Senate gets a tutorial on the law; Perjury, obstruction charges are focus of House Republicans; Rehnquist makes a ruling; White House lawyer says that managers rehash rejected article


WASHINGTON -- A parade of House prosecutors staged a four-hour tutorial yesterday on the laws of perjury and obstruction of justice, hoping to persuade 100 silent senators that the offenses committed by President Clinton were grave enough to merit his removal from office.

In a sometimes repetitive proceeding, four House Republicans insisted that the evidence against the president overwhelmingly proves the two articles of impeachment approved by the House in December.

The prosecutors went on to argue that the evidence is so weighty that it shows Clinton guilty also of some charges the House did not approve or even consider, such as witness tampering or perjury in his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit.

"When you finish hearing and weighing all of the evidence, you'll conclude that William Jefferson Clinton committed the crimes of obstruction of justice, witness tampering and perjury, that these in this case are high crimes and misdemeanors, that he has done grave damage to our system of justice, and leaving him in office would do more," Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida concluded.

And as they did when they opened their case Thursday, the prosecutors implored senators to allow them to call witnesses to the trial if any doubts about the president's guilt or innocence persist.

"Let's examine Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie and the other key witnesses," McCollum said. "Invite the president to come. Judge for yourself their credibility."

The Republican presentation provoked clashes with both the White House and Democratic senators. After the trial was adjourned for the day, Gregory B. Craig, the White House special counsel, protested that prosecutors had "returned again and again to the president's deposition in the Jones case despite the fact that a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives specifically considered and specifically rejected an article of impeachment based on that case."

Craig also denounced the push for witnesses as an effort "to expand and extend this proceeding for one reason: They do not have a case based on the facts, on the law, on the Constitution or on the voluminous record for overturning the election and removing the president of the United States."

The other clash came after another prosecutor, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, repeatedly referred to the senators as "jurors." In the first challenge to the proceedings, Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat from Iowa, rose to object, saying history suggests that senators serve more as judges than as jurors in impeachment trials.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist quickly and decisively ruled in Harkin's favor, setting off a flurry of debate on how to interpret the ruling. Harkin chose the most expansive interpretation, saying Rehnquist had, in effect, granted permission to senators to decide the case based not solely on the facts and the law, but also on what Harkin called "the public good."

Such an interpretation would give Democrats cover for voting against conviction, even if they believed the House had proved that Clinton perjured himself and obstructed justice. Democrats could contend that it was in the nation's best interest to keep the president in office.

"It was a very significant ruling and one which I believe is going to set a very good precedent not only for this trial but for impeachment trials in the future," said Harkin, who has already called the House's case a "pile of dung."

House prosecutors dismissed the ruling as largely semantic, taking aim instead at Harkin. "He was just trying to disrupt the presentation," McCollum said. "He's been very harsh."

Day 2 of the House presentation promised to be the most tedious of the prosecution's three-day opening statement, as House Republicans set out to explain in copious detail just why Clinton's actions to hide his affair with Lewinsky fit the statutory definitions of federal crimes. And it lived up to its billing.

"While today's discussion of the law may not be as captivating as yesterday's discussion of the facts," conceded Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, "it is nevertheless essential that we thoroughly review the law as we move forward in this historic process."

Prosecutors did their job in explaining the law, but they also could not stop themselves from repeating the facts of the case again and again.

"I questioned the need for the repetitiveness," said Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a conservative Republican.

And prosecutors may have had their share of slips. As McCollum summed up the case for a perjury conviction, he strayed from his prepared text to highlight what he called "the question that is the compelling bottom-line crime."

That question, posed by a deputy of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr during Clinton's grand jury deposition, was whether the president touched Lewinsky's breasts and genitalia -- hardly the point on which Republicans wanted to hang their entire case.

"In her sworn testimony, Ms. Lewinsky described nine incidents of sexual activity in which the president touched and kissed her breasts and four incidents involving contacts with her genitalia," McCollum said, explaining, "This is where he perjured himself above all else."

Rep. George W. Gekas, a Pennsylvania Republican, portrayed the president's wrongdoing as an insidious conspiracy to deny Jones her inalienable civil rights by preventing her lawyers from learning that Clinton had had a sexual relationship with a subordinate, Lewinsky.

