Clinton lawyers ask acquittal

Defense team attacks perjury, obstruction

to wrap up case today

GOP seeks gracefull exit

Senate Democrats see day's presentation as turning point for Clinton

January 21, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by President Clinton's State of the Union performance, White House lawyers returned to the well of the Senate yesterday to launch a blistering attack on the House impeachment charges, concluding with an impassioned political appeal to senators to acquit Clinton.

"Do not throw our politics into the darkness of endless recrimination," implored Gregory B. Craig, the White House special counsel, on the second day of the defense presentation. "Do not inject a poison of bitter partisanship into the body politic, which, like a virus, can move through our national bloodstream for years to come with results none can know.

"Do not let this case and these charges, as flawed and as unfair as they are, destroy a fundamental underpinning of American democracy: the right of the people, and no one else, to select the president of the United States."

Senate Democrats boastfully predicted that when the impeachment saga finally concludes, yesterday's events would be recorded as a turning point in the president's favor. As Clinton barnstormed through Buffalo, N.Y., and eastern Pennsylvania, pushing his policy agenda to swollen crowds, even the conservative evangelist Pat Robertson seemed ready to let Republicans drop their drive to oust the president.

Clinton's spirited State of the Union address pushed his job approval ratings as high as 76 percent in an overnight NBC News poll, reflecting a traditional post-State of the Union bounce. And Republican leaders now seem eager to play down the impeachment trial and engage the White House in a policy debate over Social Security and tax cuts.

Robertson, the Christian Coalition founder and fervent Clinton opponent, said the president had "hit a home run" in his speech and had dashed any possibility that he would be convicted at his trial.

"From a public relations standpoint, he's won," Robertson said on his television show, "The 700 Club." "They might as well dismiss this impeachment hearing and get on with something else, because it's over as far as I'm concerned."

Craig methodically reviewed the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, dismissing them as "frequently trivial, almost always technical, often immaterial and always insubstantial." While he accused House prosecutors of "word games" and distortions, another lawyer, Cheryl Mills, a deputy White House counsel, took the attack further.

`Shortchanged the truth'

"The House managers have dramatically shortchanged the truth," Mills said in a presentation that drew praise from both sides of the aisle for its brevity and precision.

Clinton's team will wrap up its defense today, when the president's personal attorney, David E. Kendall, will challenge the remaining obstruction charges, and former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers will sum up the case before his one-time colleagues and ask for an acquittal.

Two days of questioning from senators will follow. A vote to dismiss the case could come as early as Monday, though it is likely to fail, largely along party lines.

But Senate Republican leaders have begun to search for a graceful exit strategy. With his State of the Union address, Clinton launched the legislative year, and Republican leaders realize that little can get done while a trial is under way on the Senate floor.

Some witnesses likely

Republican senators emerged from a meeting yesterday appearing confident that they will call some witnesses, at least for closed-door depositions. But they also appeared more ready to keep a tight leash on the proceedings.

"This all doesn't need to go beyond mid-February, even with the deposition of witnesses," said John Czwartacki, the spokesman for Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Democrats still hold out hope that the calling of witnesses can be averted, and they pointed hopefully to the well-received performance by White House lawyers yesterday.

"When the last chapter is written on this impeachment trial, I suspect this day will be seen as the beginning of the end," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey.

Craig made the longer, more detailed presentation of the day. He tried to pick apart the perjury case -- or at least diminish its importance to the point where few senators would view it as worthy of removing a president for the first time in the nation's history.

He criticized House prosecutors for expanding the charges of grand jury perjury beyond the three original counts in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment report. And he faulted them for failing to detail which of Clinton's statements to the grand jury were perjurious.

Craig attacked each of the instances of perjury alleged in the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment report. House prosecutors say Clinton lied when he testified that he had had inappropriate contact with Monica Lewinsky on "certain occasions"; Lewinsky said there were 11 such occasions.

"It is hard to take the charges seriously when in each case they boil down to arguments over semantics," he said.

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