Senate gets a tutorial on the law

Perjury, obstruction charges are focus of House Republicans

Rehnquist makes a ruling

White House lawyer says that managers rehash rejected article

January 16, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A parade of House prosecutors staged a four-hour tutorial yesterday on the laws of perjury and obstruction of justice, hoping to persuade 100 silent senators that the offenses committed by President Clinton were grave enough to merit his removal from office.

In a sometimes repetitive proceeding, four House Republicans insisted that the evidence against the president overwhelmingly proves the two articles of impeachment approved by the House in December.

The prosecutors went on to argue that the evidence is so weighty that it shows Clinton guilty also of some charges the House did not approve or even consider, such as witness tampering or perjury in his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit.

"When you finish hearing and weighing all of the evidence, you'll conclude that William Jefferson Clinton committed the crimes of obstruction of justice, witness tampering and perjury, that these in this case are high crimes and misdemeanors, that he has done grave damage to our system of justice, and leaving him in office would do more," Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida concluded.

And as they did when they opened their case Thursday, the prosecutors implored senators to allow them to call witnesses to the trial if any doubts about the president's guilt or innocence persist.

"Let's examine Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie and the other key witnesses," McCollum said. "Invite the president to come. Judge for yourself their credibility."

The Republican presentation provoked clashes with both the White House and Democratic senators. After the trial was adjourned for the day, Gregory B. Craig, the White House special counsel, protested that prosecutors had "returned again and again to the president's deposition in the Jones case despite the fact that a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives specifically considered and specifically rejected an article of impeachment based on that case."

Craig also denounced the push for witnesses as an effort "to expand and extend this proceeding for one reason: They do not have a case based on the facts, on the law, on the Constitution or on the voluminous record for overturning the election and removing the president of the United States."

The other clash came after another prosecutor, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, repeatedly referred to the senators as "jurors." In the first challenge to the proceedings, Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat from Iowa, rose to object, saying history suggests that senators serve more as judges than as jurors in impeachment trials.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist quickly and decisively ruled in Harkin's favor, setting off a flurry of debate on how to interpret the ruling. Harkin chose the most expansive interpretation, saying Rehnquist had, in effect, granted permission to senators to decide the case based not solely on the facts and the law, but also on what Harkin called "the public good."

Such an interpretation would give Democrats cover for voting against conviction, even if they believed the House had proved that Clinton perjured himself and obstructed justice. Democrats could contend that it was in the nation's best interest to keep the president in office.

"It was a very significant ruling and one which I believe is going to set a very good precedent not only for this trial but for impeachment trials in the future," said Harkin, who has already called the House's case a "pile of dung."

House prosecutors dismissed the ruling as largely semantic, taking aim instead at Harkin. "He was just trying to disrupt the presentation," McCollum said. "He's been very harsh."

Day 2 of the House presentation promised to be the most tedious of the prosecution's three-day opening statement, as House Republicans set out to explain in copious detail just why Clinton's actions to hide his affair with Lewinsky fit the statutory definitions of federal crimes. And it lived up to its billing.

"While today's discussion of the law may not be as captivating as yesterday's discussion of the facts," conceded Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, "it is nevertheless essential that we thoroughly review the law as we move forward in this historic process."

Prosecutors did their job in explaining the law, but they also could not stop themselves from repeating the facts of the case again and again.

"I questioned the need for the repetitiveness," said Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a conservative Republican.

And prosecutors may have had their share of slips. As McCollum summed up the case for a perjury conviction, he strayed from his prepared text to highlight what he called "the question that is the compelling bottom-line crime."

That question, posed by a deputy of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr during Clinton's grand jury deposition, was whether the president touched Lewinsky's breasts and genitalia -- hardly the point on which Republicans wanted to hang their entire case.

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