White House Press Briefing (09/12/98)
The following is the full text transcription of the White House press briefing presented by President Clinton's lawyers in response to the Kenneth Starr report.
THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release September 11, 1998 PRESS BRIEFING BY MR. DAVID KENDALL AND MR. CHARLES RUFF The Roosevelt Room 5:00 P.M. EDT MR. KENDALL: Good afternoon. I'm David Kendall, and with my partner, Nicole Seligman, I represent President Clinton, personally. With me here this afternoon are the White House Counsel Chuck Ruff, Cheryl Mills, and Lanny Breuer of the White House Counsel's Office. First let me say that we have not had the opportunity to fully review the voluminous referral from the prosecutors in the Office of Independent Counsel. We have made only a very preliminary review of this document. Please keep in mind that these allegations are not intended to be, nor do they purport to be anything other than the prosecutor's collections of charges and accusations. By its very nature, this document is one-sided. I want to try to begin this afternoon the process of telling the other side of the story. This is not a news story. A man tried to keep an inappropriate relationship private. The President has acknowledged his personal wrongdoing and sought forgiveness from his family, Ms. Lewinsky, the Cabinet, the Congress, and the country. In light of that acknowledgement, the salacious allegations in this referral are simply intended to humiliate, embarrass, and politically damage the President. In short, this is personal and not impeachable. The referral alleges obstruction of justice in the testimony of Monica Lewinsky, but Ms. Lewinsky's own testimony confirms that the President never told her to lie. The referral alleges witness tampering of Betty Currie, but Ms. Currie was not a witness in the Paula Jones lawsuit. She was not on any witness list, nor was she in fact ever called as a witness. The referral also alleges abuse of power, yet details conduct that is nothing more than an assertion of constitutionally-protected rights. But the referral does not allege anything of substance that has not already been leaked, illegally, before the Congress or the President even had a chance to review it. Let me be clear: The President has acknowledged his personal wrongdoing, and so no amount of gratuitous allegations about his relationship with Miss Lewinsky, no matter how graphic, can alter the fact that the President did not commit perjury, he did not obstruct justice, he did not tamper with witnesses, and he did not abuse the power of his office. There are a lot of lurid allegations in the prosecutor's referral, but there is no credible evidence of impeachable offenses. We received this report only a short time ago. We haven't been able to fully review it or digest its allegations. We don't know what supposedly backs it up. We were denied a request to see this a little in advance so we could give a rebuttal. But thanks to illegal leaks from the Office of Independent Counsel -- we didn't have a copy, the report was locked up on the Hill -- we have been able to prepare a 78-page rebuttal. And I hope you will review that rebuttal because it directly speaks to the allegations in the actual referral. What we have here is a preliminary review by the House Judiciary Committee of the prosecutor's allegations to determine whether an impeachment inquiry would be justified. This is not an impeachment inquiry and we believe there are no grounds for such an inquiry. Q Mr. Kendall, the independent counsel says that he had no choice but to include these lurid, salacious details because the President, on January 17th and on August 17th, denied a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and referred to the definition that was given to him and said his remarks were legally accurate. Didn't the prosecutor in this case have no choice but to make the case that the President lied and provide all those details? MR. KENDALL: No. The amount of lurid, graphic detail here far exceeds any legitimate justification. Q Mr. Kendall, the first point that you make is that the President never told Monica Lewinsky to lie. Are you saying explicitly he never said to lie, or are you saying that there may have been cover stories talked about, as the independent counsel alleges? What exactly are you saying here? MR. KENDALL: No. The President never, never advised her to testify falsely. He has admitted a wrongful relation, and the fact is that in all such wrongful, improper relations, there is a concomitant concealment by its very nature. That's all that is involved here. The independent counsel has extricably exaggerated that to try and make allegations of obstruction of justice. Q Mr. Kendall, if I may just follow up on that -- Q Mr. Kendall, can there be in the context of a criminal legal proceeding an innocent concealment story concocted, even if it's just an older man having an affair with a younger woman? MR. KENDALL: I don't think there was any concealment story concocted here whatsoever. Q Sir, following up then, on December 17th, at roughly 2:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., according to Starr's report, the President called Ms. Lewinsky and informed her that she was now on the witness list in the Jones case, and according to Ms. Lewinsky's testimony, he told Ms. Lewinsky that she -- MR. KENDALL: What page of the report is that? Q This is from the Internet. I call it page one. But if you want to take the time I do have the report, and if