WASHINGTON -- Judiciary Committee lawyers were formally drafting three articles of impeachment yesterday, accusing President Clinton of lying under oath, obstructing justice and, in the most aggressive charge, abusing the power of his office "to thwart the search for truth."
As Republican aides decided to present the committee with the broadest possible case against the president, the White House unveiled a new defense strategy, deciding to directly rebut the specific charges as well as broadly attack the investigation and impeachment process.
White House lawyers informed the House committee last night that they plan to call witnesses next week to defend the president. The witnesses are to include experts on the constitutional standards for impeachment; the legal standards for perjury, obstruction of justice, abuse of power and prosecutorial misconduct; and the impact of tainted evidence on the legal process.
The president's attorneys suggested it would take as many as four days to make their case, which could throw the committee's delicately crafted schedule into chaos. But White House lawyers said their request was fair, considering the jeopardy facing the president.
"Should the House of Representatives approve an article of impeachment against the president and send it to the Senate for trial, the impact on the national government and on the American people as a whole would be profound," wrote White House Counsel Charles F. C. Ruff and Gregory B. Craig, the president's special counsel on impeachment.
"For that reason alone this process must be deliberate, thorough, fair and expeditious," the attorneys wrote.
In rebuttal, committee GOP spokesman Paul J. McNulty was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "This is an obvious and desperate political ploy to push the inquiry into the new Congress, where the Democrats potentially have more votes."
Republican aides to the Judiciary Committee decided not to reject some of the charges leveled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in his impeachment report in September. The panel is scheduled to deliberate and vote on the articles by next weekend, after White House lawyers mount a last-ditch defense of the president.
"I am not surprised by the inclusive nature of the articles," said Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, a Judiciary Committee Democrat. "I think the operating principle of the committee's Republican leadership is that they report anything to the House in which they see any basis for the charge, then they assume the House will winnow the list down."
White House aides began expressing alarm yesterday at the committee's relentless move toward impeachment, decrying an impeachment process they had been largely ridiculing. For weeks, presidential allies had expected that public opposition would spark Republican moderates to revolt and derail the drive to remove Clinton from office.
A half-dozen House Republicans have publicly stated their opposition to impeachment, well short of the number needed to shelve the issue, and White House officials are realizing that they will have to mount what they have called "a vigorous defense."
"This is perhaps the most serious thing Congress can do. This isn't a process where the House of Representatives can throw it to the Senate to let them deal with it," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, condemning what he called a "serious lack of the constitutional solemnity" in the proceedings.
Prominent Republicans appear content to let the impeachment vote go forward, despite their trepidation about a political backlash from voters who sternly oppose it. Republican governors met yesterday with GOP leaders of the House and Senate, but they declined to call for an end to the impeachment proceedings.
"Let's not forget the issue here was brought on by the president himself," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. "The embarrassing, humiliating, obscene conduct was his alone."
The governors expressed concerns, however, that Washington's obsession with the scandal is impeding the party's pursuit of tax cuts, education reform and Social Security preservation.
Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said he believes the president lied under oath and could be impeached for it. "But I take it to the next level," Rowland said. "Is it in the public good to impeach the president? My answer is no."
Rowland, who is calling instead for a censure resolution, said perhaps a half-dozen Republican governors agree with him.
Marc Racicot, the Republican governor of Montana, refused to say how the House should vote. But he expressed exasperation for the way the Judiciary Committee and Starr have handled the matter, including Starr's wholesale dumping of grand jury material onto the Capitol steps in September, and the Republicans' dumping the material onto the Internet in October.
For Democrats, the broad articles of impeachment being drafted yesterday only accentuate such concerns. They charged that the committee was simply rubber-stamping the original charges presented by Starr.
Republicans warned that the charges had not been endorsed by the committee yet, and indeed some of them might not pass when the panel votes.
Aides have not yet decided to accuse the president of perjury, or the lesser charge of filing false statements under oath. Perjury implies lying with the expectation of corrupting the process, a more difficult charge to prove.
"This is not an open-and-shut case of perjury," said Jeffrey Abramson, a former prosecutor and a professor of legal studies at Brandeis University. "There's no clear intent to deceive the grand jury. He admitted to sexual relations [with Monica Lewinsky]. The only real perjury are in the gory details of what parts of her body he touched."
Filing false statements would be far easier to prove, but a majority in the House might not view it as reaching the Constitution's impeachment threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors.
The obstruction-of-justice article includes charges that the president helped persuade Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct suit denying she was having a sexual relationship with Clinton. It accuses Clinton of concocting cover stories with Lewinsky to hide their affair, concealing gifts he gave the former White House intern and "undermining" Jones' right to her day in court.
The most controversial article charged that the president abused the power of his office by repeatedly lying to the country in denying his relationship with Lewinsky, lying to staff members and encouraging them to lie on his behalf and making "specious" claims of executive privilege to prevent presidential lawyers and Secret Service agents from testifying.
Boucher called that charge "just nonsense." Although the president lost the battles, over his privilege claims, even William H. Rehnquist, the Supreme Court's conservative chief justice, said they were serious issues, he said.
Pub Date: 12/05/98