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President defends wife over Whitewater

President Clinton on Monday defended his wife and his White House against charges of having interfered in the Whitewater investigation, but quickly found himself facing a new round of questions about his knowledge of the inquiry's earliest stages.

Clinton held a White House news conference Monday on relations with the former Soviet Union _ but he clearly expected to be asked about Whitewater. He was.

He emphasized that the case was different from past investigations of the White House, especially Watergate, which drove President Richard Nixon from office.

"No one has accused me of any abuse of authority in office," Clinton said. "That's what Watergate was about."

As part of a calculated effort to "take the offensive," Clinton pounded the lectern as he came to the defense of his wife, Hillary, who has been criticized in recent days for her role in the Clintons' investment in Whitewater Development Co., an Arkansas land venture, and its ties to Madison Guaranty, the Arkansas thrift that failed and was taken over by federal regulators. Their former partner in Whitewater, James MacDougal, had headed Madison Guaranty.

"I do not believe for a moment that she has done anything wrong," Clinton said. "If everybody in this country had a character half as strong as hers, we wouldn't have half the problem we've got."

But Clinton did acknowledge he learned of a request by federal regulators for a criminal investigation into Madison Guaranty shortly after that request was made. He said he did not remember who had told him about the investigation or exactly when in October he learned of the request the Resolution Trust Corp. made on Oct. 8.

His statement made it clear for the first time that he knew about the sensitive request before it became public, and raised the question of whether he gained the knowledge improperly.

In recent days, attention has focused on internal White House discussions about the inquiry, including a series of conversations between White House and Treasury Department officials.

The disclosure of those conversations last week forced the resignation of Bernard Nussbaum, the White House counsel, and prompted the independent counsel, Robert Fiske, to issue subpoenas to six White House aides.

White House officials said they also expected other aides to Clinton to receive subpoenas, including perhaps Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty.

With the White House trying to meet a Thursday deadline to turn over subpoenaed documents to Fiske, Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives agreed to meet with Republicans to discuss their demands for a congressional inquiry into Whitewater.

But Fiske asked lawmakers not to hold such hearings, saying they would interfere with his own investigation.