Clinton defense offers 184-page rebuttal President's acts immoral but not illegal, it argues; THE IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- As part of its push to stave off impeachment, the White House released a combative and highly legalistic 184-page rebuttal of the allegations against President Clinton yesterday, drawing a distinction between "immoral conduct and illegal or impeachable acts."

In the document, Clinton's lawyers asserted that the allegations against him, such as the charge that he lied under oath, are based on "a distorted picture of the evidence" presented by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr rather than on Clinton's words.

As the White House began its two-day defense before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, in proceedings that stretched well into the night, Clinton's legal team laid out, in the point-by-point rebuttal document, its most exhaustive analysis to date of the evidence against the president that the panel will consider for articles of impeachment.

Combining messages of Clinton's contrition with attacks on the independent counsel and the Judiciary Committee, the lawyers insisted that Clinton did not commit perjury when he denied a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, did not instruct the former White House intern to lie under oath and did not attempt to influence the testimony of his secretary, Betty Currie.

"Just as no fancy language can obscure the fact that what the president did was morally wrong, no amount of rhetoric can change the legal reality that the record before this committee does not justify charges of criminal conduct or impeachable offenses," the document states.

The document, expected to form the basis for today's testimony before the Judiciary Committee by Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, was immediately denounced by committee Republicans as nothing but more legal hair-splitting.

"Upon preliminary review, these documents, the contents of which we learned from television news, appear to contain no new evidence or challenge the truthfulness of any testimony the committee now possesses," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

"It merely directs our attention to particular portions of testimony we already have which we will gladly read again now. What it also includes is more legal hairsplitting and semantic gymnastics we have come to expect from this White House."

Delving into the charge of perjury -- probably the most threatening to the president -- Clinton's lawyers asserted that perjury "requires proof that President Clinton knew he was wrong and intentionally lied about it."

They maintained that Clinton did not lie when he denied a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct case because he was responding to a "bizarrely narrow and contorted" definition of sexual relations allowed by the presiding judge.

They said, too, that Clinton did not deny in the deposition that he was ever alone with Lewinsky, but said only that he did not "recall" being alone with her.

As for Clinton's denial of touching Lewinsky in a sexual manner -- something she describes in her grand jury testimony -- the lawyers said "contradictory testimony from two witnesses does not indicate that one has committed perjury."

While White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig avoided any attacks on Starr in his appearance before the Judiciary Committee yesterday, the rebuttal document assailed Starr and his report, saying the record the prosecutor put before the committee was "unreliable" and should be met with "caution and skepticism."

Starr did not simply share with the committee what he had found, the White House said, but "chose to give it his own spin" -- a maneuver sharply different from the "simple and straightforward" report by the special prosecutor in Watergate in 1974.

It bluntly accused Starr of "a bias against the president," saying the prosecutor turned to the Lewinsky matter as "a dramatic way to vindicate his long, meandering, and costly investigation."

Starr, the White House said, misrepresented to the committee "how far he was willing to go in his attempts to obtain evidence against the president," including false denials that his office sought to "wire" Lewinsky so she could "help set up the president or those close to him."

According to the brief, Starr's report left out 11 examples of exculpatory evidence involving gifts to Lewinsky, whether Clinton tried to find Lewinsky a job to buy her silence and whether the president coached Currie to testify falsely in the Jones case.

In making its case against obstruction of justice, the White House also accused Starr of everything from placing italics on Lewinsky's words in the report to peddling an "outright falsehood" about the removal of gifts from Clinton in Lewinsky's apartment.

The lawyers, in rebutting the notion that Clinton tried to buy Lewinsky's silence about their relationship with the promise of a job in New York, noted that Lewinsky's job search began before she knew she was on the Jones witness list, and that she searched for openings through channels other than Clinton.

Reading much like a legal brief, many of the arguments are based on highly literal interpretations of the facts. For example, the lawyers state that the "cover story" that Clinton and Lewinsky created to conceal their relationship -- that sometimes Lewinsky came to his office to deliver papers -- did not amount to obstruction because Lewinsky did in fact bring papers to their meetings on certain occasions.

The White House lawyers had an easier time defending the president against charges that he abused the power of his office by asserting legal protections against the testimony of certain White House aides and lying to the American public.

The charges are perhaps the weakest leveled first by Starr and then by an article of impeachment that will come to a vote in the Judiciary Committee this week.

Republican Reps. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania and Ed Pease of Indiana have expressed doubts that they would vote for such an article of impeachment, and even Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, one of the committee's most ardent supporters of impeachment, has raised concerns.

If only three of the committee's 21 Republicans voted against the article with all 16 panel Democrats, the article would fail.

White House lawyers parried Starr's claim that lying to the zTC American people would be an impeachable abuse of office by recounting the alleged lies of Presidents Reagan and Bush regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, President Lyndon B. Johnson's "credibility gap" about the conduct of the Vietnam war and President Kennedy's denials of responsibility for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

"If false public statements are to satisfy the constitutional standard for impeachment, it is difficult to conceive of a single presidency in the last century that would not have been subject to potential impeachment proceedings," the lawyers wrote.

As to the White House's assertion of executive and lawyer-client privilege, the lawyers offered some glimpse of what they said the president wished to keep secret. According to the report, White House attorneys met with Starr's deputies in the early days of the Lewinsky scandal last January to negotiate what matters could be off-limits for questioning of White House aides. But Starr refused to grant protection for any areas.

At that time, the lawyers said, the White House was being deluged by press inquiries. Aides were debating whether the president should mention the scandal during his State of the Union address. And Clinton was trying to assure foreign heads of state that the leadership of the country would remain stable.

"None of this information was critical to [Starr's] understanding of the president's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky or any of the factual allegations it was investigating," the report states.

And from the beginning, the White House viewed impeachment "as an imminent possibility."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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