WASHINGTON -- The chief White House lawyer opened a sober, yet forceful, defense of President Clinton before the Senate yesterday, insisting that the president did not commit any of the offenses charged in the impeachment articles and sharply attacking the Republican case as a "witches' brew" of allegations.
At the start of a three-day presentation, White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff offered an overview of the administration's defense of the president, outlining constitutional arguments against impeachment and disputing some of the facts presented at the Senate trial last week by the 13 House members who are prosecuting the president.
"William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been proffered against him," Ruff said sternly at both the beginning and end of a 2 1/2-hour presentation that came hours before the president delivered his State of the Union address in the House chamber.
"He did not commit perjury. He did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office."
In an understated, methodical defense -- punctuated with biting scorn for the case presented by the GOP House managers last week -- Ruff said the president's prosecutors had cast events in the most sinister light possible and based their charges on "shifting sand castles of speculation."
And, in an argument the White House has made repeatedly, he asserted that, even if the president had committed the offenses he is accused of, those actions would not warrant removing him from office.
"You are free to criticize him, to find his actions distasteful," said Ruff, a highly respected veteran of legal skirmishes within the political arena.
"Whatever your feelings may be about William Clinton, the man, or William Clinton, the political ally or opponent, or William Clinton, the father and the husband, ask only this: 'Should William Clinton, the president, be removed from office? Are we at that horrific moment in our history, when our union can be preserved only by taking the step that the Framers saw as a last resort?' "
Speaking from his wheelchair in the well of the Senate, Ruff delivered his remarks so quietly that senators had to strain in their seats to hear him. The White House presentation continues today and tomorrow with a more detailed analysis of the facts of the case by other Clinton lawyers and, surprisingly, a summation tomorrow by Democrat Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, a former senator with whom Clinton has long had a tense, uneasy relationship.
The White House abandoned a plan to add some House Judiciary Committee Democrats to its defense team after Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said House members aren't allowed to speak on the Senate floor unless they are given an official role.
In yesterday's opening, the White House sought to dispel the notion that it had dealt only with legal issues and not the facts of the case. Ruff offered a brief point-by-point rebuttal of the two impeachment articles against Clinton, as well as two specific examples of misstatements or omissions by the House members that the lawyer called "prosecutorial fudge."
"Be wary, be wary," Ruff warned the 100 senators, "of the prosecutor who feels it necessary to deceive the court."
In the first instance, Ruff took issue with the prosecutors' conclusion that the president obstructed justice by instructing his secretary, Betty Currie, to retrieve gifts from Monica Lewinsky that he had given her.
In an effort to show that it was Currie -- and, by logical extension, Clinton -- who initiated the pickup of gifts from Lewinsky on Dec. 28, Republicans wielded phone records last week showing that Currie called Lewinsky at 3: 32 p.m. that day from her cell phone.
But Ruff noted yesterday that Lewinsky testified on three occasions that Currie came to her house to pick up the gifts about 2 p.m., more than an hour before Currie placed the call to her. He argued, too, that the call lasted under a minute, not enough time to coordinate arrangements for concealing the gifts.
In a second example, Ruff disputed the charge that Clinton tried to find Lewinsky a job in exchange for her denial of their affair, saying the evidence of any such obstruction of justice consisted of "sealing wax, string and spider webs."
Ruff pointed to the GOP's allegation that Clinton ally Vernon Jordan stepped up his job search for Lewinsky only after he learned that the judge in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case ruled that she would allow questioning of other women, such as Lewinsky, with whom Clinton was said to have had affairs.
In building a case for obstruction of justice, the House managers said last week that the judge's ruling on Dec. 11, 1997, fell on the same day that Clinton and Jordan talked about getting a job for Lewinsky.
But Ruff pointed out yesterday that the conference call from Judge Susan Webber Wright to the lawyers involved in the Jones suit didn't take place until about 6: 30 p.m., when Jordan was on a plane headed for Amsterdam.
