Lost In Whitewater

This wasn't why Maggie Williams came to the White House. The depositions, the hearings and the crushing lawyers' bills weren't part of the deal. She became chief of staff for Hillary Clinton, an old friend from the Children's Defense Fund, hoping to transform years of liberal think-tank lobbying into executive action. Instead, Williams is vastly better known for her emotional Whitewater testimony. Wrenching hearings, she told NEWSWEEK, are now "part of my to-do list." She even makes lame jokes about it. "I actually had two other pages of nice things to say about you," she said at a recent roast for Leon Panetta. "But I can't read them -- under advice from my counsel."

Williams is lost in White-water. Her evasions and in-consistencies are sustaining Republican charges that she helped Mrs. Clinton thwart a police search of Vince Foster's office in the days after his July 20, 1993, suicide. This week, for the third time, she'll appear before Sen. Al D'Amato's Whitewater committee to answer questions about her handling of files left by Foster, a deputy White House counsel and former law partner of Mrs. Clinton's who took care of sensitive legal tasks for the First Family -- including Whitewater. For Williams, a 41-year-old Marian Wright Edelman protege, it means more trouble in the corner of the Old Executive Office Building known as "Hillaryland," the domain Williams oversees with a mixture of nurturing charm and fierce -- perhaps fatal -- loyalty to the First Lady. While D'Amato warned that "more roads are pointing to Mrs. Clinton," the panel is still reluctant to take her on directly. That means Williams is once again a target. "We're going to crush her," says one committee staffer.

Williams's previous testimony is suspect on at least three counts. Phone records show that she received a call at home from the First Lady -- then visiting in Little Rock -- hours after Foster's death. Williams then quickly headed for his office. She testified that she only sat on a couch and wept for her dead friend while another aide, Patsy Thomasson, searched for a suicide note. But a uniformed Secret Service agent, Henry O'Neill, testified that he saw her remove files. Williams denies this, and her lawyer says the results of a lie-detector test bolster her account. Williams also insisted Mrs. Clinton played no role in former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum's decision two days later to block Justice Department investigators from reviewing office files. But records show a flurry of calls that day: Williams to Mrs. Clinton; Mrs. Clinton to Susan Thomases, a New York attorney and close friend of the First Lady's, and Thomases to Nussbaum. New records turned over by Thomases's law firm indicate that minutes after angry Justice Department officials left Foster's office, Thomases placed her fifth call of the day to Williams. Moments later Williams entered Foster's office and, joined by Nussbaum, pored through documents denied investigators.

Williams has even more trouble explaining events five days later. On July 27, Bob Barnett, the Clintons' private lawyer, arrived at the White House to pack up a box of the president's personal documents from Foster's office. Williams testified last July that she simply bumped into Barnett. But Barnett now contra-diets that. In a Nov. 30 letter to D'Amato's committee, the Clintons' current lawyer, David Kendall, says Barnett recalls Williams meeting him at the White House that afternoon, directing him to the documents and staying at his side.

What does it all amount to? Republicans argue it shows Mrs. Clinton's operatives scrambling to extract and conceal damaging information from Foster's files. The White House Says it's partisan harassment. But Whitewater problems are only growing: D'Amato's committee voted last week to subpoena notes White House lawyers insist are protected by attorney-client privilege. It's the beginning of a constitutional fight that could end in the Supreme Court.

Williams tries hard to keep the legal troubles at bay. And if there's such a thing as a genteel bunker, Hillaryland is it. Compared with the intrigues of the West Wing, the ethos here is cozy, with few leaks or messy departures. The spacious offices are shrines to Hillary -- big photos loom everywhere -- and there is the sense that staffers would fight to the last woman (all but one of the 16 are female) to protect their boss. Williams insists she's not taking a fall for the Clintons. "What I am not is a lemming," she said. "Loyalty to Mrs. Clinton and loyalty to the president have very little to do with whether I tell the truth or not." But she tearfully conceded at the end of an interview with NEWSWEEK that she recently told a group of young White House interns she couldn't recommend public service as a career -- that the incivility had flattened her expectations. "Nobody asks the right questions anymore," she said. For Williams, all the wrong questions will continue this week.