Jones has accused Clinton of unwanted sexual advances towards her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991. And when Jones' lawyers questioned Clinton for six hours on January 17, he became the first US president forced to testify while in office in a court case in which he is the defendant. These lawyers have investigated numerous rumours of alliances and propositions by the president. "We think that it would be highly relevant if we were to prove at trial that there were other instances of similar conduct," said Jones' attorney James A. Fisher on TV.
Attorneys on both sides are now preparing arguments over whether tales of Clinton's past should be revealed to jurors—and, by extension, to the American public when the case goes to trial by jury in late May. The judge in the case, district judge Susan Webber Wright, is expected to rule on this shortly. How she rules may prove pivotal not only to the president's chances of staving off a civil verdict but also to his attempts to prevent a more unsavoury portrayal of his private life from being etched into the pubic consciousness.
The case against Clinton took another twist on January 21, with the sensational disclosure in the Washington Post and other newspapers that independent counsel Kenneth Starr has broadened his investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Clinton to include a possible affair with a young White House intern.
Starr was authorised to extend the probe into charges that Clinton and his advisor Vernon Jordan instructed the former intern, Lewinsky, 23, to lie to Jones' attorneys about an affair with the president. While Starr's original mandate was to look at the complicated Whitewater deal involving real estate transactions during Clinton's tenure as Arkansas governor, it has been expanded several times by the court to cover other incidents involving the president, including the firing of White House travel office employees and the improper collection of FBI background files on former Republican White House officials.
The White House denied the latest allegations involving Lewinsky and Clinton himself said in a January 21 interview: "I did not ask anyone to tell anything other than the truth. There is no improper relationship and I intend to cooperate with this inquiry." Asked to elaborate, Clinton said: "It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship." In response to allegations that his friend Jordan may have told Lewinsky to lie, Clinton responded: "He is in no way involved in trying to get anybody to say anything that's not true at my request."
The latest accusations centre around tape recordings of conversations former White House aide Linda Tripp had with Lewinsky, in which the intern, who was 21 when she started working in the White House in 1995, described graphically her relationship with Clinton. Tripp worked in the Bush White House in an administrative capacity and in the White
House counsel's office in the early years of the Clinton administration. Lewinsky was a White House intern until spring 1996. Starr reportedly authorised that Tripp record the conversations with Lewinsky by wearing a hidden wire.News reports said there were tapes of more than 15 such conversations.
Asked in an interview if he was concerned about Starr's role in the allegations, Clinton said: "Well, that's a question the American people will have to ask and answer and the press will have to ask and answer, the bar will have to ask and answer, but it's inappropriate for me to comment on it at this time." Challenged about the perceptions of a president lacking in moral leadership, Clinton said: "Well, I think there is a lot of scrutiny and there should be; I think that's important."
White House reactions ranged from shock and disbelief to glum resignation that Clinton was facing perhaps the most serious charges ever about his character, on which Americans already have doubts. Meanwhile, from the time of the deposition, several media stories detailing alleged Clinton peccadilloes have appeared. CBS reported that four women had told lawyers of unsolicited sexual advances by Clinton. Newsweek weighed in with details from the account of one such witness, a former White House aide. Commentators on ABC discussed reports that Newsweek killed a more sensational story alleging a long-running tryst involving Clinton while he has been president. Clinton's attorney Robert Bennett angrily dismissed the torrent of talk as baseless. "Absolute nonsense," he said. "Absolute, reckless, irresponsible nonsense."
According to sources familiar with the case, some of the testimony collected so far focuses on the president's extramarital relations. Gennifer Flowers, whose public account of an affair with Clinton rocked his 1992 presidential campaign despite his denials, has testified about their relationship. Kathleen Willey, who once worked at the White House, testified against her will about a reported romantic encounter just outside the Oval Office, sources said. According to a news report, Willey was subpoenaed by Jones' lawyers and tried to resist testifying but ultimately was forced to tell her story under oath. She allegedly went to Clinton seeking a better job and he grabbed her, started kissing and groping herand said: "I've always wanted to do that."
State Trooper Danny Ferguson has also testified that he escorted one Arkansas woman to meet Clinton at least four times after he was elected president in 1992, including once at an early morning hour just days before he took his presidential oath. Yet the sources said the woman maintains the encounters were all innocent.
How Clinton responded to all of this during his January 17 deposition is not reliably known. As he did in court papers, he denied harassing Jones and maintained he could not recall meeting her, sources said, although he did not dispute Ferguson's account of bringing her to see him in an office suite he rented at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel during a state conference on May 8, 1991. Ferguson testified last month that Jones wanted to meet Clinton and later offered to be "the governor's girlfriend", which she denies.
Speaking on TV after the deposition, Jones' lawyer said she might accept an artfully worded apology in addition to $2 million to settle the case. "We are not asking for the President to grovel," he said. "But we think there should be some accountability."
The impact of the latest allegations on Clinton's reputation and credibility and on the presidency is far from clear. While late-night talk show hosts are still making much of his reputation as a shameless adulterer, a recent Gallup poll showed him topping the public's list of men they "most admired". During the 1996 presidential campaign a Post poll found a solid majority saying Clinton did not have "high personal moral and ethical standards," even as he was coasting to reelection.A more recent Post poll showed that 52 per cent were uncertain whether they believed Jones. The other half was split between those who believe Jones and those who think she is lying—but that 78 per cent said the allegations had not affected their opinion of Clinton.
Will Clinton's celebrated ability to prosper amid sexual and financial controversies someday falter? The difference now is that the Jones case, as it heads towards trial, promises to put much of his Arkansas past in a forum where it may not be possible for most Americans to ignore. The allegations regarding Lewinsky and Willey have further muddied the waters. Privately, some White House officials express dismay about having to defend Clinton against allegations of an affair with a woman just a few years older than this own daughter.
George Stephanopoulos, political analyst for ABC News and one-time senior counsellor to Clinton, said about the gravity of the latest charges involving Lewinsky: "These are probably the most serious allegations yet levelled against the president. There's no question that if they're true, they're not only politically damaging but could lead to impeachment proceedings."