President innocent, lawyer tells Senate

Defense's overview disputes facts offered to support ouster

`Witches' brew' of charges

January 20, 1999|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The chief White House lawyer opened a sober, yet forceful, defense of President Clinton before the Senate yesterday, insisting that the president did not commit any of the offenses charged in the impeachment articles and sharply attacking the Republican case as a "witches' brew" of allegations.

At the start of a three-day presentation, White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff offered an overview of the administration's defense of the president, outlining constitutional arguments against impeachment and disputing some of the facts presented at the Senate trial last week by the 13 House members who are prosecuting the president.

"William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been proffered against him," Ruff said sternly at both the beginning and end of a 2 1/2-hour presentation that came hours before the president delivered his State of the Union address in the House chamber.

"He did not commit perjury. He did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office."

In an understated, methodical defense -- punctuated with biting scorn for the case presented by the GOP House managers last week -- Ruff said the president's prosecutors had cast events in the most sinister light possible and based their charges on "shifting sand castles of speculation."

And, in an argument the White House has made repeatedly, he asserted that, even if the president had committed the offenses he is accused of, those actions would not warrant removing him from office.

"You are free to criticize him, to find his actions distasteful," said Ruff, a highly respected veteran of legal skirmishes within the political arena.

"Whatever your feelings may be about William Clinton, the man, or William Clinton, the political ally or opponent, or William Clinton, the father and the husband, ask only this: `Should William Clinton, the president, be removed from office? Are we at that horrific moment in our history, when our union can be preserved only by taking the step that the Framers saw as a last resort?' "

Speaking from his wheelchair in the well of the Senate, Ruff delivered his remarks so quietly that senators had to strain in their seats to hear him. The White House presentation continues today and tomorrow with a more detailed analysis of the facts of the case by other Clinton lawyers and, surprisingly, a summation tomorrow by Democrat Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, a former senator with whom Clinton has long had a tense, uneasy relationship.

The White House abandoned a plan to add some House Judiciary Committee Democrats to its defense team after Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia said House members aren't allowed to speak on the Senate floor unless they are given an official role.

In yesterday's opening, the White House sought to dispel the notion that it had dealt only with legal issues and not the facts of the case. Ruff offered a brief point-by-point rebuttal of the two impeachment articles against Clinton, as well as two specific examples of misstatements or omissions by the House members that the lawyer called "prosecutorial fudge."

"Be wary, be wary," Ruff warned the 100 senators, "of the prosecutor who feels it necessary to deceive the court."

In the first instance, Ruff took issue with the prosecutors' conclusion that the president obstructed justice by instructing his secretary, Betty Currie, to retrieve gifts from Monica Lewinsky that he had given her.

In an effort to show that it was Currie -- and, by logical extension, Clinton -- who initiated the pickup of gifts from Lewinsky on Dec. 28, Republicans wielded phone records last week showing that Currie called Lewinsky at 3: 32 p.m. that day from her cell phone.

But Ruff noted yesterday that Lewinsky testified on three occasions that Currie came to her house to pick up the gifts about 2 p.m., more than an hour before Currie placed the call to her. He argued, too, that the call lasted under a minute, not enough time to coordinate arrangements for concealing the gifts.

In a second example, Ruff disputed the charge that Clinton tried to find Lewinsky a job in exchange for her denial of their affair, saying the evidence of any such obstruction of justice consisted of "sealing wax, string and spider webs."

Ruff pointed to the GOP's allegation that Clinton ally Vernon Jordan stepped up his job search for Lewinsky only after he learned that the judge in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case ruled that she would allow questioning of other women, such as Lewinsky, with whom Clinton was said to have had affairs.

In building a case for obstruction of justice, the House managers said last week that the judge's ruling on Dec. 11, 1997, fell on the same day that Clinton and Jordan talked about getting a job for Lewinsky.

But Ruff pointed out yesterday that the conference call from Judge Susan Webber Wright to the lawyers involved in the Jones suit didn't take place until about 6: 30 p.m., when Jordan was on a plane headed for Amsterdam.

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