The White House could find itself in a monumental legal fight over what, if any, protection is afforded presidential conversations in the Monica Lewinsky matter.
The Clinton administration sent a small army of 10 lawyers to the federal courthouse Thursday to discuss executive privilege with the chief U.S. district judge, but it did not invoke the principle in an attempt to shield presidential aides from grand jury testimony.Presidential confidant Bruce Lindsey testified for a second day before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury, while the White House lawyers pressed to limit his questioning and avoid a Watergate-style battle.
Courts have upheld the concept of executive privilege to protect the privacy of documents and a president's conversations with aides, saying the chief executive must rely on candid advice.
But judges also have ruled, most notably in the case of Richard Nixon, that presidents may not hide behind executive privilege when the officials seeking the information can demonstrate a compelling case for the information.
Past cases have involved discussions and documents involving official acts or public policy. In this instance, Starr's investigation centers on a question of private conduct: Lewinsky's allegation that she had a sexual affair with the president and he asked her to lie about it under oath.
The Supreme Court, in recognizing the privilege, generally has limited the shield to private discussions on internal policy matters and the conduct of foreign affairs.
If a legal battle ensues - and there is no certainty that will happen - it could seriously delay Starr's investigation at a time when polls indicate the public would like to see the probe end now, even though a majority of Americans think Clinton had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
But such a fight also could link Clinton with Nixon, who resigned because his privilege claim failed and he had to turn over Watergate tapes that sank his presidency.
"It's the shadow of Richard Nixon," said Brookings Institution presidential scholar Stephen Hess. "All of the subliminal implications are bad. It implies hiding. It implies cover-up. It implies stonewalling. Unfairly perhaps."
The White House said chief counsel Charles F.C. Ruff was "continuing to try to resolve the matter of the confidentiality of communications" between Clinton and his top aides.
Starr, talking to reporters as he left his McLean, Va., home Friday, said they would have to "put questions about any privilege to witnesses who appear before the grand jury, or others. But as I`ve said to you before, the grand jury is trying to get facts, evaluate facts. I can't comment on whether a privilege has been invoked."
Meanwhile, Bernard Lewinsky broke his silence on the allegations involving his daughter, saying in a television interview that he "can't imagine" she would have fabricated her relationship with the president. He accused Starr of "terrorizing his family" and exhorted him to "lay off!" The interview was to air Friday night on ABC`s "20/20" program.