WASHINGTON -- With 100 senators sitting in silent attention, House prosecutors opened their case yesterday against William Jefferson Clinton, charging that he had "piled perjury upon perjury," engaged in a "multifacted scheme to obstruct justice" and should be removed from the office of the presidency.
"Failure to bring President Clinton to account for his serial lying under oath and preventing the courts from administering equal justice under law will cause a cancer to be present in our society for generations," intoned Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, as the second presidential impeachment trial in history began in earnest.
"When a cancer exists in the body politic, our job, our duty, is to excise it."
Thirteen Republican prosecutors drawn from the House of Representatives launched into their case, struggling against long odds to persuade the necessary 67 senators to remove an elected president from office for the first time. Combining lofty, sometimes scathing rhetoric with a methodical presentation of the evidence, the House members held forth for nearly six hours, trying to inflict significant damage on a president who has withstood the storm of scandal for a year.
Republican leaders pressed the case last night that the president should testify before the Senate, trying to pressure Clinton to abandon his strategy of appearing above the impeachment proceedings. White House aides have stated emphatically that the president will not do so.
'Clear it up now'
"If the president wants to clear himself with history, he should come testify. If he just wants to walk away from this, he should clear it up now," said Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.
Said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah: "I do think if the president refused that it would be a tough political problem for him."
Yesterday's presentation was crucial for House prosecutors if they are to maintain that pressure. Most of the House presentation today and tomorrow will be consumed in constitutional arguments over whether the president's conduct warrants removal, and then summations. Clinton's defense will follow, beginning Tuesday.
If the evidence laid out yesterday did not persuade two-thirds of the Senate to convict, House prosecutors must ultimately prevail on the senators to extend the trial by allowing them to call witnesses.
"It's a make-or-break day for us," said Steve Susans, a spokesman for Rep. Ed Bryant, a Tennessee Republican who was among those who spoke yesterday.
They may well have scored some points. Stevens said the prosecutors did "a tremendous job of connecting the dots." Even Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a liberal Democrat, declared himself impressed.
But so far, no Senate Democrat appears ready to vote to convict. At least 12 would have cross party lines to remove the president.
"They threw facts at the Senate and obscure legal arguments, but they never addressed the key question: What is the threshold of an impeachable offense?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who as a House member voted against impeachment in December. "What I am looking for to change the views of people is new facts."
Prosecutors tried yesterday not only to lay out their case for Clinton's removal, but also to persuade senators to allow them to call live witnesses to help make that case. They were treading a delicate line between contending that they were making a convincing case for conviction while also saying that they need to call witnesses to bolster that case.
And they appealed directly to the silent jurors' sense of history.
"Members of the Senate, what you do over the next few weeks will forever affect the meaning of those two words, 'I do.' You are now stewards of the oath," declared Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the prosecution team's leader, referring to the president's pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
By now, the evidence is familiar to most Americans and the Senate jurors. House prosecutors had hinted that they would lace their presentation with "nuggets" of new revelations, but none emerged. At times, the prosecutors appeared uncomfortable as they stumbled through their presentation.
But as Rep. Asa Hutchinson compellingly presented the charges of obstruction of justice against his fellow Arkansan, fidgeting jurors moved to the edge of their seats, furiously jotted down notes and appeared transfixed. Hutchinson presented a damaging, if circumstantial, case that once Monica Lewinsky's name appeared on the witness list for Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit on Dec. 5, 1997, "the wheels of obstruction started rolling."
"And they did not stop until the president successfully blocked the facts from coming out in a federal civil rights case," Hutchinson said.
Clinton's friend and confidant Vernon Jordan had been enlisted to find Lewinsky a job in New York even before she became a witness in the Jones case. But prosecutors contend that this effort shifted into high gear once Lewinsky appeared on the witness list. At the same time, Hutchinson said, Jordan and Clinton were scrambling to persuade Lewinsky to sign an affidavit denying a sexual relationship with the president.
On Dec. 19, 1997, Lewinsky received a subpoena from Jones' lawyers. That day, according to testimony before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, she met with Jordan to tell him to inform the president of the subpoena. That night, Jordan went to the White House to meet the president.
"I knew the president was concerned about the affidavit and whether or not it was signed," Jordan told the grand jury.
On Jan. 6, 1998, Lewinsky's attorney, Frank Carter, presented his client with a draft of an affidavit denying a sexual relationship with Clinton.
