Giving cover to Democrats who stand by their man


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's lawyers have not saved the day with a single stroke. They have not produced any evidence or argument that would so confound the Senate Republicans that they would throw up their hands and abandon their attempt to remove the president from office.

In fact, no one ever expected House prosecutors or the White House defense team to change the basic political equation in the impeachment trial. The Republicans had the votes in the House and have them in the Senate to bring the case, but they don't have the two-thirds needed to convict him and everyone on both sides has known that from the git-go.

But Mr. Clinton's lawyers have managed to provide some cover for the Democrats inclined to stand by the president. They have picked enough nits in the prosecution's case to justify at least the appearance of doubt about some of the evidence. Thus, they have matched the success the House Republicans enjoyed in giving their party colleagues some basis for calling witnesses.

What both sides understand, of course, is that the real jury in this trial is the public. However, it turns out for Mr. Clinton, the important thing to the senators is how they are viewed by their constituents when it is all over.

For the Democrats, the sore spot always has been that their rationale for voting against conviction is essentially that even if Mr. Clinton committed crimes in trying to cover up his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, those crimes do not "rise to the level of impeachment," to use the favored phrase. They do not qualify as the "high crimes and misdemeanors" envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution.

Now, however, the Clinton lawyers have raised enough questions about the facts of the case brought against the president to allow the Democrats to say there are even doubts about whether crimes actually occurred. That is the point of all the "revelations" about who talked to Betty Currie when and whether Vernon Jordan was called by the White House when he was on a plane from Dulles to Amsterdam.

There is no change in the core of the story. Mr. Clinton engaged in a sexual dalliance with a young White House intern, then lied about it to his wife, his friends, his staff, his cabinet and the whole country. Nor is there any question that the president and Mr. Jordan took an extraordinary amount of trouble trying to find a job for Monica Lewinsky.

The voters already understand all this. That is why the opinion polls showed Americans so overwhelmingly opposed to the Republican use of the impeachment process in the first place and to any vote to remove him from office. For the senators, then, the imperative is finding justifications for their own conduct so they will not be tossed into the political pits with the House Republicans.

In making the case for the defense, Mr. Clinton's lawyers were forced to do what the president himself has been so widely criticized for doing -- relying on minor discrepancies in the House case and drawing legalistic distinctions. The president's special counsel, Gregory Craig, acknowledged as much when he told the Senate: "To the extent that we have relied on overly legal or technical arguments to defend the president from his attackers, we apologize to him, to you and to the American people."

He added, "To accuse us of using legalisms to defend the president when he's being accused of perjury is only to accuse of defending the president. We plead guilty to that charge and the truth is that any attorney who failed to raise these defenses might well be guilty of malpractice."

But the Clinton lawyers were not above some shameless politics. The defense of Clinton's record on civil rights didn't seem required, for example. But since the team included deputy White House counsel Cheryl D. Mills, a 33-year-old African-American woman, why not play the race card? A lot of minorities are in that big jury out there.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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