Not surprisingly, Senate Democrats hailed the White House presentation as powerful. "He really poked some holes, big holes, big as a barn door, in the prosecutors' case today," Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said.
"Mr. Ruff, when he started off, it was almost that you had to strain to listen to him," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. "And then he brings you into his thought process, and at the end, well, you could have heard a pin drop. I thought it was really very, very powerful."
One moderate Republican, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who has already signaled his doubts about whether this case warrants the removal of the president, said he thought the presentation was "excellent."
"It raised some serious questions about some of the evidence," Jeffords said.
Republican House prosecutors, while calling Ruff an articulate advocate for the president, insisted they had the facts on their side. "I think he put the president's behavior in the best spin possible," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin.
"The facts and the law are against him. Our case isn't made of sealing wax and spider webs. It is made of testimony under oath. It is made of facts. It is made of law. And it is made of the precedent that lying to a grand jury is an impeachable offense."
Democrats and Republicans continued to spar over the issue of whether witnesses, such as Lewinsky, Jordan and Currie, should be called, with some Democrats suggesting Ruff's defense challenged the need for witnesses.
The White House counsel derided the House prosecutors' call for witnesses, asking how the managers could be so sure witnesses would resolve all the conflicts in the evidence yet "so certain of the strength of their case."
"I suggest that what you have before you is not the product of the Judiciary Committee's well-considered, judicious assessment of their constitutional role," Ruff said. "No, what you have before you is the product of nothing more than a rush to judgment.
"And so how should you respond to the managers' belated plea that more is needed to do justice? You should reject it."
Ruff, whose low-key style is more academic and deliberative than charismatic, acknowledged that he could not match the "eloquence" of the House prosecutors who made their case last week.
But, in an emotional conclusion to his opening summary, Ruff pointedly countered a dramatic appeal by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde on Saturday. Hyde said the nation's war dead would be dishonored if Clinton were allowed to remain in office.
"My father was on Omaha Beach 55 years ago," Ruff said, his voice choking. "And I know how he would feel if here today. He didn't fight -- no one fought -- for one side of this case or the other.
"He fought as all those did for our country and our Constitution. And as long as each of us -- manager, president's counsel, senator -- does his or her constitutional duty, those who fought for their country will be proud."
Ruff spent the first hour laying the legal groundwork for the White House contention that Clinton's actions did not warrant his removal from office, invoking the names of several noted legal scholars and historians, hundreds of whom signed a document arguing against impeachment, as well as the Framers of the Constitution.
Conviction, said Ruff, is "an act of extraordinary proportions to be taken only when no other response is adequate to preserve the integrity and viability of our democracy."
He said a different standard should apply to a president than to a federal judge in impeachment proceedings since judges are appointed for life and cannot be thrown out by the American people in the next election cycle.
And, telling the 100 senators that they were the "judges of the law and the facts and the appropriate sanction," Ruff said the triers of the president should consider whether the House prosecutors established guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" before deciding the president's fate.
On Friday, after the administration's three-day presentation, the senators will be given 16 hours over two days to question both sides. The questions, which are being reviewed by each caucus to avoid repetition, will be passed to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will read them aloud.
Early next week, the White House could make a motion to adjourn the trial, a move that would need a simple majority of 51 -- or, all 45 Democrats plus six defecting Republicans -- to pass. The House prosecutors are also expected to ask the Senate to authorize testimony by witnesses.
Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.
At the trial today
1 p.m.: Senate "court of impeach- ment" resumes with the second of three scheduled days of presentations by President Clinton's defense lawyers. The presentation today begins a point-by-point rebuttal of the evidence that House prosecutors used to support the two articles of impeachment:
* Counsel Gregory B. Craig discusses the evidence for Article I, perjury before the grand jury.
* Counsel Cheryl D. Mills begins discussing the evidence for Article II, obstruction of justice. The remainder of that discussion will come tomorrow.
* Session is expected to end by 6 p.m.
Pub Date: 1/20/99