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Clinton lawyers ask acquittal; Defense team attacks perjury, obstruction; to wrap up case today; GOP seeks gracefull exit; Senate Democrats see day's presentation as turning point for Clinton


WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by President Clinton's State of the Union performance, White House lawyers returned to the well of the Senate yesterday to launch a blistering attack on the House impeachment charges, concluding with an impassioned political appeal to senators to acquit Clinton.

"Do not throw our politics into the darkness of endless recrimination," implored Gregory B. Craig, the White House special counsel, on the second day of the defense presentation. "Do not inject a poison of bitter partisanship into the body politic, which, like a virus, can move through our national bloodstream for years to come with results none can know.

"Do not let this case and these charges, as flawed and as unfair as they are, destroy a fundamental underpinning of American democracy: the right of the people, and no one else, to select the president of the United States."

Senate Democrats boastfully predicted that when the impeachment saga finally concludes, yesterday's events would be recorded as a turning point in the president's favor. As Clinton barnstormed through Buffalo, N.Y., and eastern Pennsylvania, pushing his policy agenda to swollen crowds, even the conservative evangelist Pat Robertson seemed ready to let Republicans drop their drive to oust the president.

Clinton's spirited State of the Union address pushed his job approval ratings as high as 76 percent in an overnight NBC News poll, reflecting a traditional post-State of the Union bounce. And Republican leaders now seem eager to play down the impeachment trial and engage the White House in a policy debate over Social Security and tax cuts.

Robertson, the Christian Coalition founder and fervent Clinton opponent, said the president had "hit a home run" in his speech and had dashed any possibility that he would be convicted at his trial.

"From a public relations standpoint, he's won," Robertson said on his television show, "The 700 Club." "They might as well dismiss this impeachment hearing and get on with something else, because it's over as far as I'm concerned."

Craig methodically reviewed the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, dismissing them as "frequently trivial, almost always technical, often immaterial and always insubstantial." While he accused House prosecutors of "word games" and distortions, another lawyer, Cheryl Mills, a deputy White House counsel, took the attack further.

'Shortchanged the truth'

"The House managers have dramatically shortchanged the truth," Mills said in a presentation that drew praise from both sides of the aisle for its brevity and precision.

Clinton's team will wrap up its defense today, when the president's personal attorney, David E. Kendall, will challenge the remaining obstruction charges, and former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers will sum up the case before his one-time colleagues and ask for an acquittal.

Two days of questioning from senators will follow. A vote to dismiss the case could come as early as Monday, though it is likely to fail, largely along party lines.

But Senate Republican leaders have begun to search for a graceful exit strategy. With his State of the Union address, Clinton launched the legislative year, and Republican leaders realize that little can get done while a trial is under way on the Senate floor.

Some witnesses likely

Republican senators emerged from a meeting yesterday appearing confident that they will call some witnesses, at least for closed-door depositions. But they also appeared more ready to keep a tight leash on the proceedings.

"This all doesn't need to go beyond mid-February, even with the deposition of witnesses," said John Czwartacki, the spokesman for Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Democrats still hold out hope that the calling of witnesses can be averted, and they pointed hopefully to the well-received performance by White House lawyers yesterday.

"When the last chapter is written on this impeachment trial, I suspect this day will be seen as the beginning of the end," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey.

Craig made the longer, more detailed presentation of the day. He tried to pick apart the perjury case -- or at least diminish its importance to the point where few senators would view it as worthy of removing a president for the first time in the nation's history.

He criticized House prosecutors for expanding the charges of grand jury perjury beyond the three original counts in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment report. And he faulted them for failing to detail which of Clinton's statements to the grand jury were perjurious.

Craig attacked each of the instances of perjury alleged in the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment report. House prosecutors say Clinton lied when he testified that he had had inappropriate contact with Monica Lewinsky on "certain occasions"; Lewinsky said there were 11 such occasions.

"It is hard to take the charges seriously when in each case they boil down to arguments over semantics," he said.

