The week's big news, and how's it's being spun.
Dec. 9 1998 3:30 AM



Frame Game Deep Cover-Up

By William Saletan

The investigation of President Clinton is getting harder and harder to follow. Here are today's reports:

1) According to Newsweek and the Washington Post, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's pre-election report to Congress probably will deal only with the Lewinsky affair, not with Whitewater or other matters Starr originally was appointed to investigate.

2) Yesterday before the grand jury, Starr's prosecutors interrogated Clinton pal Harry Thomason about his coaching of Clinton in the days after the Lewinsky story broke last January.

3) Prosecutors also compelled testimony from White House lawyers Lanny Breuer and Cheryl Mills, who reportedly have played central roles in Clinton's damage-control efforts during the investigation. News reports say prosecutors questioned Thomason and Mills about these efforts. According to the New York Times, "[p]rosecutors appear to be searching for a clearer sense of the advice given to Clinton in the days after Starr's inquiry of the Lewinsky matter first became public."

4) Starr has solicited testimony from Justice Department lawyers to determine whether a Secret Service officer sanitized his account of an incident he purportedly witnessed between Clinton and Lewinsky.

Once upon a time, Starr was appointed to investigate Whitewater. He began to focus on whether Clinton and his friends had orchestrated a cover-up of Whitewater. Then he acquired an additional scandal, Filegate, and began to investigate whether Clinton had covered that up, too. Then he received Linda Tripp's tapes and zeroed in on whether Clinton and Vernon Jordan had covered up an affair between Clinton and Lewinsky in order to protect Clinton's cover-up of the Paula Jones incident. Then Starr subpoenaed Jordan and Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, evidently to determine, among other things, whether Clinton had conspired with them to cover up his conspiracy with Jordan to cover up the Lewinsky affair in order to shield Clinton's cover-up of the Jones incident. Then Starr subpoenaed Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal to determine whether Blumenthal was orchestrating a smear campaign against Starr in order to silence the investigation and thereby cover up all the preceding cover-ups.

This week's interrogations of Thomason and the White House lawyers indicate Starr is now focusing on events subsequent to--and designed to thwart--the Lewinsky investigation he launched in mid-January. In other words, he is investigating a possible cover-up of a possible cover-up of a possible cover-up of a possible cover-up seemingly unrelated to the possible cover-ups Starr had been investigating for four years. If, as the Washington Post reports, Starr now plans to issue a report that omits all the material he was initially appointed to investigate, the farce is complete.

Well, almost. According to Associated Press sources, Thomason "was warned early on by lawyers not to learn too much about the president's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky because he might have to testify about it." Were the lawyers keeping Thomason in the dark in order to cover up the cover-ups of the cover-ups?

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that by summoning Thomason before the grand jury just as he was preparing to coach Clinton for the latter's Aug. 17 testimony, "prosecutors might have been trying to send Thomason an ominous message--that they might summon him to the courthouse again, to describe any new advice he dispenses to the president." By this reasoning, whatever Clinton does to defend himself against the charges of cover-up becomes part of the cover-up.

Maybe Starr can prove these endless epicycles of conspiracy. But he is paying a political price. It is becoming more and more difficult to understand the offenses under investigation and why the public should care about them. And if members of Congress can't explain the report to their constituents, they won't impeach Clinton.

Not that I'm defending the president. I don't want a subpoena.