Senate told to `cleanse' White House

House prosecutors end 3-day presentation with appeal for removal

`Example of lawlessness'

Clinton legal team promises vigorous defense against charges

Trial In The Senate

January 17, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Summing up their case with a withering attack on President Clinton, House prosecutors implored senators yesterday to "cleanse" the White House of a man who has made himself "a notorious example of lawlessness" -- or risk leaving the presidency "permanently damaged."

"You have got to put him back in bounds," Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said of the president. "Remove him."

For three days, 13 House members -- serving as prosecutors in the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history -- have tried to chip away at the president's support. After laying out the evidence that Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice, they turned yesterday to perhaps the critical issue: whether his efforts to hide his relationship with Monica Lewinsky constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors" and warrant the removal of a president for the first time.

In an impassioned appeal, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and leader of the prosecution team, hinted that if a considerable number of senators see Clinton as unfit for office, the rest of the body should be impelled to remove him. Hyde appeared to be responding to Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's suggestion that Clinton should be left in office "for the good of the country" -- even if he did lie under oath and obstruct justice.

"If on impeachment, a president is not convicted and removed from office despite the fact that numerous senators are convinced that he has egregiously failed the test of his oath of office, violated the trust of the American people and dishonored the office, then the office of the presidency has been deeply and perhaps permanently damaged," Hyde concluded.

For the president, it was a stinging finale, leaving House Republicans perhaps at the high-water mark of their drive to remove Clinton from office.

Little headway

Nevertheless, the Republican prosecutors apparently made little headway. They had hoped to sway some Democrats to publicly embrace Clinton's removal, thus giving their case much-needed momentum.

Instead, a Republican, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, indicated yesterday that he might vote to dismiss the case altogether, citing the "bad precedent" senators could set if they remove Clinton from office for "the terrible things and the stupid things" he did to protect himself from the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit.

The president's lawyers will begin to present on Tuesday what White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig promised to be "a strong, vigorous defense based on the facts, the law and the Constitution."

But they will begin with some stark disadvantages. They must first repair the damage wrought by three days of unanswered attacks, and they must compete for attention with the president himself -- who has insisted on going forward with his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Still, Clinton's team has the largest advantage: Removing Clinton from office will take at least 67 votes, including no fewer than a dozen Democrats. And Democrats appeared to remain in Clinton's camp.

"What the president did, odious as it was, did not go to the future functioning of our government," said New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, "and you do not remove a president for that."

After the House concluded its case, Craig expressed confidence that Clinton would prevail, dismissing the House accusations as "an unsubstantiated, circumstantial case that does not meet the constitutional standard to remove the president."

"The 13 House Republican prosecutors had the constitutional burden to prove their case," Craig said. "After three uninterrupted days of presenting that case, they have failed to meet that burden." But House prosecutors expressed confidence that they had succeeded.

After the conclusion of their presentation, the prosecutors met for a half hour to discuss calling witnesses. They emerged without deciding which, if any, to ask the Senate to call. Prosecutors said they still may decide to request the president's appearance but expressed less eagerness to do so than they had earlier in the week.

"We did have discussions about whether to ask the Senate to invite the president," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican. "We need to wait. We've made no conclusion on it. I believe it's the Senate's decision. If they call him, we would welcome the opportunity to question him. That's still in discussion."

Focus on precedent

Yesterday's House presentation may have been the strongest of the three days, because it homed in on the Senate's precedent for ousting federal officeholders. Graham compared Clinton's case to the removal from office of three federal judges during the 1980s, Harry E. Claiborne, Walter Nixon and Alcee Hastings.

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