WASHINGTON -- With the calling of trial witnesses increasingly likely, House prosecutors pleaded yesterday with the Senate to question what one of them called just a "pitiful three" witnesses to help prove their case that President Clinton should be removed from office.
The prosecution's pared-down list included Monica Lewinsky, Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan and senior White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, as well as a last-ditch invitation to the president to testify at his own impeachment trial.
The prosecution list is likely to herald a shift in the 3-week-old impeachment trial, as the scripted opening act comes to a close and a new, more unpredictable phase begins.
The Senate will usher in that new stage today, when it is expected to approve the calling of witnesses and to defeat a Democratic motion to dismiss the charges against the president.
"The story needs to be told," Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, one of the House prosecutors, told senators. "The truth should be determined. Justice should be accomplished, not through lawyers up here talking, but through witnesses."
For the second straight night, senators easily defeated a Democratic motion to open deliberations to the public, then huddled in a secret session to hash out where the trial will go from here.
Capturing a growing sense of frustration, another prosecutor, Rep. Ed Bryant of Tennessee, pleaded for patience and quoted Thomas Paine: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
House prosecutors insisted that all three witnesses could be deposed and questioned under oath in the Senate by the beginning of next week.
In reality, the witness request could delay the trial's conclusion for days, if not weeks. Senate Republicans are trying to impose a Monday deadline for the completion of depositions.
But once the depositions conclude, the Senate will have to open debate all over again -- this time to let prosecutors and White House lawyers argue the merits of bringing the deposed witnesses to the Senate to testify in person.
What's more, White House lawyers warned yesterday that they would request time to gather still-secret evidence from the House Judiciary Committee and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr before possibly calling witnesses of their own.
"Given what is at stake, I think fundamental fairness requires fair discovery," David E. Kendall, the president's private lawyer, told the Senate.
"We will be expeditious, but in the event the genie is out of the bottle, we need time. We need access to defend the president in the way any client ought to be defended."
Clinton resists questioning
One request that will surely be rejected is be a deposition from Clinton himself. He has shown no willingness to submit to questioning, and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle dismissed the House request for a presidential interview as "a red herring."
A protracted trial could exact a political cost, especially for Republicans. Republican operatives have warned that the longer the trial drags out, the higher the public relations cost to their party.
Indeed, a poll released yesterday found that 53 percent of Americans oppose the calling of witnesses in the trial. The poll, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, also found that 63 percent of Americans do not believe Clinton should be removed from office, and 88 percent think the trial has offered little new or interesting information.
But Senate Republican leaders were determined yesterday to give House prosecutors a chance to present their case, declaring the White House threat to prolong the trial a bluff. And they may have swayed Republicans who have expressed serious doubt about the need or wisdom to call witnesses.
Declaring his confidence that the Senate would reject the motion to dismiss the charges today and would approve the motion for witnesses, Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, predicted: "Tomorrow will be a red-letter day for the Constitution."
Change of heart
On Monday, Daschle thought that enough anxious Republicans would join Democrats to defeat witnesses. Yesterday, he conceded, "I think those soft Republicans have turned hard."
But House prosecutors were hardly exuberant. Only weeks ago, they had hoped to call up to 15 witnesses to bolster their flagging case. But with the help of Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, the prosecutors reluctantly whittled that wish list down to a carefully calibrated three.
The shorter list was intended to press the case for obstruction of justice without alienating moderate Republicans.
"We have narrowed it down to three -- a pitiful three," the chief prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, told the Senate.
In a surprise retreat, the prosecutors decided not to call one of the key players in the scandal: Betty Currie, Clinton's secretary.
She figures in the two obstruction charges that Republicans have zeroed in on. The first is that Currie -- at the behest of the president -- recovered gifts that Clinton had given to Lewinsky. The second is that the president tried to influence Currie's testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit by posing a series of pointed and misleading questions to her after his own deposition in the Jones case.
Currie may have been able to illuminate both disputes. But the prosecutors said they dropped her name because they believed they had sufficiently proved the president's alleged crimes. They may have also shied away from calling her to avoid the indelicate spectacle of 13 conservative white men grilling a reluctant, middle-aged black woman.
The prosecution team also dropped the names of other women, including Kathleen Willey and the mysterious "Jane Does," who they once hoped would show a pattern of sexual harassment and witness tampering.
An assortment of White House aides dwindled down to just one witness, Blumenthal. In the first days of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton misled several of his top aides. But the president told Blumenthal perhaps the most outrageous story, saying Lewinsky had approached him sexually, hoping to begin an affair that would prove she was not a "stalker," as some White House colleagues had nicknamed her.
The prosecutors also opted to call Vernon Jordan, who helped Lewinsky find a job in New York as the Jones lawyers were seeking her testimony, who may have known about the president's affair with the former White House intern and who may have helped her file an affidavit with the Jones lawyers denying a sexual relationship with the president.
"You have got a job search," said Hutchinson. "You have got a witness in court, and if you combine that with the knowledge of a relationship, those are three dynamite issues combining together."
They also requested an affidavit from Barry Ward, a clerk for U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright. He is expected to swear that Clinton was paying attention at his deposition when his lawyer in the Jones case, Robert S. Bennett, said "there is absolutely no sex of any kind" between Clinton and Lewinsky.
House prosecutors also sought an affidavit from T. Wesley Holmes, a lawyer for Jones, who testified that the Jones lawyers had subpoenaed Currie as a witness in January 1998, about the time that Clinton had summoned her to his office to go over his relationship with Lewinsky.
Kendall implored senators to deny all these witnesses and affidavits, saying they had ample evidence in more than 10,000 pages of grand jury testimony, more than 800 pages of depositions, 3,400 pages of documentary evidence, 1,800 pages of audiotape transcripts, and 800 pages of FBI interviews -- all gathered by Starr. All three of the requested witnesses have testified before the grand jury numerous times, he said, and have nothing more to offer.
"After five years and $50 million, President Clinton may be the most investigated person in America," Kendall said.
He likened House prosecutors to blackjack players holding a hand of 19 points, facing a dealer with 20, and hoping against hope to draw a two. They know they will never gain the 67 votes to remove Clinton from office, but they are willing to try anything in desperation, he declared.
"They're simply gambling, and gambling may have its place as a recreation," Kendall said. "I think it has no place in the impeachment trial when the fate of the president is at stake."
Another prosecutor, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, all but agreed with that scenario after arguments concluded. Prosecutors generally concede that witnesses are unlikely to offer any new information, but instead would allow senators to evaluate their credibility and truthfulness.
But, Graham said, maybe there will be more than just witnesses' credibility for the senators to study.
"When you get people on the stand, invariably something comes out that you don't expect," Graham said.
Republican senators appeared sympathetic to House prosecutors, who need all the help they can get to even approach a conviction. Any trial in the United States involves the testimony of witnesses, said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, even "a burglary case in Ohio."
"To deny that to the United States Senate in the most important trial in our lifetime makes absolutely no sense," DeWine said. "This is the right thing to do, the reasonable thing to do, and we should do it."
At the trial today
1 p.m.: Senate "court of impeachment" resumes.
A vote could be cast on the motion by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia to dismiss the two articles of impeachment against President Clinton.
If that fails, there might be a vote on a motion by House prosecutors to question witnesses to determine whether they will be called to testify.
Senate leaders may propose a schedule for the remainder of the trial, if they can achieve agreement among senators on a plan.
Pub Date: 1/27/99