The nuts and bolts of impeachment case and Clinton's defense

Partisan bombast has overshadowed specifics behind charges

January 10, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The names of the players are all too well-known. The charges of perjury and obstruction of justice may have a familiar ring.

But when White House spokesman Joe Lockhart complained last week that the details of President Clinton's defense had received scant public attention, he had a point: The nuts and bolts of the case against William Jefferson Clinton remain a mystery to most Americans, obscured by partisan politics and buried by the fast-moving developments of a scandal that has twisted and turned for an entire year.

The basics of the case have changed little since September, when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his impeachment report to Congress.

But as the charges filtered through the House last year, Republicans added new counts, stripped away others -- and may have made the case more difficult to try before the Senate.

Still, said Douglas Kmieck, a conservative Pepperdine University constitutional law professor, "It's the same case. It's the same evidence.

"No matter how many ways you rephrase it or restructure it, you still have to make a basic assessment of whether the lies or falsehoods the president told to the grand jury are serious enough to merit his removal from office."

The House approved two articles of impeachment, charging Clinton with perjury before the federal grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky matter and withobstructing justice to hide his affair with the former White House intern.

But House members rejected the article charging that Clinton abused the power of his office.

More important, they rejected the article of impeachment charging that Clinton lied under oath in a deposition taken last Jan. 17 in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct lawsuit. That significantly complicated the case before the Senate.

Much of the obstruction charge stems from alleged efforts by the president to persuade Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Jones case, to hide the president's gifts from the Jones lawyers and to find Lewinsky a job before she was discovered by the Jones legal team.

But the Jones suit is now only indirectly related to the case before the Senate. Moreover, many of the alleged instances of perjury before the grand jury were Clinton's vague references to his deposition.

Starr took the case to the grand jury only because he believed Clinton had lied and encouraged others to lie in his deposition.

And Starr's clearest examples of lying -- such as the president's denial of ever being alone with Lewinsky -- came only in the deposition. Clinton told the Jones lawyers he "never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky" and "never had an affair with her."

An easier case

House prosecutors would have an easier time making a perjury case on that than on Clinton's grand jury statement that he "engaged in conduct that was wrong. These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse. They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined in my Jan. 17, 1998, deposition. But they did involve inappropriate intimate contact."

"The fact that they did not impeach for his civil testimony but did for his grand jury testimony does seem to be problematic," said Suzanna Sherry, a University of Minnesota constitutional law professor who has long questioned the case against the president.

"The grand jury perjury all stems from the possibility that he lied in his deposition. It's a house of cards and they refused to impeach on the bottom card."

Nevertheless, House Republican prosecutors from the Judiciary Committee are confident they can present a strong case for the first removal of a president in the nation's history.

The articles of impeachment are deliberately vague and do not specify exactly which of Clinton's grand jury statements are allegedly false or what exactly the president did to obstruct justice.

But the 406-page impeachment report produced by the Judiciary Committee contains ample detail and will serve as road map of the House's case.

Perjury to grand jury

Starr's report contained only three allegations of grand jury perjury, charging that Clinton lied under oath Aug. 17 when he said his relationship with Lewinsky began in early 1996, not November 1995, as Lewinsky maintains; when he said he believed he was accurate in the Jones deposition; and when he said he did not touch Lewinsky's breasts or genitals "with an intent to arouse or gratify."

Committee Republicans cited those and at least nine other instances where they say Clinton lied under oath.

Some of the additional perjury counts seem somewhat trivial, such as charging Clinton with lying for testifying that he had been alone with Lewinsky on "certain occasions" and "had occasional telephone conversations with Lewinsky that included sexual banter."

Republicans contend the president was intentionally downplaying the number of interactions.

" `Occasional' sounds like once every four months or so, doesn't it?" said Judiciary Committee Chief Counsel David Schippers.

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