Impeachment lines drawn

Articles vague, false and illegally worded, White House replies

`Public has had enough'

House Republicans file sharply worded brief, hint at surprises

January 12, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Charging toward a showdown on the Senate floor, the White House formally responded yesterday to the House articles of impeachment, contending that they are unconstitutionally vague, illegally worded and completely false.

But the president's lawyers declined to file motions that might have delayed the start of opening arguments, scheduled for Thursday.

"We believe the public has had enough of this," said Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman. "We're at the final stage of this process, and we can do it two ways: We can do it fairly and expeditiously, or we can do it fairly in a process that's open-ended and takes months and months."

The 13 House Republicans who are serving as prosecutors filed their own sharply worded trial brief yesterday, contending that "the president's misconduct has been devastating" and has undermined "the integrity and credibility of the office of the president" and "the honor and integrity of the United States."

The articles, if proved, warrant "the conviction and removal from office of President William Jefferson Clinton," the House trial memorandum concluded.

If Clinton is not convicted, the prosecutors argued, "then no House of Representatives will ever be able to impeach again and no Senate will ever convict. The bar will be so high that only a convicted felon or a traitor will need to be concerned."

The prosecutors' brief, which largely reflects evidence introduced in the House, represents the crux of the case for Clinton's removal from office and a road map for their arguments in the coming trial.

Though the arguments against Clinton are familiar, there might be surprises. For example, the prosecutors' brief alleges that Clinton "orchestrated a campaign to discredit" Monica Lewinsky, an accusation not contained in the articles of impeachment.

One of the prosecutors, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, told reporters yesterday that Thursday's opening statements would be "action-packed."

Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the leader of the 13 prosecutors, said: "I am very satisfied that we've been given adequate time to make our case, we've been given flexibility on how to make our case."

White House response

The 11 lawyers who drafted Clinton's impeachment response -- five from the White House and six from the president's private legal team -- were equally blunt. They wrote that the president "denies each and every material allegation" in the two articles of impeachment, both of which are "constitutionally defective" and "unconstitutionally vague."

The articles charge Clinton with perjury in his Aug. 17 appearance before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury and with obstruction of justice in his efforts to hide his relationship with Lewinsky.

"The charges in the articles do not rise to the level of `high crimes and misdemeanors' as contemplated by the Founding Fathers, and they do not satisfy the rigorous constitutional standard applied throughout our nation's history," White House lawyers wrote. "Accordingly, the articles of impeachment should be dismissed."

The president's lawyers had several options they could have pursued by a deadline of 5 p.m. yesterday, including filing a motion to dismiss the case, demanding that prosecutors detail the charges, asking that the charges within each article of impeachment be broken down into separate counts, or challenging whether the president's impeachment by a lame-duck House is legally valid now that a new Congress has taken office.

The Clinton lawyers chose to avoid any such procedural wrangling at this point, fearing it might anger Senate Democrats who had hammered out an agreement Friday with Republicans to proceed with opening arguments.

"We have good and clever lawyers," Lockhart said. "I'm sure they could have come up with 15 to 20 constitutional arguments that could have tied up this process for weeks and months. But we think we should move forward expeditiously. It's in everyone's interest."

Equal time

White House aides did not preclude such maneuvering in the future. House prosecutors will have 24 hours, spread over several days, to make the case for Clinton's conviction and removal from office, a fate that has never befallen an American president.

Clinton's lawyers would then have the same amount of time to present the defense, followed by 16 hours of questioning from the senators, who are serving as jurors. Then the Senate will vote on whether to dismiss the case or call witnesses and proceed.

If, as expected, neither side consumes all the time allotted, a vote on dismissal could arrive by the end of next week.

If the case is not dismissed, White House lawyers are expected to file several procedural motions, such as demanding more detail about the charges facing the president. They are also likely to request time to question potential witnesses, examine evidence in the prosecutors' possession and prepare a lengthy defense.

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