Clinton defense gains time GOP willing to extend Judiciary presentation, calls for factual rebuttal

December 06, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- White House lawyers will likely get more than one day this week to present a defense of the president, but Judiciary Committee Republicans demanded yesterday that the White House drop its abstract constitutional arguments and attacks on the prosecutor -- and instead present a factual defense of the charges against the president.

Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde tried to meet the White House's Friday night request for three to four days to mount its defense while keeping the inquiry from spilling into next year, when Republicans will hold a narrower House majority and political pressure will demand an end to the impeachment inquiry. He stopped short of spelling out just how many days presidential defenders will have, but committee aides said they will get more than the one day originally allotted.

"In the interest of fairness, I intend to make a sincere effort to accommodate this last-minute request," Hyde said. "Our final decision must be guided by what is reasonable. I fully intend for the committee to discharge its constitutional duties in this inquiry by the conclusion of next week."

With House Republicans ready to narrowly approve at least one article of impeachment this month, Democrats and the White House enter a tense final sprint to head off what would be only the second presidential impeachment in the nation's history.

"The stakes are higher. The adrenalin will be flowing," said Julian Epstein, chief counsel for the Judiciary Committee's Democrats. show time."

Committee aides rushed yesterday to complete three formal articles of impeachment, and White House lawyers prepared a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges of lying under oath, obstructing justice and abusing the power of the presidential office.

Congressional Democrats -- and some moderate Republicans -- are encouraging the president's personal lawyer, David Kendall, and White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff to abandon or temper their attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and Judiciary Committee Republicans, and concentrate instead on explaining why the president's conduct did not violate the law.

White House lawyers asked Friday to be allowed to call experts on the constitutional standards for impeachment; on standards for prosecuting perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power; and on prosecutorial misconduct and the impact of tainted evidence.

Hyde appeared yesterday to reject yet another discussion of impeachment and perjury standards, saying that the committee has already heard from 30 witnesses on those subjects. In fact, Hyde noted, the majority of those witnesses had taken the White House's position that the charges against Clinton failed to meet the impeachment standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and failed to meet the standard of criminal perjury. Hyde also said that Kendall and Democratic chief investigator Abbe Lowell had already cross-examined Starr on charges of prosecutorial misconduct.

"The president's lawyers have made it quite clear they do not intend to challenge the facts," Hyde snapped. "I hope this last-minute flurry of possibly redundant witness requests is not intended to delay the inquiry."

White House lawyers now appear to realize they have to begin challenging the facts if they are to shift the House against impeachment.

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican who opposes impeachment, said the White House's strategy of evasive answers and political attacks has made it difficult for moderates like himself to speak out against the conservative drive to remove Clinton from office. Last month's legalistic response to 81 questions posed by the Judiciary Committee may have stifled a brewing moderate Republican revolt against impeachment.

"A month ago, the momentum was clearly going the other way, but the so-called answers to those 81 questions flew in the face of the whole let's-get-back-to-business movement," Rowland said.

If the White House lawyers can raise significant doubts that the president legally perjured himself before Starr's grand jury, he could sway the 20 or so Republican votes he will likely need next week to defeat articles of impeachment.

"You know how [Washington] works," Rowland said. "Give it a couple of days, and maybe the momentum will shift back."

Republicans have been asserting for weeks that the president perjured himself first in January, when he told Paula Corbin Jones' attorneys he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, then in August before Starr's grand jury, when he said he had been "legally accurate" in his denials. And Republicans assert that the Clinton team has never disputed the charges.

That, in fact, is not true. In their response Sept. 12 to Starr's initial impeachment report, Ruff and Kendall challenged each accusation point by point.

"No one has responded to the rebuttals," a White House attorney complained. "Other than accepting the prosecutor's report on this, no one on the committee has shown any inclination to delve into the evidence."

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