absolutely no qualms going that way."
Both Willey and Tripp have immunity agreements with Starr that can be revoked if either of them is subsequently found to have lied. Those agreements give Starr considerable leverage over both women as they wait for a summons to testify before the Senate -- and his leverage is only increased by the glaring inconsistencies in their testimony.
The most important potential witness is obviously Lewinsky herself, who may be asked at Clinton's trial to resolve contradictions between her testimony and that of Clinton and his secretary Bettie Currie. And Lewinsky is also perhaps the most vulnerable to continuing pressure from Starr, who retains the power to injure her not only legally but financially. The former White House intern's immunity agreement requires her to obtain Starr's permission before she makes any public statements, including the book deal she has signed with St. Martin's Press and the television interview she has agreed to give Barbara Walters of ABC News.
Both of those deals reportedly have been held up pending Starr's final approval. So aside from his ability to indict Lewinsky for perjury, Starr also could prevent her from cashing in on her celebrity status to pay off her enormous legal bills. Much as she undoubtedly dislikes Starr, Lewinsky must be painfully aware of what he can do to her if he is displeased with her Senate testimony.
Certainly that was the message behind the indictment of Julie Steele. It was an ominous signal that months after the filing of his impeachment referral to Congress, the partisan prosecutor's pursuit of President Clinton remains as energetic -- and as dangerous -- as ever.