Losing their ground, House prosecutors respond to defense more aggressively

GOP urges more time as support appears to grow for early end to trial

Trial In The Senate

January 22, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With their position eroding in the face of a strong White House assault on their impeachment case, the House prosecutors in the last two days have stepped up their attacks on the defense offered by President Clinton's lawyers.

As the White House team began to make headway Wednesday with its argument for a quick end to the impeachment trial, the 13 increasingly frustrated House prosecutors adopted a more aggressive approach, taking to the airwaves with point-by-point responses to the defense.

They abandoned plans to offer restrained and brief commentary at the end of each day, a tactic used by the White House on the three days last week when the prosecutors outlined their case.

With some GOP senators voicing reservations about their impeachment case and expressing doubt about allowing them to call witnesses, House Republicans became unwilling to leave it to their Senate counterparts to answer the administration's lawyers.

The prosecutors were careful not to criticize Republican senators. Instead, they justified their change in tactics by saying that Senate rules do not allow senators to respond on the Senate floor, something prosecutors routinely do in court trials.

"We feel unhappy about the fact that the agreement reached among the senators does not provide rebuttal time for us," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, the lead prosecutor, said in an interview. "We feel that's pretty standard."

So, Hyde said, "We have to do the best we can within the limited opportunities available to us."

Hyde told reporters yesterday that the prosecutors would attempt to rebut the Clinton team's case during the 16 hours, beginning today, that senators have been allotted to question prosecutors and the defense team.

"I think it would be a mistake to rush to judgment," said Hyde, seemingly acknowledging that the House position was losing steam.

"To short-circuit the House managers' effort to put their case on, I think, would be a great disservice to the Constitution and to the institution, and I don't think that will happen."

Attempting to keep their case alive, GOP prosecutors have been seeking out reporters, providing legal points and rapid-fire sound-bites to ensure that their arguments are aired in the court of public opinion.

Looking for reporters, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went to the Capitol basement near the subway that whisks senators from the Capitol to their nearby office buildings. He immediately began tearing into the Clinton team's arguments.

"Listening in there, I just want to jump up and rebut," added Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a prosecutor from Arkansas.

"I have complained about the [lack of a] rebuttal from the beginning. It is a matter of fairness," said California Rep. James E. Rogan, another prosecutor. The prosecution team members insisted that they weren't particularly cowed by Clinton's defense, hailed as a watershed by the Democratic senators who are now trying to build support for a quick dismissal.

But the prosecutors had House Judiciary Committee aides circulating regularly through the Senate press gallery to deliver to reporters a detailed response to claims made by the president's lawyers, who Republicans contend are stretching the truth beyond recognition.

Hutchinson, for example, rejected the scenario for Monica Lewinsky's job search sketched out yesterday by David Kendall, the president's private lawyer. Among other arguments, Kendall attempted to undercut the charge of obstruction of justice by saying a corporate chief said he felt no pressure to find a job for Lewinsky despite the entreaties of Vernon Jordan, a Clinton friend.

"We shouldn't set aside common sense" in considering the charges, a nettled Hutchinson said. Pennsylvania Rep. George W. Gekas explained: "We're trying to rebut what they're saying with an instant rebuttal."

He continued, "That's to do a few things: One, to reach the public immediately after the president's lawyers make their presentation; two, to solidify in our minds the objections we have; and three, to reach members of the Senate through the news media as the Senate considers its case."

Meantime, even as they see Senate support for calling witnesses ebb, House prosecutors are arguing among themselves over whether to call the "Jane Does" -- other women alleged to have had liaisons with Clinton in the past.

Several prosecutors, including Rogan and Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, said in interviews that they believe the women can help their case by testifying to a pattern of obstruction of justice. Others, such as Hutchinson, have been more skeptical of their usefulness and are wary of alienating the senators who need to vote to approve the deposition of witnesses.

This internal disagreement has played out as the tide has turned against the prosecution team, which had been widely praised for the case it made last week.

Three days ago, the State of the Union address sent Clinton's public approval ratings soaring. The next day, White House special counsel Greg Craig called the allegations against the president "frequently trivial, almost always technical, often immaterial and always insubstantial."

Yesterday, as Kendall dismissed the GOP's case as "rhetoric," the prosecutors cried foul.

"Our case is being chopped and hacked," Cannon said. "Who would have expected that they would have taken such liberties?"

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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