Clinton defense strategy emerges in arguments

Lawyers hope to focus senators on specifics to undermine charges

January 21, 1999

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's defenders in the Senate impeachment trial spent hours yesterday talking about details, disputing the House point-by-point on the evidence behind the two articles. But, amid the specifics, the broad, multifaceted strategy to head off conviction emerged more clearly. Lyle Denniston of The Sun's national staff reviews that strategy and its implications.

Is their strategy the same for challenging both of the charges, perjury and obstruction of justice?

Basically, yes. They, like many observers, think the obstruction charge is the easier one to answer, so they are expending considerable effort to tie that charge closely to the perjury article, to make that one seem weak, too. They argued yesterday: If Clinton in fact did not obstruct justice, either before the grand jury or in the Paula Corbin Jones case, he had no reason to lie about what he did.

To make both points, they sought to convince senators that Clinton did not do anything illegal, did not tell a single lie under oath, did not try even once to manipulate or influence anyone else.

What technique did they use to convince senators that Clinton was not guilty of any illegality?

They sought to do it with all those specifics. They contended that the House's detailed evidence of wrongdoing just does not hold up when examined closely. There is a strategic reason for that, too: If senators accept that conclusion, they will not have to move on to the question -- surrounded by uncertainty -- of whether anything he may have done meets a constitutional standard for his conviction and removal.

The defenders do argue that the standard, whatever it is, has not been met, but they do not want his fate to have to rest on that proposition.

They have other reasons for keeping senators focused on detail: It directly refutes the House's argument that Clinton's conduct overall is what really counts the most; it allows them to attack the fairness of the House's methods by focusing on what that process produced or failed to produce; and it even permits them to claim that Kenneth W. Starr did not endorse many of the House's sinister interpretations of the evidence.

For a year, the White House has been vehemently attacking Starr and his investigation. Why would the defenders suddenly suggest that he used restraint?

They are not saying that, and they do not intend to praise Starr for anything. To them, Starr looks good only by comparison to the House.

They are pointing out, very specifically, where the House has charged something that Starr did not, and they suggest that even Starr's hard-driving prosecutors stopped short of doing what the House did with the evidence -- thus aiming to portray the House articles as even more extreme.

Isn't there a risk that the focus on details will backfire, and any senator who sees wrongdoing in some important detail will decide that alone justifies conviction?

Yes, that is a risk, but the president's lawyers used another tactic to diminish that risk: Each time they completed their rebuttal of a detail, they asked pointedly whether such a flawed accusation would justify conviction.

They did that most aggressively on the claims that the House prosecutors said were the heart of their case.

The defenders insist that it would be unconstitutional for one senator to convict for one or more specifics, others for different specifics, but they are not sure all senators would avoid that temptation. So, they want to leave no specific still standing by the time they finish.

Doesn't the focus on specifics highlight the differences with the House and thus heighten the prospect that the Senate will call witnesses to clear things up?

It could. The defenders do not lack confidence in the strength of their case, and their aim is to so undercut the details of the House's two articles that enough senators will conclude it would just waste time to call witnesses.

But the defense team also thinks that a strong case at least will serve to hold down a list of witnesses to just a very few.

Under Senate procedures for the trial, witnesses will not be called if the Senate votes next week to dismiss the two articles. Is the defenders' strategy aimed at that?

They certainly hope their detailed rebuttal will bolster the case for dismissal, but they have tailored most of their presentation toward persuading the Senate not to convict Clinton.

Still, much of what they have said this week will be repeated, in shorter form, as reasons for dismissal.

The defenders spent little time yesterday on their argument that the two articles are unconstitutional as written. What was the reason?

Their aim yesterday, as it will be for much of today, was to spend most of the time seeking to undermine the House's evidence specifically, leaving the broader arguments for summation today and for further use in arguing a motion to dismiss next week.

They did mention some constitutional points in passing, though, and laid out another variation of a constitutional grievance against the House procedure.

They contended that the House left it up to the 13 prosecutors to fill in details of charges, and the prosecutors used that opportunity to make charges the House itself never had a chance to consider.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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