Craig took House prosecutors to task for what he called the "meaningless" and "silly" charge that Clinton lied when he said his relationship with Lewinsky began in early 1996, instead of November 1995, as Lewinsky recalled.

And Craig sought to isolate what he called the one central discrepancy in the testimonies of Clinton and Lewinsky: the president's denial that he touched the former White House intern's breasts and genitalia.

"The possibility that the question of whether the president of the United States should be removed from his office might hinge on whether you believe him or her on this issue is a staggering thought," he said.

Craig concluded with a reminder of the prosecutors' invocation of the rule of law, saying the president could face a criminal trial after he leaves office. Removing Clinton from office, Craig said, would leave an indelible stain.

"If you convict and remove President Clinton on the basis of these allegations, no president of the United States will ever be safe from impeachment again," he summed up. "Don't let this happen to our country."

House prosecutors tried to parry the criticism. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican, accused White House lawyers of not so much defending the president as attacking the prosecutors personally.

But some prosecutors seemed to be thrown on the defensive.

"I think the time has come for us to stop listening to lawyers talk about the case, to stop reading what they want to say about the case," said Rep. James E. Rogan, a California Republican. "The time has come for us to bring in the witnesses; let this trial be what it is supposed to be: a search for the truth."

Rebutting obstruction

Mills' job was to begin to rebut the obstruction charges. Speaking slowly, with a touch of scorn, she set out to discredit two charges: that Clinton had illegally sought to hide gifts he had given Lewinsky and that he tried to influence the testimony of his secretary, Betty Currie, after his deposition by Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers.

Mills highlighted testimony from Lewinsky in which she said she wanted to get rid of the gifts because she feared Jones' lawyers would break into her apartment and tap her phone, searching for evidence. She cited 10 statements by Lewinsky, none of which directly implicated Clinton in a scheme to conceal the gifts.

And Mills noted that on the day the president was alleged to have schemed to retrieve the gifts, he gave Lewinsky still more gifts.

"It simply doesn't make sense," Mills said. "The president's actions entirely undermine the [House] managers' charges of obstruction of justice."

As for the charges of witness-tampering, Mills said, a crime could have been committed only if there was evidence of threats, intimidation or pressure, and Currie testified before Starr's grand jury that she felt "none whatsoever."

Currie was not on the witness list for the Jones case when Clinton fired questions at her about his relationship with Lewinsky. Indeed, Mills said, the judge in the case had set a Dec. 5, 1997, deadline for lawyers to disclose witness names -- more than a month before the prosecutors say Clinton tried to influence Currie's possible testimony.

Referring to Georgia Rep. Bob Barr's contention that the evidence fits together like a Swiss watch, Mills concluded: "When you put together the facts, they don't make a Swiss watch. In fact, they may not make a good sausage."

An answer on civil rights

Mills challenged House prosecutors' contention that Clinton's alleged efforts to thwart Jones' civil rights lawsuit dealt a blow to the cause of civil rights. Declaring that she could "not let their comments go unchallenged," Mills extolled the president's record on civil rights as "unimpeachable."

"With all due respect, the foundation of civil rights was never at the core of the Jones case," she concluded, telling senators, "I can assure you that your decision to follow the facts and the law and the Constitution, and acquit this president will not shake the foundation of the house of civil rights."

Liberal Democrats palpably breathed a sigh of relief. Since the Lewinsky scandal broke a year ago, they have suffered a barrage of questions about their support for a president accused of sexual misconduct and undermining a woman's civil rights. Mills appeared to give them some cover.

"Ms. Mills clearly gave a presentation in the well of the Senate that will be long remembered for its power and its clarity," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and feminist stalwart, echoed that sentiment, calling yesterday "a day that will long be remembered."

At the trial today

1 p.m.: Senate "court of impeach- ment" resumes with the third and final scheduled day of presentations by President Clinton's defense lawyers.

David E. Kendall, the president's private lawyer, completes the rebuttal to evidence for Article II, obstruction of justice.

Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, may have concluding remarks.

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas gives a summation on the president's behalf.

Session is expected to end by 6 p.m.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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