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CLINTON SHUTS OUT ADVISERS; FIRST LADY KEEPS ORDER IN SCANDAL.

Byline: Richard L. Burke and James Bennet The New York Times

As he faces the deepest political crisis of his career, President Clinton is portrayed by staff and friends as increasingly a picture of isolation: He has shut out his top political aides for fear that their participation would imperil his legal representation.

His lawyers have complained privately that even they do not know all the details of whether Clinton had an affair with an intern. And many White House officials say they are so in the dark that they have spent the last few days staring at the television to keep on top of the unfolding developments. Even Vernon Jordan, one of Clinton's closest friends, has complained to associates that he cannot talk to the president because both are potential targets of a criminal investigation.

Several White House officials said that Clinton's reticence has seriously hampered their ability to tamp down the furor, because without knowing what happened - and with no marching orders from above - they are virtually paralyzed in responding to relentless press inquiries. The situation is so severe that Hillary Rodham Clinton has stepped in to coordinate strategy with Clinton's lawyers.

``She is strategic, she is savvy and she is a crisis manager,'' said a former administration official who speaks regularly to people inside the White House. ``And she is in battle mode.''

Clash of advirers

One reason the staff has been slow to respond is that Clinton's legal and political advisers have clashed throughout the week over how to handle his defense. His political aides have pressed for Clinton to answer lingering questions in either a news conference or a group interview. They wanted Clinton to move quickly to try to calm the controversy so it will not completely overshadow the president's State of the Union address Tuesday.

But after sometimes pointed internal debates, Clinton's lawyers prevailed on Friday, arguing that it was more important for them to take time to fully examine documents that the White House will supply to the independent counsel.

Yet the outcome of that dispute has not satisfied some aides. ``Nobody here knows what's going on,'' said one high-level White House official. ``It's like you're punched in the stomach and the air was knocked out of you. It's a sickening feeling. The president has to say something.''

White House aides said Clinton, not wanting to jeopardize his legal representation, has discussed details of the allegations only with a small cadre, including his private lawyers, David Kendall and Robert Bennett, and Bruce Lindsay, a longtime confidant. That is because the Supreme Court last year refused to overturn a federal appeals court ruling that notes taken by White House lawyers in meetings with Hillary Clinton were not protected by attorney-client privilege. Even conversations between the president and Charles Ruff, the WHite House counsel, are not privileged under that ruling.

``On this one, nobody is messing with the rules, because the stakes are so high,'' said Paul Begala, a White House counselor who during the 1992 campaign was at Clinton's side through various crises. ``It's like the old days when the women gave birth and the daddies would pace nervously in the hallways. The political and communications and even policy advisers are pacing nervously in the hallways as the lawyers assemble the facts.''

The strains are not only between Clinton's political and legal advisers. His outside lawyers, Kendall and Bennett, have long had a tense working relationship and have vied for attention from the White House. Bennett is a brawler who is comfortable dealing with reporters, while Kendall has a much more buttoned-down persona, and they have often disagreed over how best to defend the president.

Friends shaken

While Clinton has weathered many political crises, many of his closest friends are so shaken by the accusations that they are not automatically pronouncing him innocent. Several have put forth only tepid defenses, noting that Clinton says he is innocent but not saying whether they agree.

``I've known him for 30 years,'' Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, said in an interview. ``I can't believe he would do these things, including suborning perjury. It seems absurd. Yet, where is all the smoke coming from?''

At the White House, many aides complained that the predicament has left them in the dark, unable to satisfy their own questions about the president's activities. From the highest levels to the most obscure corners of the White House, many officials, speaking on condition on anonymity, described themselves as frustrated and demoralized.

Most important of all, several said they had real concerns about his innocence.

Officials concerned

``People are going, Oh, the sky is falling,'' said a senior White House official, adding that confidence in the president ``is way more weak than it should be.'' He added, ``People around here should have a little more confidence in the guy.''

But White House officials said it may be awhile before the president comments again about the allegations. ``Based on the conversations that we've had so far, I don't think it's likely the president's going to do anything before the State of the Union,'' one of his aides said.

Even after Tuesday, the aide said, Clinton might elect not to speak publicly about case. ``There's some feeling that people are pursuing other threads of the story,'' he said, and that if Clinton speaks again, ``then the focus is right back on him,'' with reporters scrutinizing every statement for evasions.

Several White House aides lamented that every time things seem to be going well for Clinton a crisis breaks out and his aides find themselves trying to defend him on matters on which they do not know the full details. More than one recalled that the revelation that the president's closest political adviser, Dick Morris, was having an affair with a call girl broke out during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996.

Clinton's latest crisis comes after he had been drawing days of favorable publicity about his proposals for the State of the Union. ``We were on a roll,'' said one White House aide. ``Now what?''

Crisis atmosphere

Several officials said the White House was engulfed in a crisis atmosphere, where staff members have been preoccupied and distracted by the controversy. But several officials said the president has made a point not to discuss or allude to the allegations. The aides said that, thankfully, Clinton was unusually far along in drafting his State of the Union speech.

``The White House has been under siege before, but this seems to be the biggest siege yet,'' Reich said. ``It's extraordinarily hard to do the public's business when you're at the center of the circus ring.''

The allegations against Clinton have been felt in large and small ways in the White House. Three aides who have talked privately for months about leaving - Michael McCurry, the press secretary, and advisers Doug Sosnik and Rahm Emanuel - now find themselves almost captive. If they quit now, they will look as if they are bailing out.

Asked whether he was leaving, McCurry, besieged by reporters at his briefing Friday, said this week's developments have ``made it a little bit impossible to think about that, to be honest with you.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 25, 1998
Words:1199
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