Defenders plead for president Acts 'morally wrong,' but not impeachable,House panel told

Clinton indictment foreseen

White House makes appeal for fairness by GOP moderates

The Impeachment Hearings

December 09, 1998|By Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman | Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Striking a conciliatory tone and pleading for fairness, a top White House lawyer opened a grueling defense of President Clinton yesterday with a concession that the president's testimony regarding Monica Lewinsky might be deemed "unlawful" by a criminal court.

But the lawyer, appealing directly to wavering moderate House Republicans, said that no matter how reprehensible the president's actions may have been, they did not justify what would be only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history.

"Just as no fancy language can obscure the simple fact that what the president did was morally wrong," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, "no amount of rhetoric can change the legal reality that there are no grounds for impeachment."

Opening two days of White House defense before the House Judiciary Committee, Craig asserted for the first time that the president's legal team believes that Clinton will likely be indicted once he leaves office. But later in the day, the White House released a 184-page rebuttal, arguing forcefully that the president never committed perjury, obstructed justice, abused the power of his office or broke any laws.

"If he did mislead a court under oath, that would be wrong -- it would be unlawful," Craig said. "That is for a court of law, a criminal court of law, to resolve with all the protections that a court provides to a defendant. And most of the people that are working with the president in the defense believe that is a very likely possibility in the future."

At the same time, Craig said that however "wrong" and "blameworthy" Clinton's actions, they did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. "Nothing in this case justifies this Congress overturning a national election and removing our president from office," he said.

Craig was speaking to the sharply partisan Judiciary Committee, but he hoped his at-times quavering voice would carry far beyond the committee chambers, to the 20 to 30 moderate House Republicans who hold the power to tilt the outcome in either direction. In raising the specter of indictment, Craig appeared to be assuring the wavering Republicans that if they voted against impeachment, the president would not escape punishment.

Plea on Clinton's behalf

Yet he also appealed to them to keep an open mind, read the lengthy rebuttal, and decide for themselves whether the president's actions reached the constitutional impeachment standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.

"I make only one plea to you, and I hope it is not a futile one coming this late in the process," Craig said. "Open your mind. Open your heart. And focus on the record."

White House aides and House Democrats concede that all 21 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have decided to vote this week to approve at least one count of perjury. But they believe impeachment in the full House next week is not a foregone conclusion. As a result, undecided House Republican moderates have suddenly become the most scrutinized members of the national body politic.

Only a half-dozen of the 228 House Republicans have publicly stated their inclination to vote against impeachment. A seventh, Rep. Amo Houghton of New York, will join that group today with a column in the New York Times that will declare that the president's alleged offenses do not warrant removal from office.

The president got another boost when defeated Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican, stated publicly that impeachment "would be sowing the seeds of discord."

But if Clinton is to avoid the stain of impeachment, he will have to persuade at least twice as many House Republicans -- and possibly as many as 20 -- to vote no.

"I don't think it's at 20 today -- that's for damned sure," said Rep. Jack Quinn of New York, one of the few Republican opponents of impeachment.

Though two-thirds of the nation's voters oppose impeachment, Clinton's defense has had to be carefully calculated to appeal to the small group of moderate House Republicans.

To that end, White House lawyers persuaded William F. Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts and a staff lawyer on the Watergate impeachment committee, to testify today on behalf of the president. Weld headed the Justice Department's criminal division during the Reagan administration, and last year he was nominated by Clinton, but failed to win confirmation from Senate conservatives, to be ambassador to Mexico.

"If I were to want to reach moderate Republicans, I would want Weld on my team," said an aide to a moderate Northeastern Republican.

White House aides hoped Weld's appearance would help create at least the appearance of a shift in momentum away from impeachment, especially when coupled with Houghton's announcement today.

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