The nuts and bolts of impeachment case and Clinton's defense; Partisan bombast has overshadowed specifics behind charges


WASHINGTON -- The names of the players are all too well-known. The charges of perjury and obstruction of justice may have a familiar ring.

But when White House spokesman Joe Lockhart complained last week that the details of President Clinton's defense had received scant public attention, he had a point: The nuts and bolts of the case against William Jefferson Clinton remain a mystery to most Americans, obscured by partisan politics and buried by the fast-moving developments of a scandal that has twisted and turned for an entire year.

The basics of the case have changed little since September, when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his impeachment report to Congress.

But as the charges filtered through the House last year, Republicans added new counts, stripped away others -- and may have made the case more difficult to try before the Senate.

Still, said Douglas Kmieck, a conservative Pepperdine University constitutional law professor, "It's the same case. It's the same evidence.

"No matter how many ways you rephrase it or restructure it, you still have to make a basic assessment of whether the lies or falsehoods the president told to the grand jury are serious enough to merit his removal from office."

The House approved two articles of impeachment, charging Clinton with perjury before the federal grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky matter and withobstructing justice to hide his affair with the former White House intern.

But House members rejected the article charging that Clinton abused the power of his office.

More important, they rejected the article of impeachment charging that Clinton lied under oath in a deposition taken last Jan. 17 in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct lawsuit. That significantly complicated the case before the Senate.

Much of the obstruction charge stems from alleged efforts by the president to persuade Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Jones case, to hide the president's gifts from the Jones lawyers and to find Lewinsky a job before she was discovered by the Jones legal team.

But the Jones suit is now only indirectly related to the case before the Senate. Moreover, many of the alleged instances of perjury before the grand jury were Clinton's vague references to his deposition.

Starr took the case to the grand jury only because he believed Clinton had lied and encouraged others to lie in his deposition.

And Starr's clearest examples of lying -- such as the president's denial of ever being alone with Lewinsky -- came only in the deposition. Clinton told the Jones lawyers he "never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky" and "never had an affair with her."

An easier case

House prosecutors would have an easier time making a perjury case on that than on Clinton's grand jury statement that he "engaged in conduct that was wrong. These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse. They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined in my Jan. 17, 1998, deposition. But they did involve inappropriate intimate contact."

"The fact that they did not impeach for his civil testimony but did for his grand jury testimony does seem to be problematic," said Suzanna Sherry, a University of Minnesota constitutional law professor who has long questioned the case against the president.

"The grand jury perjury all stems from the possibility that he lied in his deposition. It's a house of cards and they refused to impeach on the bottom card."

Nevertheless, House Republican prosecutors from the Judiciary Committee are confident they can present a strong case for the first removal of a president in the nation's history.

The articles of impeachment are deliberately vague and do not specify exactly which of Clinton's grand jury statements are allegedly false or what exactly the president did to obstruct justice.

But the 406-page impeachment report produced by the Judiciary Committee contains ample detail and will serve as road map of the House's case.

Perjury to grand jury

Starr's report contained only three allegations of grand jury perjury, charging that Clinton lied under oath Aug. 17 when he said his relationship with Lewinsky began in early 1996, not November 1995, as Lewinsky maintains; when he said he believed he was accurate in the Jones deposition; and when he said he did not touch Lewinsky's breasts or genitals "with an intent to arouse or gratify."

Committee Republicans cited those and at least nine other instances where they say Clinton lied under oath.

Some of the additional perjury counts seem somewhat trivial, such as charging Clinton with lying for testifying that he had been alone with Lewinsky on "certain occasions" and "had occasional telephone conversations with Lewinsky that included sexual banter."

Republicans contend the president was intentionally downplaying the number of interactions.

" 'Occasional' sounds like once every four months or so, doesn't it?" said Judiciary Committee Chief Counsel David Schippers.

When the president told Starr's prosecutors that his goal in the Jones deposition "was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful," Republicans decided that too was a lie under oath.

"The president did not believe that he had given truthful answers," the committee's report asserts.

Likewise, the committee found perjury in Clinton's statement at the beginning of his grand jury testimony that he "will answer each question as accurately and fully as I can."

The report snaps back: "The president did not answer each question as accurately and fully as he could have."

Not paying attention

The committee also said Clinton committed perjury when answering questions about an episode during the Jan. 17 Jones deposition when his lawyer Robert S. Bennett stated, "There is no sex of any kind, in any manner, shape and form" between Clinton and Lewinsky.

Clinton told the grand jury he was "not paying a great deal of attention" when Bennett made that statement, an assertion that committee Republicans called a lie, based on a videotape that shows Clinton watching Bennett as he made the statement.

Other new perjury charges appear more serious, and they flow directly into the obstruction of justice charge.

According to the committee, Clinton lied under oath when he said he did not want Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Jones case; when he testified that he "was trying to figure out what the facts were," not trying to influence her testimony, when he asked his secretary, Betty Currie, a series of pointed questions about Lewinsky after his deposition; and when he testified he "did not want to mislead [his] friends" when he told his aides he had rebuffed sexual demands made on him by Lewinsky.

Taken together, the perjury article amounts to "a solid count," Pepperdine's Kmieck concluded. "It's reasonable to contemplate a conviction could be attained."

But Democratic lawyers and the president's allies said the House's additional charges do not bolster the perjury case but only show how desperate Republicans are to bolster the three weak charges leveled by Starr.

Starr is no friend of the president's, they say, and if Starr did not find those other statements perjurious, it is ridiculous for House Republicans to say they were.

