WASHINGTON -- On the eve of a showdown in President Clinton's impeachment trial, House prosecutors interviewed Monica Lewinsky in a downtown hotel yesterday afternoon, hoping to extract new information that could rescue their flagging case for the president's removal.
Three House prosecutors -- or managers -- emerged from their two-hour meeting last evening, praising the former White House intern for her poise and intellect, insisting that she would be a useful witness. But her lawyer, Plato Cacheris, immediately splashed cold water on their cause.
"Monica Lewinsky was candid, forthright and extremely truthful," Cacheris told a throng of reporters. But "she added nothing to the record that is already sitting before the Senate right now, and we have urged the House managers to report to their superiors that it is unnecessary to call her as a witness because all of her testimony is fully and completely disclosed."
Cacheris added: "We hope on behalf of Monica and her family that this long nightmare that has endured in their lives will come to a quick conclusion."
The House prosecutors focused on issues at the heart of obstruction of justice allegations against Clinton, a source familiar with the interview said last night. They reportedly included the job search for Lewinsky and retrieval of gifts given to her by the president.
Prosecutors contend that the job search and gift retrieval were undertaken to thwart lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, who wanted Lewinsky to testify in Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit against Clinton, and subpoenaed the gifts. The White House denies any connection between the Jones case and the job search and handling of gifts.
Prosecutors will present a slate of potential witnesses to the Senate today, and then square off with White House lawyers on the Senate floor to debate whether the trial should go forward with witness depositions or end immediately with a dismissal of the charges.
A vote on a motion to dismiss by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, could come tonight, and bipartisan negotiations for a quick end to the trial resumed yesterday.
To head that off, House prosecutors met with Lewinsky in the stately Mayflower Hotel, under the auspices of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. They sat down with Clinton's former political consultant, Dick Morris. And they contacted the lawyer of presidential confidant Vernon Jordan.
They hope to call all three as witnesses in the president's impeachment trial. But Lewinsky is the key to their case.
House prosecutors said they wanted to ask Lewinsky for details about a Dec. 17, 1997, phone conversation in which she and the president allegedly discussed cover stories to hide their relationship. They also hoped Lewinsky would clarify what she meant when she said that nobody asked her to lie about her relationship with the president but that nobody discouraged her, either.
"We want her to confirm, in essence that our interpretation of that is correct and that, indeed, she's going to present this in a way that is at least as clear as it appears in the grand jury testimony," said Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican.
'Let's close this thing'
But Republican senators hinted strongly yesterday that House prosecutors would have to uncover significant new information to convince a majority of the Senate to call witnesses in a trial that both sides are eager to bring to a close. Indeed, Democrats appear on the verge of gaining enough votes to defeat a motion to call witnesses.
"We've got over 6,000 pages of sworn testimony and everything else. I don't believe we need any more information," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican. "If it's not going to add something to the trial, something that would change the whole dynamics, I say let's move on. Let's close this thing out."
Twenty-one Senate Democrats and Republicans fanned out to the Sunday political talk shows, unanimously predicting that the Byrd motion for dismissal will not garner the 51 votes needed to pass. But if the motion gets anything close to a majority, the president's allies will point to the vote as proof that conviction by two-thirds of the Senate is an impossibility. That will increase the pressure for a deal to forgo witnesses and end the trial quickly, Republicans concede.
"The defining moment, I believe, of the trial will be the Byrd motion to dismiss," Shelby said, "because after that, if he gets 45, if he got 46, 47 votes, the trial is crystallized and we know it -- if we hadn't already known that."
Four Republican senators -- Shelby, Slade Gorton of Washington state, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon -- expressed reluctance to approve even the deposing of witnesses. If Democrats were to vote as a bloc on the issue, they would need to persuade only two more to join them, and Vermont Republican James M. Jeffords has indicated that he might vote to dismiss the charges.
Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican and Clinton foe, said yesterday: "I will tell you today, I'm not sure that the Senate will vote for witnesses."
That could lead quickly to closing arguments and votes for conviction or acquittal on the two House articles of impeachment charging the president with perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the Lewinsky scandal. Already, senators are beginning to discuss doing away altogether with the votes on dismissal and witnesses.
"What I'd really like to do is see if we can't get back together again and figure out a way to get to a final vote, maybe having that the only vote," Gorton said. "That could be done this week."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi persisted with a plan to submit written questions to Clinton, even though White House lawyers -- who suggested the questions -- now say that they would respond rather than the president.
"We will continue to prepare a letter in hopes that the president will respond to the senators' interrogatories," Lott said in a statement. A response by Clinton attorneys "is not a substitute for the president answering the questions," he said.
Looking for an exit
But under the glare of the television cameras, senators boldly negotiated an exit strategy, posing a series of possibilities.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, proposed separate votes on the charges against Clinton and removal from office.
Because the Constitution specifically links conviction and removal, Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed a vote on whether the evidence indicates guilt, a semantic distinction falling short of conviction, followed by a vote on removal -- what he called "impeachment without removal."
Even political opposites appeared yesterday to agree that the trial must be wrapped up this week or next, with at most limited numbers of depositions. If witnesses are called at all, strict steps would have to be taken to ensure "it doesn't turn out to be 'The Jerry Springer Show,' " Snowe said.
"I do not want the Senate to become a spectacle, a scene," Shelby said. "And most of us don't."
The real animosity appears not between Senate Republicans and Democrats but between Democrats and House prosecutors. Fears of a spectacle were enhanced by the media mob camped outside the Mayflower Hotel, where Lewinsky is staying. She was interviewed by Reps. McCollum, Ed Bryant of Tennessee and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, along with Republican chief counsel David P. Schippers, who were flanked by a crush of reporters as they entered the hotel about 3 p.m.
Lewinsky was represented by her attorney, Cacheris.
The war of words continued yesterday between Senate Democrats, who paint their House foes as desperate zealots, and prosecutors, who see themselves as righteous truth-tellers, pursuing justice against all odds.
Prosecutors sounded indignant that Democrats were questioning their right to interview Lewinsky, much less their right to call witnesses to the impeachment trial.
"This is an idea, to me, that is ridiculous, that we're sitting here talking about whether or not we should be allowed to present our case," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
But Democrats saw the flurry of interviews as a last-ditch effort to revive a dying cause. Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called it "a hail Monica pass."
"This is the bottom of the ninth. The game has not gone very well. And they are swinging wildly for the fence for a home run," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, in another sports metaphor.
At the trial today
1 p.m.: Senate "court of impeach- ment" resumes. Session might open with further questions by senators.
A motion to dismiss by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, could be put to a vote early in the session. The process was being negotiated.
Debate could occur on House prosecutors' motion to call witnesses.
No time was set for conclusion of the day's session. Pub Date: 1/25/99