WASHINGTON -- Striking a conciliatory tone and pleading for fairness, a top White House lawyer opened a grueling defense of President Clinton yesterday with a concession that the president's testimony regarding Monica Lewinsky might be deemed "unlawful" by a criminal court.
But the lawyer, appealing directly to wavering moderate House Republicans, said that no matter how reprehensible the president's actions may have been, they did not justify what would be only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history.
"Just as no fancy language can obscure the simple fact that what the president did was morally wrong," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, "no amount of rhetoric can change the legal reality that there are no grounds for impeachment."
Opening two days of White House defense before the House Judiciary Committee, Craig asserted for the first time that the president's legal team believes that Clinton will likely be indicted once he leaves office. But later in the day, the White House released a 184-page rebuttal, arguing forcefully that the president never committed perjury, obstructed justice, abused the power of his office or broke any laws.
"If he did mislead a court under oath, that would be wrong -- it would be unlawful," Craig said. "That is for a court of law, a criminal court of law, to resolve with all the protections that a court provides to a defendant. And most of the people that are working with the president in the defense believe that is a very likely possibility in the future."
At the same time, Craig said that however "wrong" and "blameworthy" Clinton's actions, they did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. "Nothing in this case justifies this Congress overturning a national election and removing our president from office," he said.
Craig was speaking to the sharply partisan Judiciary Committee, but he hoped his at-times quavering voice would carry far beyond the committee chambers, to the 20 to 30 moderate House Republicans who hold the power to tilt the outcome in either direction. In raising the specter of indictment, Craig appeared to be assuring the wavering Republicans that if they voted against impeachment, the president would not escape punishment.
Plea on Clinton's behalf
Yet he also appealed to them to keep an open mind, read the lengthy rebuttal, and decide for themselves whether the president's actions reached the constitutional impeachment standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.
"I make only one plea to you, and I hope it is not a futile one coming this late in the process," Craig said. "Open your mind. Open your heart. And focus on the record."
White House aides and House Democrats concede that all 21 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have decided to vote this week to approve at least one count of perjury. But they believe impeachment in the full House next week is not a foregone conclusion. As a result, undecided House Republican moderates have suddenly become the most scrutinized members of the national body politic.
Only a half-dozen of the 228 House Republicans have publicly stated their inclination to vote against impeachment. A seventh, Rep. Amo Houghton of New York, will join that group today with a column in the New York Times that will declare that the president's alleged offenses do not warrant removal from office.
The president got another boost when defeated Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican, stated publicly that impeachment "would be sowing the seeds of discord."
But if Clinton is to avoid the stain of impeachment, he will have to persuade at least twice as many House Republicans -- and possibly as many as 20 -- to vote no.
"I don't think it's at 20 today -- that's for damned sure," said Rep. Jack Quinn of New York, one of the few Republican opponents of impeachment.
Though two-thirds of the nation's voters oppose impeachment, Clinton's defense has had to be carefully calculated to appeal to the small group of moderate House Republicans.
To that end, White House lawyers persuaded William F. Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts and a staff lawyer on the Watergate impeachment committee, to testify today on behalf of the president. Weld headed the Justice Department's criminal division during the Reagan administration, and last year he was nominated by Clinton, but failed to win confirmation from Senate conservatives, to be ambassador to Mexico.
"If I were to want to reach moderate Republicans, I would want Weld on my team," said an aide to a moderate Northeastern Republican.
White House aides hoped Weld's appearance would help create at least the appearance of a shift in momentum away from impeachment, especially when coupled with Houghton's announcement today.
So far, that momentum does not exist. The six Republicans who have expressed strong misgivings about impeachment have been swamped by phone calls, faxes and letters from angry conservatives. Since their statements, most of them have become far more reluctant to speak publicly. Indeed, pressure from conservatives on and off Capitol Hill seems to have squashed any potential moderate revolt against impeachment.
Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, said in October that she saw no evidence of impeachable offenses. Now, she says she has reached no decision about her vote.
Besides more defense witnesses, today's hearing will include a summation by the White House counsel, Charles F. C. Ruff. Tomorrow, the chief Democratic and Republican counsels for the committee will present their cases. The committee's debate on the impeachment articles will begin Friday.
The committee members, as several Democrats pointed out yesterday, are sharply divided along party lines, with each Republican firmly in favor of impeachment and each Democrat firmly opposed.
"There's nothing that any of the witnesses could say that would prevent the majority of this committee from voting to impeach the president of the United States on Saturday," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat.
The White House presented a parade of historians, constitutional scholars and Watergate-era lawmakers to argue that Clinton's transgressions -- however reprehensible -- did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses and were not of the gravity of those that led to President Richard M. Nixon's impeachment proceedings and eventual resignation.
Nicholas Katzenbach, a U.S. attorney general in the Johnson administration, said the process of impeachment should be used only to remove a person from office and secure the state against "gross political misdemeanors," rather than as a symbolic act or punishment. "Nothing could be more improper than to use impeachment as a punishment," he said.
Raising a constitutional issue that could present the White House with a legal challenge to impeachment, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, argued that any impeachment articles voted by the House, would expire along with this Congress on Jan. 3. Thus, the bills could not be acted upon by the next Congress.
Republicans expressed dismay that the White House presentation focused on standards for impeachment and historical precedents rather than on the facts of the Lewinsky case.
Much of the questioning of Craig focused on the issue of perjury, considered the most persuasive of three articles of impeachment expected to be drawn up by the committee, which is scheduled to vote on those charges by the end of this week.
Craig said he was "willing to concede" that Clinton's testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case was "evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening. But it was not perjury."
The perjury question surrounding whether Clinton touched Lewinsky in a sexual way -- which Lewinsky described in detail in her testimony but the president denied -- amounted to "oath on oath, he said, she said," an issue that could not be proved one way or another, Craig said.
Republicans pressed Craig to acknowledge that Clinton lied in his Jones deposition, in his videotaped grand jury testimony and before the public.
"Did he lie to the American people when he said, 'I never had sex with that woman?' Did he lie?" asked Rep. Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican.
"He certainly misled and deceived," Craig replied.
"Well, wait a minute now. Did he lie?" Inglis pressed.
"You know, he doesn't believe he did," Craig responded.
"This is an amazing thing," Inglis said, incredulous. "You now sit before us and you're taking back all of his apologies. Because now you're back to the argument he didn't have sex with her. It was oral sex; it wasn't real sex."
In an overture to the undecided Republican moderates, some of whom have asked Clinton to make another, more complete apology, Craig said he wanted to convey the president's "profound and powerful regret" for his actions.
"The president wants everyone to know -- the committee, the Congress and the country -- that he is genuinely sorry for the pain and the damage that he has caused and for the wrongs he has committed," the lawyer said.
Pub Date: 12/09/98