you want to say that this is not the accurate Starr report, please do so. He told Ms. Lewinsky that -- quote -- "she should say she visited the White House to see Ms. Currie, and on occasion when working at the White House she brought him letters when no one else was around." Now, that's not true -- by the President's own admission, he had had sexual contact with Ms. Lewinsky. Why is that not subornation of perjury? MR. KENDALL: I don't think -- first of all, I believe it is true, Ms. Lewinsky did visit him, did bring him letters -- it's not suborning perjury because suborning perjury is telling somebody to testify falsely. I don't know -- again, I haven't had a chance to review the report at that level. Q But it says she says she visited the White House to see Ms. Currie, when in fact she was visiting the White House to have sexual contact with the President. MR. KENDALL: No, the evidence will show -- Q That's lying. MR. KENDALL: No, it's not. The evidence will show that Ms. Lewinsky and Ms. Currie were indeed friends, so that's not a lie. Q So if she was called in the Jones case and was asked why she was at the White House, you believed that if she testified as the President she suggested she testify, she'd be telling the truth? MR. KENDALL: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that. Q Mr. Kendall, you say that the lurid detail is far more than was justified. I wonder if you could address the fact that in Ms. Lewinsky's testimony she talks about encounters where there was contact that clearly would fall within the definition of sexual relations that the President has denied. Are you saying it's a he said, she said? And is it your contention that Ms. Lewinsky lied in her testimony? MR. KENDALL: I haven't had a chance to review the report at a specific level of detail, and I don't know what the backup testimony is. The President testified truthfully both on January the 17th and on August 17, 1998. Q Mr. Kendall, your reference to not having had a chance to look at backup detail goes I think to Sandra's question once again. Are you telling us then that the allegations that Starr is making of a sexual relationship of the President and Ms. Lewinsky, and Mr. Clinton's statement in his testimony on August 17th that he was technically right are not to be supported because there is no backup testimony to Ms. Lewinsky's? MR. KENDALL: On August 17th, the President acknowledged an improper sexual relation. The question here really is no matter how you spin that out and try and exaggerate it and extend it, is there evidence here of high crimes and misdemeanors? That's really the question at issue. The question is not the wrongful conduct that the President has acknowledged. The question is whether there is evidence here to countermand and override the judgment of the people of this country, who not once, but twice, have elected this man President of the United States. Now, the framers did, in the Constitution, provide for an impeachment mechanism. But that is only to be employed for the most serious kinds of public malfeasance. Q And the President's assertion that the contact did not fit the technical definition specified in the Jones deposition stands? MR. KENDALL: He believed that he testified truthfully; yes, he did. Q Along the same lines, sir, what reason do you have for saying that the President admitted to an improper sexual relationship? He didn't use the word "sexual." It seems to be the first time that anyone here has used the term "sexual relationship." And in the Jones deposition, the President said, I never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. You argue that that's not perjury in your rebuttal. Wasn't it simply a lie under oath? MR. KENDALL: No. The term in the Jones deposition was "sexual relations." There was no doubt from the President's August 17th testimony, which is quoted, I've seen, in the referral, that it was an improper intimate relation of a sexual nature. Q And then the second question, sir, that I asked? You argue that it was not perjury; then are you saying it was a lie? MR. KENDALL: No. Absolutely. The President testified truthfully and accurately. Q Mr. Kendall, when you say in your rebuttal documents -- MR. KENDALL: Somebody has read our rebuttal document. I commend it all to you. Q Page 14. These encounters between Monica and the President did not consist of sexual intercourse and they did not consist of sexual relations as he understood that term to be defined in the Jones deposition, blah, blah, blah. Now, Mr. Starr in his report goes on and on and on for pages and pages about Ms. Lewinsky's testimony contradicting this statement here and alleging sexual relations, mutual gratification, him touching her, et cetera, et cetera. Are you not, in effect, in your deposition -- or, sorry, in your rebuttal, therefore, calling her a liar? MR. KENDALL: No. The President has admitted to improper intimate contact. It may well be that people's recollections differ. That does not necessarily mean that one is lying. Q Mr. Kendall, you said that whatever offense the President has caused is not sufficient to warrant impeachment. But there is a great sentiment that he deserves some kind of rebuke. And I wonder if the President would be willing to accept some sort of censure by the Congress for his behavior that would stop short of impeachment or an effort to remove him from office? MR. KENDALL: I think the President at his prayer breakfast this morning said, legal language must not obscure the fact that I have done wrong. He has