"The more I read, the more I realize how incredibly weak these counts are," said Lanny Davis, a former White House lawyer and informal legal adviser to Clinton.

Democrats say there is no way to prove the president's state of mind when he testified that he "believed" he had been accurate in denying he had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky as he understood the term, and they said the White House can present ample evidence that Clinton was confused by the Jones lawyers' contorted definition of "sexual relations."

Even the judge in the Jones case, Susan Webber Wright, said at the time of his deposition, "I'm not sure Mr. Clinton knows all these definitions anyway."

Rather take a whipping

Clinton testified that he thought sexual relations meant intercourse, and he testified that under his understanding of the definition, he had to tell Jones' lawyers he had sexual relations with Gennifer Flowers, something he said he "would rather have taken a whipping than done."

The most direct conflict involves what parts of Lewinsky's body Clinton may have touched and why, a classic "he said, she said," Democratic lawyers said.

White House lawyers could undermine Lewinsky's contention by noting any number of Lewinsky statements that Starr found false. For instance, Lewinsky told friends the Secret Service had smuggled Clinton to her apartment for sex, a claim Starr dismissed.

She said she had sex with the president fully unclothed in the Oval Office, a statement she later denied. And she told a job interviewer that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had lunch with her and promised to help her find an apartment in New York, a statement the interviewer, Nancy Ridson, testified "strained credulity."

Moreover, Democrats say Lewinsky had a motive to lie about the nature of her relationship with the president: humiliation. She has said Clinton's contention that he did not reciprocate her sexual favors reduced their relationship to a "service contract."

Obstruction of justice

But undermining Lewinsky's credibility would present a serious problem for the Clinton team in defending the second impeachment article, obstruction of justice. After all, the defense's trump card is Lewinsky's simple, declarative, unsolicited statement to the grand jury: "No one ever asked me to lie, and I was never promised a job for my silence."

Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, asked Starr last year, "How are you picking and choosing what you believe from Ms. Lewinsky?"

If the White House impugns Lewinsky's veracity in the perjury count, then invokes her statement in the obstruction count, Republicans could ask the same question of Democrats.

On Thursday, the White House's Lockhart appeared to rule out the strategy, saying, "We have in this building for a year now not attacked Monica Lewinsky. I can't imagine we'd start now."

The obstruction article breaks down to seven charges:

* Clinton pressured Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Jones case, in a conversation on Dec. 17, 1997, when, according to Lewinsky, he suggested an affidavit could head off a full-blown deposition. Lewinsky said Clinton mentioned that an affidavit "could range anywhere between just somehow mentioning innocuous things or going as far as maybe having to deny any kind of relationship."

* Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie under oath by helping concoct "cover stories" to conceal their relationship. "This is a kind of relationship that you keep quiet, and we both wanted to be careful in the White House," Lewinsky told Starr's grand jury.

* Clinton conspired to conceal gifts he had given to Lewinsky after Jones' attorneys had subpoenaed the gifts as evidence in Jones' lawsuit. At a meeting on Dec. 28, 1997, Lewinsky testified that she had mentioned the gifts to the president. A few hours later, Lewinsky said, Currie called her and said, " 'I understand you have something to give me,' or 'the president said you have something to give me.' "

* Clinton and his allies intensified a search for a new job for Lewinsky in New York in December 1997 and January 1998 to keep Lewinsky from revealing her relationship to the Jones lawyers. According to the independent counsel, Lewinsky told Starr's investigators that Clinton had said "that if Lewinsky was in New York the Jones lawyers might not call; that the sooner Lewinsky moved, the better."

* Clinton "corruptly" allowed his lawyer in the Jones case, Bennett, to falsely tell a federal judge "there is no sex of any kind" between the president and Lewinsky.

* Clinton illegally tried to influence the possible testimony of Currie after his deposition, when he fired off a barrage of leading questions to his secretary: "You were always there when [Lewinsky] was there, right? We were never alone"; "You could see and hear everything"; "Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?" "She wanted to have sex with me and I couldn't do that."

* And finally, Clinton lied to aides and Cabinet members, expecting them to repeat the lies to the Starr grand jury.

For House prosecutors, the problem with all their charges is that not even the prime witnesses have testified that Clinton was trying to influence them improperly. Indeed, in most instances, the witnesses appear to directly contradict the House's assertions.

"This is an obstruction case in which the Republicans are asking everyone to believe the exact opposite of what all the witnesses are saying," said Abbe D. Lowell, the Democrats' chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.

Lewinsky told the Starr grand jury that no one had asked her to lie or promised her a job. Even the committee had to concede that her job search had begun in October 1997, long before the Jones lawyers knew of her existence.

Conflicting testimony

Currie testified that it was Lewinsky, not Clinton, who suggested she pick up the gifts. When Lewinsky asked the president what to do with the gifts, he replied, "I don't know," or "let me think about it," Currie said. And the day the gifts were retrieved, Dec. 28, 1997, Clinton gave Lewinsky more gifts.

As for influencing Currie's testimony, at the time, the president's secretary was not on the Jones lawyers' witness list, and Democrats say there was no sign she was ever to be questioned by Jones' lawyers. And Currie testified that she felt no pressure to agree to her boss's pointed questions.

Republican lawyers say that conflicting testimony is precisely why House prosecutors want -- indeed, need -- to call witnesses. Currie and Lewinsky are not likely to change their stories, lawyers concede, but senators could decide for themselves whether those stories ring true if they can see the witnesses recount them.

"Here's where witnesses can make the case," Kmieck said, calling the House obstruction case "fair to good."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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