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In Speech, Clinton Rebuffs Willey's Claim of Misconduct

By John F. Harris
The Washington Post

Breaking a weeks-long silence on the sexual misconduct allegations about him, President Clinton Monday said he was "mystified and disappointed" by former aide Kathleen E. Willey's nationally televised accusation that he forced himself on her when she approached him for a job.

Clinton said he had a "very clear memory" of his meeting with Willey in a private hallway leading to the Oval Office in November 1993, contradicting an earlier statement through his attorney that he had "no specific recollection" of the event. The president asserted that "I told the truth" when he testified in the Paula Jones harassment case that there was nothing sexual about the encounter.

While "nothing improper" occurred with Willey, Clinton told reporters during an event at a Silver Spring, Md., high school to promote his education agenda, her "story's been in three different incarnations" as told by various people.

Even before Clinton responded Monday morning, senior White House officials launched an aggressive campaign of interviews and document disclosures intended to call into question the accuser's claims of victimhood. Far from being angry and shocked by Clinton's behavior, as Willey said on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday, she eagerly sought work on his 1996 re-election campaign, White House communications aide Ann Lewis told reporters.

And the White House, which has repeatedly refused to release records showing calls and Oval Office visits by former White House aide Monica S. Lewinsky, Monday made public records showing that Willey regularly initiated contact with Clinton following the contested 1993 meeting. Included in the White House release are notes from Willey praising his performance in office and asking for job help.

The vigorous public rebuttal to the Willey allegations ran counter to a policy - followed devotedly in the weeks since the Lewinsky controversy broke in late January - that Clinton would not comment on the waves of allegations that have broken regularly as part of the Jones civil lawsuit and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's criminal investigation.

The president and his aides were shaken out of their no-comment stance by a fear that Willey's interview, made on television's highest-rated public affairs show, could produce a new and damaging turn in public opinion.

Even as Clinton spoke out in his own defense Monday, he suggested that he may never offer a fuller public explanation of the controversy over his relationships with women, despite his pledge after the Lewinsky allegations broke that there were "legitimate" questions and that he wanted to tell his story.

"Well, I did suggest that, but that was before the deposition [he gave in the Jones case] was illegally released," Clinton said. "And it basically states my position. Whether and what else will be said I think is something that we'll have to deal with in the future depending on how circumstances unfold."

Congressional reaction hinted at the gravity of the matter. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters he found Willey "credible," and regarded her charges as adding "one more bit of seriousness to the equation." He declined to draw further conclusions, however, because "I don't know all the facts."

"If this is true, it is very, very disturbing and I think it ultimately has very powerful consequences," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., during an appearance in his home state.

Clinton advisers inside and outside the White House said they considered the defense in the Willey controversy an especially delicate matter, with potential to increase his political problems rather than alleviate them if not handled carefully. A White House meeting with Clinton's lawyers and political aides on Saturday, according to participants, dealt at length with the problem of how to undercut Willey without appearing to directly attack her.

Democratic activists - Lewis among them - had accused Republicans of attacking the victim when they noted in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991 that Anita Hill had continued to stay in close touch with Thomas even after he allegedly harassed her with lewd sexual remarks.

Lewis, who went on television news shows Monday to note that Willey had continued to speak warmly of Clinton and seek jobs from him, said she was not trying to impugn Willey. "I am not attacking, there are no adjectives here," Lewis said in an interview.