Prosecutors launch case against Clinton

Opening salvos fired in effort to prove perjury, obstruction

`A make-or-break day'

As facts are laid out, GOP leaders demand that Clinton testify

January 15, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler | Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With 100 senators sitting in silent attention, House prosecutors opened their case yesterday against William Jefferson Clinton, charging that he had "piled perjury upon perjury," engaged in a "multifacted scheme to obstruct justice" and should be removed from the office of the presidency.

"Failure to bring President Clinton to account for his serial lying under oath and preventing the courts from administering equal justice under law will cause a cancer to be present in our society for generations," intoned Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, as the second presidential impeachment trial in history began in earnest.

"When a cancer exists in the body politic, our job, our duty, is to excise it."

Thirteen Republican prosecutors drawn from the House of Representatives launched into their case, struggling against long odds to persuade the necessary 67 senators to remove an elected president from office for the first time. Combining lofty, sometimes scathing rhetoric with a methodical presentation of the evidence, the House members held forth for nearly six hours, trying to inflict significant damage on a president who has withstood the storm of scandal for a year.

Republican leaders pressed the case last night that the president should testify before the Senate, trying to pressure Clinton to abandon his strategy of appearing above the impeachment proceedings. White House aides have stated emphatically that the president will not do so.

`Clear it up now'

"If the president wants to clear himself with history, he should come testify. If he just wants to walk away from this, he should clear it up now," said Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.

Said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah: "I do think if the president refused that it would be a tough political problem for him."

Yesterday's presentation was crucial for House prosecutors if they are to maintain that pressure. Most of the House presentation today and tomorrow will be consumed in constitutional arguments over whether the president's conduct warrants removal, and then summations. Clinton's defense will follow, beginning Tuesday.

If the evidence laid out yesterday did not persuade two-thirds of the Senate to convict, House prosecutors must ultimately prevail on the senators to extend the trial by allowing them to call witnesses.

"It's a make-or-break day for us," said Steve Susans, a spokesman for Rep. Ed Bryant, a Tennessee Republican who was among those who spoke yesterday.

They may well have scored some points. Stevens said the prosecutors did "a tremendous job of connecting the dots." Even Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a liberal Democrat, declared himself impressed.

But so far, no Senate Democrat appears ready to vote to convict. At least 12 would have cross party lines to remove the president.

"They threw facts at the Senate and obscure legal arguments, but they never addressed the key question: What is the threshold of an impeachable offense?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who as a House member voted against impeachment in December. "What I am looking for to change the views of people is new facts."

Prosecutors tried yesterday not only to lay out their case for Clinton's removal, but also to persuade senators to allow them to call live witnesses to help make that case. They were treading a delicate line between contending that they were making a convincing case for conviction while also saying that they need to call witnesses to bolster that case.

And they appealed directly to the silent jurors' sense of history.

"Members of the Senate, what you do over the next few weeks will forever affect the meaning of those two words, `I do.' You are now stewards of the oath," declared Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the prosecution team's leader, referring to the president's pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

By now, the evidence is familiar to most Americans and the Senate jurors. House prosecutors had hinted that they would lace their presentation with "nuggets" of new revelations, but none emerged. At times, the prosecutors appeared uncomfortable as they stumbled through their presentation.

But as Rep. Asa Hutchinson compellingly presented the charges of obstruction of justice against his fellow Arkansan, fidgeting jurors moved to the edge of their seats, furiously jotted down notes and appeared transfixed. Hutchinson presented a damaging, if circumstantial, case that once Monica Lewinsky's name appeared on the witness list for Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit on Dec. 5, 1997, "the wheels of obstruction started rolling."

"And they did not stop until the president successfully blocked the facts from coming out in a federal civil rights case," Hutchinson said.

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