WASHINGTON -- Summing up their case with a withering attack on President Clinton, House prosecutors implored senators yesterday to "cleanse" the White House of a man who has made himself "a notorious example of lawlessness" -- or risk leaving the presidency "permanently damaged."
"You have got to put him back in bounds," Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said of the president. "Remove him."
For three days, 13 House members -- serving as prosecutors in the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history -- have tried to chip away at the president's support. After laying out the evidence that Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice, they turned yesterday to perhaps the critical issue: whether his efforts to hide his relationship with Monica Lewinsky constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors" and warrant the removal of a president for the first time.
In an impassioned appeal, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and leader of the prosecution team, hinted that if a considerable number of senators see Clinton as unfit for office, the rest of the body should be impelled to remove him. Hyde appeared to be responding to Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's suggestion that Clinton should be left in office "for the good of the country" -- even if he did lie under oath and obstruct justice.
"If on impeachment, a president is not convicted and removed from office despite the fact that numerous senators are convinced that he has egregiously failed the test of his oath of office, violated the trust of the American people and dishonored the office, then the office of the presidency has been deeply and perhaps permanently damaged," Hyde concluded.
For the president, it was a stinging finale, leaving House Republicans perhaps at the high-water mark of their drive to remove Clinton from office.
Nevertheless, the Republican prosecutors apparently made little headway. They had hoped to sway some Democrats to publicly embrace Clinton's removal, thus giving their case much-needed momentum.
Instead, a Republican, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, indicated yesterday that he might vote to dismiss the case altogether, citing the "bad precedent" senators could set if they remove Clinton from office for "the terrible things and the stupid things" he did to protect himself from the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit.
The president's lawyers will begin to present on Tuesday what White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig promised to be "a strong, vigorous defense based on the facts, the law and the Constitution."
But they will begin with some stark disadvantages. They must first repair the damage wrought by three days of unanswered attacks, and they must compete for attention with the president himself -- who has insisted on going forward with his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Still, Clinton's team has the largest advantage: Removing Clinton from office will take at least 67 votes, including no fewer than a dozen Democrats. And Democrats appeared to remain in Clinton's camp.
"What the president did, odious as it was, did not go to the future functioning of our government," said New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, "and you do not remove a president for that."
After the House concluded its case, Craig expressed confidence that Clinton would prevail, dismissing the House accusations as "an unsubstantiated, circumstantial case that does not meet the constitutional standard to remove the president."
"The 13 House Republican prosecutors had the constitutional burden to prove their case," Craig said. "After three uninterrupted days of presenting that case, they have failed to meet that burden." But House prosecutors expressed confidence that they had succeeded.
After the conclusion of their presentation, the prosecutors met for a half hour to discuss calling witnesses. They emerged without deciding which, if any, to ask the Senate to call. Prosecutors said they still may decide to request the president's appearance but expressed less eagerness to do so than they had earlier in the week.
"We did have discussions about whether to ask the Senate to invite the president," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican. "We need to wait. We've made no conclusion on it. I believe it's the Senate's decision. If they call him, we would welcome the opportunity to question him. That's still in discussion."
Focus on precedent
Yesterday's House presentation may have been the strongest of the three days, because it homed in on the Senate's precedent for ousting federal officeholders. Graham compared Clinton's case to the removal from office of three federal judges during the 1980s, Harry E. Claiborne, Walter Nixon and Alcee Hastings.
Claiborne was removed for filing a false income tax return under penalty of perjury. Hastings was removed for allegedly conspiring to fix cases in his own court, then lying about it under oath, charges of which a criminal court acquitted him. And Nixon was removed for lying before a federal grand jury about efforts to fix a court case for a business partner's son.
"If a federal judge can be thrown out of office for lying and trying to fix a friend's son's case, can the president of the United States be removed from office for trying to fix his case?" Graham asked, referring to Clinton's efforts to hide the Lewinsky affair from Paula Jones' attorneys. "That's not a scholarly word, but that's what happened. He tried to fix his case. He turned the judicial system upside-down, every way but loose."
Attacking 'so what' defense
Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, challenged what he called the White House's "so what" defense, asserting "the president's premeditated assault on the administration of justice" constituted "quintessential impeachable offenses."
Buyer rattled off three recent cases in which Americans were convicted of perjury before a grand jury, noting that in 1997, 182 Americans were sentenced in federal court for perjury and 144 were sentenced for obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
"Where is the fairness to these Americans if they stay in jail and the president stays in the Oval Office?" Buyer demanded.
And he asserted that Clinton's actions in the Lewinsky scandal had tattered his standing as commander-in-chief, wrecked his credibility abroad, undermined the cause of civil rights at home and deeply undercut the nation's criminal justice system.
"If he is allowed to escape conviction by the Senate, you would allow the president to set the example for lawlessness. We would allow our president to serve as an example of the erosion of the concept of the social contract embraced and embodied in our Constitution," Buyer concluded. "As you undertake your examination of the facts, the law and your precedents, the Senate must weigh carefully its judgment, for the consequences are deeply profound not for the moment, but for the ages."
But it took Hyde's expansive closing to wrap up the House prosecutors' case, to try to convince the Senate that "the office of the president of the United States has been debased, and the justice system jeopardized," and attempt to persuade at least a simple majority to vote later this month to allow prosecutors to call witnesses and pursue their case.
"No greater harm can come than breaking the covenant of trust between the president and the people, between the three branches of our government and between our country and the world," Hyde said. "For to break that covenant of trust is to dissolve the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice."
Many Republicans appeared convinced. Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared that the House prosecutors had "made an overwhelming case" that Clinton's alleged crimes met the Constitution's impeachment standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.
And Sen. Max Baucus, a moderate Montana Democrat, had to concede that in the uphill battle to prove a removable offense, "they pushed perhaps some of the Senate, and some of the country, up the hill a little farther. There were points made that I had not considered."
But most Democrats were skeptical. Schumer said House prosecutors, especially Florida Republican Charles T. Canady, tried to show that Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice, that in past cases, perjury and obstruction have been deemed serious crimes and that, therefore, Clinton committed serious crimes. But, Schumer said, Democrats are not convinced that Clinton's particular actions are necessarily serious.
After all, they contend, the House impeached Clinton for perjury before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury. Clinton made that grand jury appearance Aug. 17, more than four months after Paula Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit had been dismissed. So, Democrats say, it is difficult for prosecutors to contend that Clinton's grand jury statements interfered with Jones' right to a fair hearing of her case.
Likewise, even if Clinton obstructed justice to prevent Jones from learning about his relationship with Lewinsky, the judge in the Jones suit, Susan Weber Wright, ruled that the presidential dalliance was not central to the point Jones was trying to prove.
"They're trying to say all perjury and obstruction cases are the same, when they're not," Schumer said.
Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl said of the prosecutors: "I don't think they see anything other than black and white. Maybe that's their job. I believe that reality is not black and white. There are all kind of shades."
Sun staff writers Karen Hosler and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/17/99