acknowledged wrongdoing -- explicitly as he can. He's apologized. What we're dealing with here is whether the conduct that he has acknowledged, and the allegations in the referral constitute evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. Plainly they do not. That's the issue before us. Q Would you fight a censure with the same energy that he intends to fight impeachment? MR. KENDALL: That's not a question before us in the report, and I'm just not going to speculate about that. MR. RUFF: Let me just say in response to that, because I think it's important to understand, if there has been pain inflicted, it's happened. We know that if you're talking about a sanction, whether it be censure or public unhappiness with their President for what he did in his personal capacity, there is no question he's feeling that right now and he's made very clear that he feels it. We're not talking about anything formal that's going to reach out and impose more pain on the President than he's already imposed on himself. Q If I could refer to the brief again, on page 51 you say that, "if answers are truthful or literally truthful, but misleading, there is no perjury as a matter of law, no matter how misleading the testimony is or is intended to be." I wonder if a President ought not be held to a higher standard in your estimation? I know that you're both lawyers, but essentially what you're saying is the President can mislead anyone he wants to as long as he literally doesn't lie. And is that an acceptable standard? MR. KENDALL: No, that's not what we're saying at all. The answers that you reference were in the context of the Paula Jones lawsuit, a highly charged lawsuit by political enemies meant to do nothing but entrap the President. He testified accurately. It was not his obligation to help Ms. Jones' lawyers. Any of you with the misfortune to have been deposed in a libel suit know -- and I'm sure nobody here has committed libel -- know that the first advice your lawyer gives you is, answer the question and only the question; don't volunteer. If you're asked your name, don't give your name and address. MR. RUFF: Let me just add to that, if I may. If you look at what the President said in the prayer breakfast this morning, -- which is no legal language is going to stand between him and the apology he's made and the contrition that he's expressed. And that's exactly what he meant. His lawyers gave him advice. He followed his lawyers' advice. And what he's done is to step out in front of the American people and say, legal niceties aside, I've apologized, I know I did wrong. And he's made that clear. Q How do you answer the contention that the President's use of you and your staff constitutes and abuse of his power? MR. RUFF: Nonsense. Q What about Betty Currie? Q -- talking about that, why is it nonsense, sir? MR. RUFF: It's nonsense because if you read this report what you will find is that the President is accused of abusing his power by asserting his constitutional privilege. He did so, as our rebuttal document reflects, on my advice. I went to the President of the United States and I said, the independent counsel is seeking to intrude into the legitimate, confidential discussions that you have with your lawyers and that your senior staff have among themselves. It is your obligation as the President to protect the core constitutional interests of the presidency and I recommend to you that you do this. He didn't initiate that process; I did. Q Betty Currie, if I may, and Mr. Kendall, also -- about Betty Currie, if I may -- Q -- and he couldn't remember if he was ever alone with Monica Lewinsky. How could that have been a truthful answer? MR. KENDALL: You know, our rebuttal addresses that. That's not what he testified. He testified that he did, in fact, have recollections of that. It's all worked out in our rebuttal. Q Mr. Kendall, correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be saying today that the President did not perjure himself on January 17th, but even if he did, it's not a high crime or misdemeanor. Is that a mis-impression on my part? MR. KENDALL: No, he did not perjure himself. What is a high crime or misdemeanor is finally up to the judgment of the House, but certainly events which are largely private have never been the basis for impeachment based upon the precedence of the House. Q What is your level of confidence in the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and in Mr. Hyde's in particular, impartiality? MR. KENDALL: Mr. Ruff and I had a meeting with Chairman Hyde and Congressman Conyers and their staff yesterday. I think it was a good meeting. We talked about issues of mutual concern and I believe that they intend to conduct a fair hearing. Q Mr. Kendall, since so much of this definition of sexual relations is at the core of whether or not the President committed perjury -- you say he did not, the independent counsel says he did -- and since both Monica Lewinsky and the President deny that there was ever any sexual intercourse, are you disputing the other descriptions of the sexual encounters that Monica Lewinsky described in such graphic detail? MR. KENDALL: I haven't read all those. The President has acknowledged wrongful intimate conduct with Ms. Lewinsky. He's also testified, as you'll see from his deposition, about his understanding of the very narrow and contorted definition of sexual relations at the Paula Jones deposition. Q But if the President sought to arouse Monica Lewinsky -- MR. KENDALL: I'm not going to answer speculation. Q May I