"If someone, a member of your family, had a serious case in which one's self, one's property, one's family has been severely damaged, would you suffer without a whimper perjurious testimony which you know has caused you to lose your chance at retribution?" Gekas asked.

But in the Jones case, Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled that Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky was not central to the core issues of her case, and she ultimately dismissed Jones' lawsuit.

Still, the rhetoric on the Senate floor was stinging.

"Perjury is here," Barr concluded. "Obstruction is here, in the facts and the law, which formed the basis for the articles of impeachment in the House and which we believe properly would form the basis for a conviction in the Senate.

"We respectfully ask you to strike down these insidious cancers that eat at the heart of our system of government and laws."

Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, dismissed the House's case as an interminable rehash of allegations that most Americans have long since decided do not warrant removal from office. And Lockhart continued to decry the prosecutors' push to call witnesses.

"Everything they presented has been presented before," Lockhart said. "I think the excessive desire to call witnesses demonstrates an admission of a fundamental weakness in the case."

Indeed, the real action took place outside the somber Senate chamber, as White House and congressional leaders jockeyed on issues ranging from the president's plan to go ahead with his State of the Union address Tuesday night to the calling of witnesses, possibly including the president.

Yesterday, Clinton again tried to remain above the fray, addressing an international forum on reinventing government, then jetting to New York to make another budget proposal, this time requesting tax credits and other measures aimed at spurring $15 billion in investments in poor inner-city and rural areas.

After receiving a glowing introduction on Wall Street, Clinton joked: "Those are the kind of things people say for your funeral. I don't think we're there yet."

Posturing aside, the president and his top aides are paying close attention to the drama unfolding on Capitol Hill.

"No one's going to believe the president is not paying any attention to this; that's simply not credible," said one Clinton legal adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's compartmentalization, and then there's psychotic denial."

Clinton was briefed Thursday night by his lawyers about the case against him, and Lockhart conceded yesterday that presidential aides had approached congressional leaders, asking whether Clinton's lawyers could delay opening their defense until Wednesday to allow the State of the Union address to go forward without distractions. Some members of both parties have suggested that the speech be postponed while the trial proceeds.

Hill leaders ultimately turned the White House down, guaranteeing a remarkable spectacle next week. Trial proceedings will begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday, then will recess at 8: 30 p.m. to allow senators to attend the president's address in the House chamber, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott announced at the beginning of yesterday's proceedings.

Meanwhile, House prosecutors laid the groundwork for calling witnesses to the Senate, against the wishes of most Senate Democrats. But a witness list that once included at least a dozen names will likely be pared back considerably. Rep. Ed Bryant, a Tennessee Republican, said his fellow House prosecutors would be interested in calling "three to eight" witnesses.

"It's the usual people," he said. "No surprises."

White House legal advisers have become concerned about the prosecutors' push for witnesses. Two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote for the president's removal from office. Presidential aides are confident that considerably more than 33 senators would vote against Clinton's conviction. White House advisers have been heartened that prosecutors have introduced no new evidence to the record compiled by Starr.

But witnesses would add an unpredictable wild card to those calculations.

"It concerns me -- this determination to make calling of witnesses such an issue, because that will change everything," said Alan Baron, a Democratic lawyer and informal White House legal adviser. "There's no such thing as sitting pretty in a trial. Trials are volatile by nature."

It appeared last night that one witness would not be called: Clinton. Senate Democrats vociferously objected to summoning the president, saying it was tantamount to forcing him to prove his innocence against a presumption of guilt. Some Republicans -- conservatives and moderates alike -- expressed their opposition as well.

"I'm not enthusiastic about the president coming up," said moderate Republican Sen. John H. Chafee. "I think that presents all sorts of problems."

Said Bennett: "I see no value in having the president come because if he did come, he would just repeat the same kind of tortured evasions he said before."

At the trial today

* 10 a.m.: Senate "court of impeachment" resumes with third and last scheduled day of House prosecutors' presentation of evidence against President Clinton. * Three Republican members of the House -- Reps. Charles T. Canady of Florida, Steve Buyer of Indiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- will discuss constitutional issues raised by the two articles of impeachment and analyze court precedents bearing on those issues. * The session is expected to finish by 3: 30 p.m., with brief recesses likely. * he impeachment trial then will be in recess until 1 p.m. Tuesday, for the beginning of the president's defense.

Staff national writers Karen Hosler and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad