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



Frame Game The Counterreport

By William Saletan

This weekend, President Clinton's surrogates signaled his next stratagem in the war against Independent Counsel Ken Starr. When Starr sends Congress his report on the Clinton investigation, Clinton's lawyers will issue a counterreport exonerating Clinton and leveling charges against Starr.

The Constitution and the independent counsel statute don't authorize a counterreport, but they don't forbid it, either. De jure, since Starr is a duly appointed investigator, his report carries greater weight. But de facto, the Clintonites have so tarnished Starr's reputation that only half the public is prepared to believe his report, according to a recent poll. From the outset, Clinton's ace in the hole has been the political nature of the impeachment process. If voters don't trust the report, Republicans in Congress will feel less emboldened to impeach Clinton, and Democrats will feel less obliged to go along.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and other Republican leaders have said they will suspend judgment on the question of Clinton's punishment until Starr issues his report. Their presumption that the report will clarify everything seems oddly naive. For months, the GOP has marveled at the gall with which Clinton's strategists have disregarded the spirit of the law. Why expect them to defer to Starr's report? The president's defenders can't silence Starr, but they can try to drown him out. "Mr. Starr's voice is [only] one of many that will have to be heard by the Congress," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., on Fox News Sunday.

To persuade the public that a counterreport is appropriate, the Clintonites are drawing an analogy to the courtroom. "Normally in our system, you have the prosecutor and you have the defense," argued Democratic Party Chairman Roy Romer on ABC's This Week. On CNN's Late Edition, former White House counsel Lanny Davis agreed that Starr's report "represents a prosecutor's view, without the benefit of cross-examination. ... No exculpatory facts are to be expected, nothing that will balance the truth, one side and the other. It's a one-sided, biased report. ... Therefore, it does require a counterpoint."

Nor will the counterreport stop at exculpation. "Mr. Starr and his associates and staff have to be interviewed and have to be deposed extensively," Dingell warned. "There are enough allegations about the behavior of Mr. Starr. We're going to have to look at leaks, association with right-wing causes, contributions, the fact that he practiced law and made extensive revenue from people who were ... perhaps even enemies of the administration. All these matters have to be inquired into."


The good news for Starr is that he's in a battle of trustworthiness against an unarmed man. By admitting that he had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky that he then lied about, Clinton seems to have damaged his own credibility more than the White House has damaged Starr's. But Clinton's lawyers don't have to rehabilitate their client's credibility--any more than Johnnie Cochran had to prove O.J. Simpson's innocence. All they have to do is put the prosecution on trial.