WASHINGTON -- With momentum in the House moving toward impeachment, the White House will abruptly shift tactics today, toning down its attacks on the impeachment proceedings and instead presenting methodical arguments on why President Clinton should remain in office.
White House officials adopted a decidedly less hostile tone yesterday, presenting a list of 14 witnesses who will be called today and tomorrow to plead the president's case in marathon sessions before the House Judiciary Committee. And they raised the possibility that Clinton again might publicly express regret for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and efforts to conceal it.
"I can assure you that the contrition is real and is there," said Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart. "When we have a chance to present a defense over two days, [members of Congress] will see something that is serious, that doesn't attempt to lay blame with someone else, and makes a case that both on the facts and the law and on constitutional standards argues that the president shouldn't be impeached."
The highly polarized committee will almost certainly approve articles of impeachment late this week, strictly along party lines. But White House lawyers and their allies say they still believe there is time to sway enough votes in the full House to prevent what would be the second presidential impeachment in history.
"There are enough people who haven't tipped their hand to leave the outcome in doubt," a White House lawyer said, pointing to about two dozen moderate Republicans and a half-dozen conservatives who might be persuaded to oppose impeachment.
But the conciliatory tones coming from the White House are not being matched in the Judiciary Committee. While the committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, said yesterday that he has reached no conclusions on impeachment, he held a news conference flanked by towering pillars of cardboard boxes that once contained independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 60,000 pages of evidence against the president.
"We haven't heard one word about evidence repudiating or rejecting the facts," said Hyde, an Illinois Republican. He said the Republicans who hold a majority on the committee have made "a compelling case" for impeachment.
The White House defense has been, Hyde said, "Shakespearean, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Clinton's options seem to be narrowing. Yesterday, Hyde announced his firm opposition to censuring the president, an alternative punishment that falls short of impeachment. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, a staunch advocate of impeachment, sent a letter to House members yesterday that seemingly shut off any censure resolution on the House floor. The letter, which contends that censure would set a dangerous precedent, was co-signed by Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of only a half-dozen Republicans who publicly oppose impeachment.
That could mean the president has no choice but to seek exoneration. Though Republicans insist that the president has no defense, White House lawyers laid out in September a point-by-point rebuttal of Starr's allegations that Clinton lied under oath, obstructed justice and abused the power of his office in trying to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky.
Those arguments do not deny the tawdriness of the affair or that Clinton was misleading in his testimony under oath. Instead, they simply contend that the evasions do not legally constitute perjury.
White House lawyers have been loath to repeat those defenses aloud, fearing they would sound too legalistic and unrepentant to voters and members of Congress.
But in arguing that nobody has defended the president on the facts, House members have ignored the president's rebuttals, in part because many of Clinton's factual defenses involve graphic sexual details, including where exactly he touched Lewinsky. Americans have signaled that they oppose an impeachment that stems from private sexual conduct.
A factual defense
This week, Clinton's lawyers are likely to address the factual disputes head-on, if not in today's opening statements by White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, then in tomorrow's closing arguments by White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff. A factual defense -- especially a legalistic one -- might come too late to head off impeachment, but it could be all the White House has left.
"In some sense, we're damned if we do, damned if we don't," the White House lawyer said. "They say they want contrition and when we give contrition, they say they want the facts. And when you give them the facts, they say it's legalistic hair-splitting."
But he said the White House cannot avoid making technical arguments on what legally constitutes perjury and obstruction of justice: "One person's technicality is another person's exoneration."
Clinton's two-day defense will begin today with a panel of three academics and a former U.S. attorney general, who will argue that the charges against the president stemming from the Lewinsky affair fail to reach the constitutional impeachment standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Bruce Ackerman, a Yale law professor, will testify that if the Senate fails to convene a trial by Jan. 3 to hear House impeachment articles, those articles would become null and void because the 105th Congress officially ends that day. If Ackerman's interpretation prevails, the House would have to begin the impeachment process all over or drop the matter.
Three former committee Democrats who voted in 1974 for articles to impeach President Richard M. Nixon will testify today that the charges of abuse of power against Nixon were far more serious than the accusations against Clinton.
But the pivotal testimony could come tomorrow, when five former federal prosecutors will testify that Clinton's evasions and obfuscations fall short of perjury or obstruction of justice. Then, Ruff will present a closing defense intended to stave off the stain of impeachment -- or at least to save the Clinton presidency.
In a nod to complaints by Democrats and moderate Republicans, White House lawyers dropped plans to convene a panel on prosecutorial misconduct aimed at Starr's investigation. They also decided to tap the low-key Ruff, instead of Clinton's more combative personal attorney, David Kendall, to present the closing argument. Republican moderates said Kendall's fierce cross-examination of Starr last month did more to alienate them than to win over their votes.
Though even proponents of impeachment indicated that the new White House strategy of less partisanship is an improvement, Judiciary Committee members seemed underwhelmed by the witness list. Hyde scoffed yesterday, "We have heard from so many college professors that I'm thinking of asking for college credit."
'A lot can change'
As members of the House begin to filter back to Washington and to focus on the proceedings, the outcome of the impeachment vote becomes harder to gauge. Opinion polls show that 64 percent of voters oppose impeachment.
"A lot can change the final outcome," a Republican leadership aide said yesterday. "Tomorrow's performance could have devastating impact on the White House, or the White House could pull a rabbit out of its hat."
Pub Date: 12/08/98