Washington, 7 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Forget Saddam Hussein. Forget Kosovo and the falling stock market too. All that the news correspondents in Washington wanted to know about Thursday was how President Bill Clinton felt about the court appearance of a young woman who worked at the White House a couple of years ago.
The woman is Monica Lewinsky, now 25-years-old. Her name became familiar to Americans back in December when some news organizations reported that she had claimed to another woman that she had an affair with the president and that he had told her to lie about it.
Barry Toiv, Clinton's deputy press spokesman, continued to disappoint the press corps with his reply Thursday, which was that the president really had nothing to say.
"The president has not expressed any views to us on this, except we know that he does agree with us and probably all Americans that if this means that we're coming to the end of this four-year, over $40 million investigation, then that would be a good thing."
Lewinsky went before a jury of citizens impaneled to listen to testimony and then decide whether there is sufficient evidence to file a criminal charge, or charges against the president. The jury can only make recommendations. The U.S. Constitution says that only the House of Representatives may bring criminal charges against a president in office.
The jury is referred to as a grand jury because it is made up of more than the usual 12 jurors. Testimony is conducted in secret, and only the witness is permitted to disclose what was said after a grand jury session.
As of late Thursday, Lewinsky had said nothing to the more than 100 reporters who were waiting for her outside the court building in Washington.
Lewinsky could not be compelled to come before the grand jury and answer questions about her alleged relationship with the president. The U.S. Constitution protects citizens from making incriminating statements about themselves in a court. She agreed on Monday to testify after she received a guarantee that she would not be prosecuted for any offense in connection with this case, unless it is later found that she lied in her grand jury testimony.
This guarantee, called a grant of immunity, has -- according to the press -- caused great anxiety at the White House. The press speculation is that Lewinsky will admit to having an affair and that this admission will have great influence with the grand jury because she no longer has anything to fear.
The alleged adultery at the White House became the subject of an investigation by a special government prosecutor, who was looking into allegations of improper activities by Clinton and his wife before he became president. That is the investigation that began four years ago and has run up a cost of 40 million dollars that the White House and Clinton's fellow members of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress are so critical of.
At this point, it is not the accusation of adultery that the special prosecutor is interested in, it is the allegation that the president might have coached Lewinsky on how to lie about the relationship in sworn testimony.
The prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, is also investigating whether the president himself lied about the alleged relationship while under a sworn legal oath.
Clinton denied that he committed adultery and said he has never instructed anyone to lie. The president will present his own testimony to the grand jury on August 17 -- one week from Monday. However, he will not appear in court. He is being permitted to make statements from the White House on a closed television circuit that will be seen only by the grand jury members.
Clinton had nothing to say about Lewinsky on Thursday. The White House projected a business-as-usual air. With a loud military band playing in the background, Clinton ignored shouted questions from reporters about the Lewinsky testimony as he ducked into his White House office after making remarks at an anti-crime event on the White House grounds.
Congressman Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), the leader of the minority Democrats in the House of Representatives, sharply told reporters Thursday that he, for one, is sick of hearing about the Lewinsky case.
He also said it would be a "grave mistake" for Starr to send a report to Congress on the investigation in the weeks leading up to the Congressional elections in November. Said Gephardt: "That would be very partisan, very unfair and demeaning to the process that I think all of us believe is important to this country."