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President Clinton, Independent Counsel Strike Deal in Whitewater Probe; 'Time' Reporter Michael Weisskopf Discusses the Agreement

Aired January 19, 2001 - 1:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: On his last full day in office, it appears President Clinton's Whitewater problems are finally behind him. Sources tell CNN Mr. Clinton has reached an agreement with Independent Counsel Robert Ray.

We have CNN senior White House correspondent John King and correspondent Bob Franken with us now.

John King, what's the story?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, all the White House will say publicly for now is this statement from the press secretary, Jake Siewert. Quote, "The president has long said he wants to put this behind him."

But we are told now by several senior administration officials that within the next hour, both the president of the United States and the independent counsel will have statements to make. In the president's statement, we're told by these sources, he will acknowledge that in his sworn testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case -- and that deposition later became key evidence in the Monica Lewinsky investigation -- that the president will acknowledge that he gave misleading testimony under oath.

Now, we're told by these sources that in exchange for this statement from the president today, Mr. Ray has agreed to fold the seven-year-old independent counsel investigation originally began by a gentleman named Robert Fiske, then handed over to Kenneth Starr, who, of course, is the most famous of the independent counsels. He handled most of the Whitewater investigation, then the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Mr. Ray will announce he is bringing that investigation to a close and there will be no charges against the soon-to-be former president of the United States, but he will have to make a very embarrassing public statement that he did indeed give misleading testimony under oath in the Paula Jones case.

WATERS: John, any indication that the hand of George W. Bush has been active in any of this?

KING: Well, not active in any hands-on way, but certainly there is a growing political consensus in Washington that it would be best as a new Republican administration takes over with an evenly divided Congress. One legacy of the Clinton years, obviously, partisan tensions that were stoked furiously during the impeachment debate. Mr. Bush has made clear publicly that he would prefer that this investigation be shut down. He wants no distractions as he gets to work. Many members of Congress, both Democrats and Republican, have also urged Ray to bring this to a close. And we are told there were negotiations between Mr. Ray and the president's private attorney, David Kendall, who became a familiar figure to many Americans during the impeachment debate in these past weeks, culminating in this deal that will be announced on the last full day of the Clinton presidency.

WATERS: And CNN's Bob Franken, who has been covering this story for, oh, so many years.

Bob, is Bill Clinton's long national nightmare finally over here?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has one more thing, and that is to admit as part of this deal that he knowingly misled investigators, and did so, and in the process blocked the administration of justice. That's very important for the investigators, who are our sources, who say that they finally get from Bill Clinton an admission that he did do wrongdoing and did it on purpose as opposed to what he has been saying over the years.

The second part of this is in the context of a disbarment proceeding that was going on against Bill Clinton in the state of Arkansas, his home state where he is an attorney. He will accept a five-year suspension from the practice of law in Arkansas, and we're told by sources will pay a fine to the Arkansas Bar Association as part of this deal. There are other financial considerations that are still being finalized. The president will get in return, as John King said, freedom from the concern that he would have been indicted.

Now, in answer to your question, Lou, of John just a moment ago about the kinds of negotiations that were going on, some of them were indirect -- quite indirect. One of the considerations, according to sources, have been how likely it was that Bill Clinton would get a pardon. And, of course, we've heard from a variety of public officials that if in fact it looked like Bill Clinton was going to be indicted that there should be a pardon -- officials like Senate Judiciary Chairman -- who is about to become the chairman again -- Orrin Hatch. So one of the considerations of the independent counsel was the futility of doing an indictment.

Now, another part of that is the likelihood that he would have been found guilty by a jury. A very general description of the U.S. attorney handbook is you don't indict if you don't think that there's a very good probability that there's going to be a conviction. And there was a widespread feeling that no jury in the United States would convict Bill Clinton for this. There was a general feeling that, in the U.S., people were very tired of it. The independent counsel has been paying attention to the various public statements that have been made. As John King said, there were negotiations going on, very quiet negotiations, with the president's lawyers at the same time the investigation was going on.

