By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 6, 1998; Page A01
A federal judge has ruled that President Clinton cannot use the power of his office to block prosecutors from questioning his senior aides, rejecting Clinton's assertion of executive privilege in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, lawyers familiar with the decision said yesterday.
In a ruling issued under court seal Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson concluded that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's need to collect evidence in his obstruction of justice probe outweighs Clinton's interest in preserving the confidentiality of White House discussions, the lawyers said.
The decision made Clinton the first president to take a claim of executive privilege to court and lose since the dramatic Watergate showdown in 1974, when the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Richard M. Nixon to turn over the secret Oval Office tapes that ultimately led to his resignation. Clinton's case also seems headed for the high court as sources indicated that the White House likely will appeal.
Johnson's ruling could amount to a significant political as well as legal setback for Clinton, lending ammunition to Republican critics, such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who have charged that Clinton is trying, in Nixonian fashion, to impede Starr's investigation with invalid privilege claims.
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