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Why Starr Probe Sparks White House Doubletalk

For public, aides say Clinton isn't slowed by Lewinsky probe. For court, they say he is.

The Monica Lewinsky probe is showing that what the White House does and what it says can be two very different things - and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

At issue in this phase of the investigation is the extent to which the Lewinsky matter prevents the president from doing his job. While the White House counsel contends that President Clinton's work is being seriously impeded, other aides downplay the impact.

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The Lewinsky matter "is inextricably intertwined with the daily presidential agenda, and thus has a substantial impact on the president's ability to discharge his obligations," wrote White House counsel Charles Ruff in a letter to a federal judge released last week. The letter laid out why executive privilege applies to two of the president's senior advisers.

Mr. Ruff went on to argue that as a result of Starr, the president's ability to work with Congress and enact legislation has been impeded. The case "has also affected the president's ability to address foreign policy matters."

But this doesn't square with what the White House has been telling the public for four months: that Mr. Clinton is on top of things, doing the people's job, and that Lewinsky-probe distractions are "minimal."

The discrepancy lies in the conflicting goals of the White House. In its argument for executive privilege, the counsel attempted to make as strong a case as possible that the investigation was having an official - as opposed to a merely private - impact on the president. But the White House is also putting on a public face that all is well at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"On the one hand you have the legal argument of Ruff, and on the other the political position. The truth is clearly in between the two positions," says Susan Fain, a public-policy professor at American University here.

AT the very least, White House legal, political, and press advisers meet twice a day to go over the previous day's Lewinsky developments and look at what's next. Each meeting usually lasts less than an hour.

In the end, the extent of distraction depends on developments, says a White House official. In the past few days, the pace has picked up considerably:

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* White House lawyers wrestled over the weekend with their response to the latest move by independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Last Thursday, Mr. Starr requested an expedited decision by the Supreme Court on the executive-privilege issue argued by Ruff.

A federal judge had previously ruled that, while executive privilege applies to the two senior aides, the needs of the independent prosecutor to hear testimony from those aides outweighed the privilege. The aides were ordered to testify.

The White House appealed, but Starr's Thursday decision was to try to skip the appellate court and go straight to the Supreme Court.

It was not known at press time whether the White House would agree that the appeal process should be expedited. One reported possibility is that it would withdraw its original appeal and pursue an appeal aimed at blocking some of Starr's questions for the aides on grounds of attorney-client privilege.

* Last week, Starr's investigators took fingerprint and handwriting samples from Ms. Lewinsky. Some legal analysts saw it as a sign that Starr is getting close to indicting the former White House intern.

That, combined with the Wednesday release of sealed court documents on the executive privilege argument - which had been filed two months earlier - prompted another onslaught of questions by the media.

When asked at a press conference Friday for an example that the president's ability to do his job had been impeded, spokesman Mike McCurry responded that the very fact of the reporter raising the question "on a day that we are focusing [on] a very real question of the balance of forces on the Indian subcontinent" was proof of distraction.

But that wasn't the president taking the press questions, it was his aide, and therein lies an important distinction, says the White House official.

The White House staff, he contends, is much more preoccupied with responding to Starr than is the president himself. For instance, while "last week was a fairly heavy week, the president has not had to be involved very much," he says.

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