President Clinton yesterday averted a Supreme Court showdown with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr over the president's claims of executive privilege in the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies grand jury probe by withdrawing the claim in a motion filed with the high court.
Mr. Clinton, through his lawyers, also asked the court - in a motion laced with comparisons to the Watergate scandal that forced President Nixon from office in 1974 - to reject a bid by Mr. Starr for an expedited hearing in the case, saying the independent counsel's office had offered "no reason, other than its own opinion" for a quick decision.
The move could further stall the Lewinsky investigation, making the challenge over executive privilege moot.
While the administration laid out its case in two complicated documents totaling 24 pages, White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff said it came down to allowing senior aide Sidney Blumenthal to be questioned about his knowledge of the Lewinsky affair; sought to protect conversations between Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey and the president under an attorney-client privilege; and moved to block the Supreme Court from acting hastily to review its privilege claims.
"This is not steel seizure or an Iranian hostage sort of situation . . . this is not U.S. v. Nixon," said Mr. Ruff in a reference to three famous cases in which the Supreme Court was asked to take a case from an appeals court.
The Justice Department joined the fray yesterday, saying it will appeal a ruling that Secret Service officers who guard the president must testify in the grand jury probe. The department filed a notice of intent to appeal last month's ruling by U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who said the officers were required to testify about what they might have seen or heard.
Mr. Starr has subpoenaed two Secret Service officers and an agency lawyer who questioned them about their pending grand jury testimony.
The grand jury is investigating accusations by Miss Lewinsky on 20 hours of secretly recorded audiotapes that she had an affair with the president and that he and others told her to lie about it in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit. Mr. Clinton has denied the accusation.
By referring to the Nixon-Watergate tapes issue, Mr. Ruff revealed that the White House is willing to risk political bruises in its latest legal tangle with Mr. Starr rather than give up fighting for the institution of the presidency.
"I suppose if we were worried about those [Watergate] echoes, we wouldn't have even started this," said Mr. Ruff of the administration's repeated efforts to use either attorney-client or executive privilege to block top Clinton aides from testifying before the Lewinsky or Whitewater grand juries.
Judge Johnson ruled last month that while the doctrine of executive privilege was valid, it did not apply in the Lewinsky case and ordered that Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Lindsey be called to testify in the grand jury investigation.
Whitewater prosecutors want to know whether the two White House aides discussed the …