WASHINGTON -- In the face of spirited Republican attacks on President Clinton's character, his lawyers revised their language in legal papers in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case yesterday, saying in a new brief that the president is not claiming any kind of immunity as a member of the armed forces.
"I've clarified our position," said Clinton's lead attorney, Robert S. Bennett.
In so doing, White House and campaign officials hoped to quell TC seemingly minor issue that spread quickly and put the high-flying Clinton team on the defensive for the first time in the political season.
The flap began when Clinton's lawyers filed a brief two weeks ago, urging the Supreme Court to postpone Jones' case until after Clinton leaves office. One argument cited by the president's lawyers was the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940. The law grants military personnel the right to have lawsuits against them delayed while on active duty.
In an orchestrated series of attacks last week, conservative Republicans scoffed at such a comparison, saying it was inap- propriate coming from a president who had avoided service during the Vietnam War.
'Nor have you ever been'
"You are not a person in military service, nor have you ever been," Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote to the president.
Initially, White House officials dismissed such criticism. First, they said, it was a transparently partisan "smear" by outspoken conservatives, like Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California, who say such things all the time about the president's lack of a war record. Second, they said, the critics had taken a technical legal point out of context -- one paragraph in a 21-page brief.
But the issue wouldn't go away. Last week, veterans groups passed resolutions or issued statements critical of the president. In the House, almost every Republican signed a letter to Clinton, calling his legal argument "a slap in the face to the millions of men and women on active duty."
In the Senate, Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska threatened to block budget appropriations unless the president's lawyers abandoned their legal argument.
And on Friday, the Republican National Committee unveiled television ads that intoned: "Bill Clinton -- he's really something. He's now trying to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit claiming he is on active military duty."
Clinton team cites context
In the face of this onslaught, Clinton's allies insisted that the Republicans were taking the citation of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Act out of context, a defense they continued yesterday even as they were clarifying their brief.
But in an effort to halt the political damage, Jack Quinn, the White House counsel, discussed the new brief with Bennett, White House officials said yesterday.
That document, filed May 15, at first cites the soldiers' and sailors' statute as an example of instances in which plaintiffs must await their day in court for one reason or another.
It then states: "Such relief is deemed necessary to enable members of the armed forces 'to devote their entire energy to the defense needs of the Nation.' President Clinton here thus seeks relief similar to that to which he may be entitled as commander in chief of the armed forces, and which is routinely available to service members under his command."
In reply, Paula Jones' lawyers said in their court papers that if Clinton wanted such a protection, it must be spelled out by Congress. In response to that assertion, Bennett said in yesterday's filing: "We disagree. The relief sought here is required by the singular nature of the president's constitutional duties, and by principles of separation of powers. The president does not rely on, or claim any relief under, the Solders' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940."
This was consistent with the earliest references in Bennett's filings in this case. But for now, this lawsuit is not just a legal issue -- it is grist for a political campaign. As such, it afforded Republicans the opportunity to allude to two Clinton "character" issues in one breath: philandering and draft dodging.
Officials at the Republican National Committee indicated that the party might drop the anti-Clinton ads, although the Republican leader, Haley Barbour, and other officials were pleased at the way their gambit had played itself out.
"If this part of the brief was insignificant, why go and clarify it?" said Ben Ginsberg, a former general counsel of the RNC who had figured this issue had about run its course. "Of course, the more they want to clarify, the better."
Pub Date: 5/29/96