Again, admission from the president that he knowingly was guilty of wrongdoing, that he will accept the suspension from the Bar Association and a fine from the Bar Association in Arkansas. In return, no indictment.

WATERS: And, Bob, because of this certainty by the Clinton people that there would be no conviction by a jury, and because there have been talk for many months now that Bill Clinton wouldn't accept a pardon, if that were even possible, if one should be granted, why make the deal?

FRANKEN: Well, for the reason that there would be a tremendous embarrassment to have a president of the United States face indictment over this. It would not only be that, but it would be something that preoccupied him after he left office.

But probably the most important consideration is the fact that his presidency will be remembered in large part by the fact that it was tainted by an investigation that covered so much ground. It started with the investigation through an obscure real estate deal involving the president and the first lady back in their early Arkansas days and spread and spread until it got the president to be forced to admit that he had been involved in an improper sexual relationship in the White House -- all part of that investigation, all a bitter memory for the president who's just about to leave office. Now the incentive would be that he could put all this behind him.

WATERS: All right, Bob Franken up there on Capitol Hill, John King at the White House.

More on this now. Here's Natalie.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Bob Franken is certainly someone we got used to seeing during all of this.

Also joining us now with years of insight on this matter is the Washington bureau chief for "Time" magazine, Michael Weisskopf.

Michael, thank you for being with us.

MICHEAL WEISSKOPF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Just a reporter, not a bureau chief.

ALLEN: Oh, OK, sorry. I elevated you.

What do you think about this deal that we're hearing about?

WEISSKOPF: It's very interesting. And from a prosecutorial standpoint, what this means is that Bob Ray found another way to vindicate the rule of law. By that I mean prosecution, of course, applies the rule of law across the board to anyone. But under principles of prosecution, it is possible to find alternative remedies. He seems to have arrived at one with the president's lawyer, David Kendall, to still punish the president, including the acknowledgement of responsibility, but something short of the painful and embarrassing process of trying a former president. Also one which would be very hard in this country to find a jury which could even swear to be objective. ALLEN: Right. And as far as the fact, though, that he has had to admit in this deal, reportedly, that he misled by making certain statements, sure there's relief that he won't be prosecuted, but what about any -- another blight on the Clinton legacy here?

WEISSKOPF: It's all a question, really, of how this will be spun and how it will be understood. And certainly it does bring closure to this with a little bite to the president. But at the same time, he does step up to the plate, he acknowledges what is obviously in the minds of the rest of us, that he did make false statements and probably knew about them. And for him, this allows him to enter the next phase of his life without any type of baggage. It permits also a -- really, a kind of clear field for the incoming president, who no longer has -- won't have to think about a pardon, won't have to think about the consequences of further social divisions over this issue.

ALLEN: What about, Michael, though, all those calls in the past few years from many on Capitol Hill who said, wrongdoing should end in prosecution no matter what? What does this result say about the politics involved with all the problems associated with Bill Clinton in the past few years?

WEISSKOPF: This is a compromise, and all compromises disappoint people at either extreme. And certainly the president's many supporters will be disappointed that he will have paid a fine and will have surrendered his law license for a five-year period. But settlements require compromise, and they finally reached this point.

And, again, from all perspectives, this does represent some kind of penalty to go along with, really, some pretty stiff medicine the president has already taken, including the spot of impeachment on his record, including a hefty settlement of $850,000 to Paula Jones, and including a contempt citation in Arkansas by the federal judge who said, in effect, what he's saying today, which is that he knowingly made false statements.

ALLEN: Michael Weisskopf. Michael, we thank you. And if anyone likes to read -- would like to read Michael's story, just go to Time.com about this matter. Thanks, Michael.

WATERS: And in case you missed John King saying it, the White House will have a briefing in less than an hour, 2:00 p.m. Eastern. And also Robert Ray, the independent counsel, will have a news conference. We expect to follow this story throughout the afternoon.

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