WASHINGTON -- Charging toward a showdown on the Senate floor, the White House formally responded yesterday to the House articles of impeachment, contending that they are unconstitutionally vague, illegally worded and completely false.
But the president's lawyers declined to file motions that might have delayed the start of opening arguments, scheduled for Thursday.
"We believe the public has had enough of this," said Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman. "We're at the final stage of this process, and we can do it two ways: We can do it fairly and expeditiously, or we can do it fairly in a process that's open-ended and takes months and months."
The 13 House Republicans who are serving as prosecutors filed their own sharply worded trial brief yesterday, contending that "the president's misconduct has been devastating" and has undermined "the integrity and credibility of the office of the president" and "the honor and integrity of the United States."
The articles, if proved, warrant "the conviction and removal from office of President William Jefferson Clinton," the House trial memorandum concluded.
If Clinton is not convicted, the prosecutors argued, "then no House of Representatives will ever be able to impeach again and no Senate will ever convict. The bar will be so high that only a convicted felon or a traitor will need to be concerned."
The prosecutors' brief, which largely reflects evidence introduced in the House, represents the crux of the case for Clinton's removal from office and a road map for their arguments in the coming trial.
Though the arguments against Clinton are familiar, there might be surprises. For example, the prosecutors' brief alleges that Clinton "orchestrated a campaign to discredit" Monica Lewinsky, an accusation not contained in the articles of impeachment.
One of the prosecutors, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, told reporters yesterday that Thursday's opening statements would be "action-packed."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the leader of the 13 prosecutors, said: "I am very satisfied that we've been given adequate time to make our case, we've been given flexibility on how to make our case."
White House response
The 11 lawyers who drafted Clinton's impeachment response -- five from the White House and six from the president's private legal team -- were equally blunt. They wrote that the president "denies each and every material allegation" in the two articles of impeachment, both of which are "constitutionally defective" and "unconstitutionally vague."
The articles charge Clinton with perjury in his Aug. 17 appearance before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury and with obstruction of justice in his efforts to hide his relationship with Lewinsky.
"The charges in the articles do not rise to the level of 'high crimes and misdemeanors' as contemplated by the Founding Fathers, and they do not satisfy the rigorous constitutional standard applied throughout our nation's history," White House lawyers wrote. "Accordingly, the articles of impeachment should be dismissed."
The president's lawyers had several options they could have pursued by a deadline of 5 p.m. yesterday, including filing a motion to dismiss the case, demanding that prosecutors detail the charges, asking that the charges within each article of impeachment be broken down into separate counts, or challenging whether the president's impeachment by a lame-duck House is legally valid now that a new Congress has taken office.
The Clinton lawyers chose to avoid any such procedural wrangling at this point, fearing it might anger Senate Democrats who had hammered out an agreement Friday with Republicans to proceed with opening arguments.
"We have good and clever lawyers," Lockhart said. "I'm sure they could have come up with 15 to 20 constitutional arguments that could have tied up this process for weeks and months. But we think we should move forward expeditiously. It's in everyone's interest."
White House aides did not preclude such maneuvering in the future. House prosecutors will have 24 hours, spread over several days, to make the case for Clinton's conviction and removal from office, a fate that has never befallen an American president.
Clinton's lawyers would then have the same amount of time to present the defense, followed by 16 hours of questioning from the senators, who are serving as jurors. Then the Senate will vote on whether to dismiss the case or call witnesses and proceed.
If, as expected, neither side consumes all the time allotted, a vote on dismissal could arrive by the end of next week.
If the case is not dismissed, White House lawyers are expected to file several procedural motions, such as demanding more detail about the charges facing the president. They are also likely to request time to question potential witnesses, examine evidence in the prosecutors' possession and prepare a lengthy defense.
"We've got the rules for the trial now, and we're going to win under those rules," a senior White House aide said yesterday on condition of anonymity.