Lewinsky then went to New York for a job interview with the parent company of Revlon, an interview arranged by Jordan. On Jan. 8, 1998, Lewinsky called Jordan to tell him the interview had not gone well. Jordan called Ron Perelman, the corporation's chief executive, to "make things happen."
"What happened? Things happened," Hutchinson said. "Monica Lewinsky got a job. The affidavit was signed, and Vernon Jordan declared, 'Mission accomplished.' "
Rep. James E. Rogan's presentation of the perjury case was less smooth, and at times seemed more provocative then methodical. The California Republican laced his presentation with the words "ridiculous," "deceptive," "ludicrous" and "callous" to bolster House arguments that Clinton lied under oath in his testimony Aug. 17 before Starr's grand jury, likening the president's explanations of his testimony to a murderer's false alibi.
In grand jury testimony, the president said he regretted "that what began as a friendship came to include this conduct."
Rogan portrayed the statement as perjurious.
"The very day the president met and spoke with a young White House intern for the first time was the day he invited her back to the Oval Office to perform sex acts on him," Rogan said, calling Clinton's statement "a callous and deceptive mischaracterization of how this relationship really began."
Rogan did not mention that it was Lewinsky who first approached Clinton sexually.
The congressman made liberal use of the president's videotaped grand jury testimony, presenting Clinton's own words on large-screen, high-definition televisions, apparently to powerful effect.
"Their use of video was a very effective tool," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
Calls for witnesses
The House prosecutors sprinkled their presentations with pleas to the Senate to allow them to call witnesses, not just Lewinsky, Jordan, the president and his secretary, Betty Currie, but numerous White House aides, and even someone who could draw a map of the room in which Clinton was deposed by Jones' lawyers last January.
"Can you convict the president of the United States without hearing personally the testimony of key witnesses?" Hutchinson asked, his voice rising. "Can you dismiss the charges under this strong set of facts without hearing and evaluating the credibility of key witnesses?"
Representative Bryant said the prosecutors' appeal for witnesses was a gesture of fairness to the White House.
"Unless and until the president has the ability to confront witnesses like Ms. Lewinsky, there cannot be any reasonable doubt of his guilt based on these facts," Bryant told Senate jurors.
But when pressed, prosecutors conceded that they have little chance of obtaining a conviction without witnesses to buttress their presentation.
"It would be very, very difficult," Rogan said after the trial was recessed. "I don't see how we can win the case."
Such appeals could bring into the open the partisanship hidden just below the placid surface of the Senate.
The White House has done its best to call attention to the partisan tones. Even as prosecutors were presenting their case, James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, dismissed the case as "both unsubstantial and circumstantial."
"We look forward to presenting our defense based on the facts, the law and the Constitution," he said.
At the White House, Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, accused House prosecutors of making a case so partisan "it isn't on the level."
"I don't think the founders intended [that] a party that is in the majority in the Congress could remove a president at their whim based on partisan political differences," he said.
Squabble over witnesses
The day began with party-line grumbling over a meeting Wednesday between Republican senators and some of the House prosecutors to discuss the prospect of calling witnesses.
The session had been called by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who, a spokesman said, was trying to reach out to both sides to lay the groundwork for possible witnesses.
But Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota rejected Democratic participation in the meeting, saying he believed it violated the spirit of the bipartisan agreement last week to put off a decision on whether witnesses will be allowed. White House lawyers, following Daschle's cue, also declined the invitation to participate.
Daschle, the White House and most Democratic senators oppose the calling of witnesses and hope that enough Republicans will join them when a vote on witnesses is taken after both sides finish presenting their cases.
Democrats said the meeting between Republican senators and House prosecutors made it appear that a decision to call witnesses has already been made.
At the trial today
1 p.m.: Senate "court of impeachment" resumes for second of three scheduled days of House prosecutors' presentation of evidence against President Clinton. Unless interrupted by objections from the president's lawyers, the trial will be confined to five or six hours of presentations by five prosecutors. Brief recesses are likely. This is the probable schedule, concluding by 7 p.m.:
* Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida seeks to tie together the facts outlined by prosecutors yesterday and lay out a factual summary to support the two articles of impeachment.
* Reps. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, Steve Chabot of Ohio, Bob Barr of Georgia and Chris Cannon of Utah -- explain the law on perjury and obstruction of justice and how it relates to the two articles; House prosecutors will argue that Clinton's conduct was "egregious and criminal."
No briefs or other document filings are expected.
Pub Date: 1/15/99