now address my question, now that other networks have had their second question? Q Did you go to court this week to delay the release of this report? And when did you go -- MR. KENDALL: I did not. I requested a copy of the report from the independent counsel on Monday. Q -- file any motions to delay the report? MR. KENDALL: We did not. Q Some White House strategists have said privately that from a public relations standpoint this case has been botched by the President's counsel. I ask you what do you say to that? And also, do you foresee bringing the political strategists in the White House more into the fold at this point? And if I may, have you ever seen a legal document like this before? MR. KENDALL: I'll try and answer all three of those questions. First of all, I think that the political strategists try to do their job, the lawyers try to do their job; it's not always a marriage made in heaven, but I think we try and advance the same objective. Second, I think that this is very much a political question now because the issue is really before the House Judiciary Committee as a matter of an initial review. And third, I've never seen a document like this. Q -- illegal leaks that you say are the source of most of your rebuttal and the debate so far, what action will you take and the White House Counsel's Office take to prosecute or perhaps punish Ken Starr for making -- MR. KENDALL: Well, those are sealed proceedings. I will only say that we will energetically pursue our remedies for illegal leaking and it's very much alive. Q About Betty Currie? You say that there could be no witness tampering in the case of Betty Currie because at the time whatever conversations the President had with her she was not a witness, or was going to be called as a witness. But as we understand it, on the Sunday after the Saturday he gave his deposition in the Paula Jones case, he called Ms. Currie into the White House and discussed with her whether he had ever really been alone with Monica Lewinsky, saying, I don't think I've been alone with her; have I? We know now, of course, he knew he'd been alone with Monica Lewinsky. So what was the purpose of discussing that with Betty Currie if it was not to try to shape her recollection falsely? MR. RUFF: I don't know whether you've pulled the relevant page off the Internet, Sam, but if you look at that portion of the report, it reflects Ms. Currie's own testimony that she did not feel that she was being influenced, misled or otherwise mistreated in the course of that conversation. Q I understand, Mr. Ruff, but what do you think the President had in mind when he was falsely going over his own recollection with her? MR. RUFF: Well, we've got to start with your premise. What the President was attempting to do -- as he has testified -- was to refresh his recollection about a series of events that had occurred over the preceding year. There's nothing -- Q -- sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky. MR. RUFF: There's nothing in this report, other than the independent counsel's speculation -- totally baseless because it doesn't reflect any record that I'm aware of -- that Ms. Currie was going to be a witness. Let me turn the question around. If the President was seeking in some fashion to influence somebody, why would he do that with somebody who wasn't on a witness list in the Jones' case, which was two weeks away from closing discovery -- nobody had ever suggested that Betty Currie was going to be a witness -- and the President didn't know that there was a grand jury investigation. Q -- and a good one. MR. RUFF: And he was guessing? Q Mr. Ruff, you never answered Sam's question. I mean, Sam's question was what other plausible reason would there be for the President to be trying to recollect his memory with Betty Currie? MR. RUFF: All I can tell you is the President has a lot of things on his mind other than, believe it or not, this matter -- and did on January 18th. He's testified exactly why he asked those questions. He was seeking to refresh his recollection. Q Wouldn't it have been wiser to turn out this 73-page rebuttal immediately after the President's testimony in August, or even prior to that time? MR. KENDALL: We didn't have the benefit of all the leaks that we've had in the last week. We tried to address, before we got the document, what was going to be in the document. Q But you did have the benefit of the knowledge of what he said and what kind of questions he was asked. Was that, in retrospect, a poor political judgment or a poor legal judgment? MR. KENDALL: I don't believe it was either. Q Mr. Kendall, you suggested that you expect a fair trial. Would you explain a little bit, since the American people want to know what's going to happen to their President, what will happen and how you will deal with what happens on the Hill? What will your strategy be? MR. KENDALL: As we say where I come from, every pancake ever made has two sides. I think we will have a fair opportunity to present our side. At yesterday's meeting we didn't talk about particular details of procedures. We did talk, though, about the need for us to have an opportunity to respond to and rebut the allegations that might be in the Starr -- prosecutor's report, and I think we're going to have that. Q Mr. Kendall, are there any serious errors in fact in this report that you've found so far? MR. KENDALL: I'm sure there are. I've gotten only a short time ago, and I'm not going to be able to specify them all at this time. But there are many. Thanks. END 5:22 P.M. EDT