The White House response "really explodes some of the myths" at the heart of the charges against the president, Lockhart said. The first "myth" is that when he appeared before Starr's federal grand jury, the president failed to admit that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton, in fact, did testify that his relationship with Lewinsky involved "inappropriate intimate conduct."
Deposition at issue
But, House prosecutors note, Clinton also testified that he believed he had been "truthful" in his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit, when he testified that he had "never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky."
White House lawyers argued that the deposition should not be an issue in the Senate trial, since the House failed to approve an article of impeachment charging Clinton with perjury in the Jones case.
"The House managers should not be allowed to prosecute before the Senate an article of impeachment which the full House has rejected," the response argues.
But House managers say they can and will bring in the deposition, since Clinton testified to its truthfulness before the grand jury. The House trial brief indicates that prosecutors will raise the deposition as evidence of both perjury and obstruction of justice.
"When the president testified in front of the grand jury, the biggest falsehood of all was that he told the truth in the Jones case," said Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, one of the prosecutors.
And that leads White House lawyers to what they called Myth No. 2: that the president repeated to the grand jury the testimony he had given in the Jones deposition. The president's lawyers maintain that Clinton testified to the grand jury only that he "believed" he had been accurate in his Jones testimony, based on his understanding of a complex definition of sexual relations used in the Jones case.
"The president was not asked to and did not broadly restate or reaffirm his Jones deposition testimony," the lawyers argued.
That argument, coupled with the assertion that prosecutors should not be allowed to discuss the Jones deposition, appears to amount to an admission that Clinton did lie to Jones' lawyers -- an admission that the president has never made. But Lockhart repeated yesterday that the president does not believe that he lied under oath in the Jones deposition or before the grand jury.
White House lawyers did make two procedural arguments for eventual acquittal or a dismissal of the case. Both articles of impeachment, they said, were so vague that "no reasonable person could know what specific charges are being leveled against the president."
The perjury article, for instance, alleges that Clinton lied about "the nature and details" of his relationship with Lewinsky; about prior perjurious statements in the Jones deposition; about false statements he allowed his personal attorney, Robert Bennett, to make in the Jones case; and about efforts to corrupt the testimony and affidavits of other potential witnesses in the Jones case, such as Lewinsky; the president's secretary, Betty Currie; and a slew of White House aides.
But the articles do not specify which grand jury statements were lies.
"The House has left the Senate and the president to guess at what it had in mind," Clinton's lawyers wrote.
House prosecutors, in their trial brief, outlined eight alleged instances of perjury and 11 of obstruction, promising that the details would unfold in arguments this week.
But that, too, is unfair, White House lawyers contend. By lumping multiple charges into each impeachment article, the House is presenting the Senate with a problem: Conceivably, White House lawyers said, 17 senators could conclude that Clinton lied in one instance. Another 17 could see a lie elsewhere. Another 17 could see a lie in some other charge. And another 17 could find falsehood elsewhere. Together, that would be enough -- 68 senators -- to convict.
"This creates the very real possibility that conviction could occur even though senators were in wide disagreement as to the alleged wrong committed," the Clinton lawyers concluded.
Viewed as a whole
House prosecutors say senators must consider all the evidence cumulatively to grasp the true picture of Clinton's misdeeds. The evidence on each individual charge may at times seem thin, they said, but as a whole, it paints a "sinister" picture.
"The evidence and testimony must be viewed as a whole; it cannot be compartmentalized," prosecutors wrote. "Events and words that may seem innocent or even exculpatory in a vacuum may well take on a sinister, or even criminal connotation when observed in the context of the whole plot."
'Not about sex'
House prosecutors sounded just as confident as the White House, writing in their trial brief that the evidence in the record "overwhelmingly supports both charges."
"This case is not about sex or private conduct," the prosecutors wrote. "It is about multiple obstructions of justice, perjury, false and misleading statements, and witness tampering -- all committed or orchestrated by the president of the United States."
Pub Date: 1/12/99