Posted on July 06, 1998 in Washington Watch

President Clinton returns from his nine-day visit to China the nation’s press still consumed with the twists and turns of the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The President’s China trip has been somewhat successful. Although he faced strong criticism from human rights advocates and partisan Republicans before embarking on the visit, these critics have largely been silenced. Clinton has won good reviews for his statesmanship and his public advocacy of democracy and human rights during his press conference debate with President Jiang, his speech at Beijing University and his live call-in radio broadcast from Shanghai.

Despite these dramatic events in China, back in the United States, the Lewinsky affair continued to dominate or at least compete with China for front-page headlines.

All this is not to say that when the President returns, he will find the story playing just as he left it. There have been significant developments in the on-going and multi-faceted investigations of the President. Most of those have been in the form of set backs for the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

The reversals in Starr’s fortunes began before the President left for China. Starr, whose work, at times, seems to be more of a partisan vendetta against the President than an investigation, has greatly exceeded his initial mandate. What began as an investigation of the President and the First Lady in a complicated failed land deal in Arkansas, has now grown to include at least eight separate unrelated matters, including the Lewinsky affair.

The common thread in all of those matters seems to be Starrr’s unrelenting search for evidence and his demand that the White House or anyone else turn over to his investigation whatever documents or information he requests.

During the first half of June the web of the many Starr prosecutions began to unravel. The Supreme Court, for example, refused Starr’s petition that they expedite part of his case against the President. The Supreme Court denied the Prosecutor’s request to hear the case immediately and told him instead to go through normal procedures.

Similarly, the Department of Justice has refused Starr’s request that they support his insistence that Secret Service agents be forced to testify against the President. The agents insist that they have no knowledge of Presidential wrongdoing and maintain that if they are forced to testify, their job of protecting the President and future Presidents will become more difficult, since the bond of trust and confidentiality will be broken.

In another setback for Starr, the Supreme Court refused to accept his position that would have required the attorney for a now deceased White House aide to testify as to what his client told him. The privilege of lawyer-client confidentiality has long been held sacred in the U.S. legal system and Starr’s insistence that it be violated in his never-ending search for information has shocked the legal profession.

Another dramatic reversal in the Special Prosecutor’s fortunes occurred last week when two of the President’s long time friends were, in effect, freed by their respective judges.

Both of these individuals have maintained that Starr has been prosecuting them in order to force them to testify against the President. Since they both insist that they have no evidence against the President and therefore, refuse to submit to Starr’s machinations, they claim that they have been charged, and convicted of unrelated crimes. In refusing to continue legal proceedings against one of these individuals, the court condemned Starr’s tactics as “scary” and accused the Prosecutor of conducting a “fishing expedition,” that is forcing individuals to submit documents on matters unrelated to an on-going investigation and then prosecuting them on charges resulting from that evidence. Such a practice is in clear violation of constitutionally protected rights to due process and against self-incrimination.

Finally in the Lewinsky matter itself, Starr suffered a blow with the publication of a controversial article in which he is quoted as having told the reporter that, in fact, his office has regularly briefed reporters about the on-going case against the White House. By law, such proceedings are to be secret. The White House has long charged that Starr’s office was responsible for “leaking” information to the press. Starr has denied these charges and presented himself as a strict adherent of law and correct procedure. His admission, therefore, seriously undermines his credibility.

Further damage was done to Starr’s effort to build a case against the President when a U.S. magazine published more details on the Lewinsky case derived from listening to tapes of conversations with Lewinsky secretly recorded by Starr’s witness, Linda Tripp. The tapes reveal Lewinsky to be naïve, emotional, and immature, while Tripp appears as manipulative, actually pushing Lewinsky to take steps to incriminate the President.

Starr’s decision to schedule Tripp’s testimony during the high point of the President’s China visit has been criticized as unpatriotic by some. There is no doubt that Tripp’s credibility has been damaged and there are also serious questions regarding the relevance of the testimony. After all, none of her tapes and little of what she has had to say could actually be used in any court proceedings since her tapes were illegally obtained and her testimony will all be hearsay. Nevertheless, her appearance before Starr’s investigation will dominate the news for days.

This entire situation has dragged for too long a period of time. As the Department of Justice revealed last week, the ability of the White House to conduct the affairs of government, in both domestic and foreign policy, has been affected by these investigations. Through it all the President survives, weakened somewhat, but his popularity still high. Starr on the other hand, has a low 20 percent positive rating and a 50 percent unfavorable rating.

Republicans, while pleased that the White House remains the subject of negative press accounts, are increasingly wary of Starr and his many mistakes. And leading Republicans maintain that they are not now interested in pursuing any impeachment efforts against the President. It has become increasingly questionable whether or not these investigations will have any impact on the 1998 elections.

After years of work and over $40 million in expenses, the Starr team has earned public scorn and concern. Meanwhile their efforts continue, with no end in sight. And, as the President’s recent visit to China demonstrates, with the ability to continue to dominate the news.

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