WASHINGTON -- Winding up a final, impassioned defense of President Clinton in the face of scathing draft articles of impeachment, a White House lawyer conceded yesterday the president "betrayed the trust placed in him" by his family and has already suffered privately and publicly.
Delivering a calm yet forceful defense of Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee, White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff took the administration's recently adopted conciliatory tone step further by describing Clinton's conduct as "reprehensible." And he inched closer to Republican demands for an admission that Clinton lied under oath.
"I have no doubt that he walked up to a line that he thought he understood," Ruff said of the president's testimony before a grand jury and in a civil deposition. "Reasonable people could determine that he crossed over that line and that, what for him was truthful but misleading or nonresponsive and misleading or evasive was, in fact, false."
But Ruff, who was the fourth and final Watergate special prosecutor, said the evasions or falsehoods did not amount to perjury.
"In his mind -- and that's the heart and soul of perjury -- he thought and he believed that what he was doing was being evasive but truthful," he said.
And the White House counsel reiterated the administration's position that the president's conduct, "although morally reprehensible," did not warrant impeachment.
"It does not warrant overturning the mandate of the American electorate," Ruff said. "In order to have committed an impeachable offense, the president must have acted to subvert our system of government. That did not happen."
The polarized Judiciary Committee is expected to begin debate on the impeachment articles late today after closing presentations by the panel's chief Democratic and Republican counsels.
The committee vote, scheduled for the end of this week, is expected to fall along strict party lines, and Ruff's testimony, although heralded by Democrats and Republicans, did not appear to change minds on the panel.
In fact, the majority Republicans, who put the finishing touches on the impeachment articles as Ruff and an earlier panel of witnesses for the White House made eleventh-hour arguments against such a grave step, said nothing could spare the president short of a confession, even if that would lead to an indictment of Clinton once he leaves office.
Committee Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio said Clinton would be much less likely to be impeached "if he was just honest." A confession of illegal actions, he said, "might go to whether he's really sorry for what he did -- that he's willing to put himself in criminal jeopardy."
Once again, the White House presentation was aimed at the 20 to 30 moderate Republicans who have not decided whether to support impeachment and whose votes will be decisive.
Ruff signaled that the White House would welcome some sort of "exit strategy" in the form of a censure resolution.
Asked by the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, whether the White House would be amenable to "some intermediate position," Ruff said: "We are looking for an end to this process. We are open to any reasonable suggestion from any side as a way to find an end to this."
He said he was "absolutely" certain Clinton would agree to reject a pardon for any offense of which he was found guilty.
Earlier in the day, five former federal prosecutors -- including former Republican Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts -- testified on behalf of the White House, telling the committee that the allegations against the president would not be prosecuted under the evidentiary standards of the Department of Justice.
"I am pretty well convinced that adultery, fornication or a false denial of adultery or fornication do not constitute 'high crimes and misdemeanors' within the meaning of the impeachment clause of the United States Constitution," Weld testified. "They're not offenses against the system of government."
Weld floated his idea for a presidential rebuke. "For the dignity of the country, we need something more than censure," he said, although he strongly maintained Clinton should not be impeached.
Weld suggested a harshly worded censure could be coupled with a congressional report detailing Clinton's misconduct, a written acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the president, an agreement by Clinton to pay a substantial fine "to mark the solemnity of the occasion," and an explicit understanding that the president could be prosecuted once he leaves office.
Because the case against Clinton is so weak, Weld maintained, the president has little to fear legally as long as he does not confess to illegal actions.
Weld cautioned Republicans: "If any of you are thinking, we've got to vote yes on impeachment to tarnish the president, he's already tarnished. Nobody's going to forget this stuff."
In 4 1/2 hours of testimony, Ruff finally provided what the %o committee Republicans had been calling for from the White House: a point-by-point analysis of the facts of the case. He rebutted some of the conclusions of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in his report to Congress, saying he hoped to show where "myth appears to have replaced fact."
In attempting to refute Starr's allegations that Clinton committed perjury before the grand jury, Ruff said there was no proof for two of the claims: that Clinton intentionally lied about when his relationship with Monica Lewinsky began, and that his statement about how he defined "sexual relations" was not credible.
Ruff said he would not "drag the committee into the salacious muck" related to the third charge: that Clinton lied when he denied touching Lewinsky in a sexual way, a denial at odds with Lewinsky's vivid and detailed testimony.
"Let each member assume that Ms. Lewinsky's version of the events is correct, and then ask, 'Am I prepared to impeach the president because, after having admitted having engaged in egregiously wrongful conduct, he falsely described the particulars of that conduct?' " Ruff said. " 'Am I prepared to impeach the president for that?' The answer must be no."
Ruff said, too, there was no proof that Clinton and Lewinsky conspired to conceal gifts the president had given her that had been subpoenaed in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct case, noting that Lewinsky gave at least 10 versions of events to Starr.
And the counsel said Starr's charge of abuse of power illustrated the extent to which the independent counsel "sought to paint the blackest picture" of this administration's assertion of executive privilege.
In one example of how he said Starr distorted the evidence, Ruff noted that the independent counsel's report cited a Clinton statement to reporters in which the president said he hadn't discussed with lawyers the assertion of executive privilege. "This was untrue," the Starr report asserted, citing evidence that the president and his lawyer had conferred on the issue.
But Ruff said the report omitted dialogue that showed that the president was actually responding to a specific question about whether the first lady would be covered by the privilege claim.
The daylong proceeding was unusually civil and punctuated by only a single explosive moment.
Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina charged that Clinton "used the full power and force of the White House to go after" Lewinsky and would have "cut her up" and portrayed her as a stalker had she not had the blue dress with evidence of their sexual encounter.
"And that is far more like Watergate than Peyton Place," Graham said. "And I'm going to believe that probably till I die."
After sharp rebukes of Graham by committee Democrats, a scowling Ruff said he "absolutely rejected" that notion that the president authorized any such attack on Lewinsky, and said it was unfair to be "greeted at the end of a long day" with a litany of new charges.
Pub Date: 12/10/98