Questions deepen partisan debate

Senators slog it out during questioning phase of Clinton trial

January 23, 1999|By JONATHAN WEISMAN | JONATHAN WEISMAN,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After two weeks of sitting in silent witness in President Clinton's impeachment trial, senators yesterday began lobbing pointed, strategic questions at House and White House lawyers, pushing the proceedings into deepening partisan rancor.

Proceedings broke down along party lines, as Republicans and Democrats tried to help their respective sides make the case for or against the removal of the president.

"The questions and answers this afternoon did nothing to provide any new or significant information," said Louisiana Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux after the session. "We could debate and argue this until hell freezes over, and the ultimate answer and the result would be the same."

While Senate Republicans asked White House lawyers barbed questions, they more often allowed House prosecutors to use the session to rebut the president's three-day defense -- a defense that has turned the momentum in Clinton's favor. Conservative senators asked prosecutors such open-ended questions as, "The president's counsel stated, `The president did not commit perjury.' Please respond."

Senate Democrats at times tried to trip up the prosecutors with difficult questions, but usually they were content to ask White House lawyers to rebut the points just made by their adversaries.

Against a backdrop of fast-moving political intrigue as both sides scrambled behind closed doors to find a way out of the morass, points were scored by both sides. But it was not clear whether anyone was keeping score. Indeed, the most powerful point may have come when the president's personal lawyer, David E. Kendall, delivered a threat:

"If [House prosecutors] are going to begin calling witnesses. I think you are looking realistically at many months to have a fair discovery process," Kendall said, promising depositions, investigations and subpoenas. Not to pursue all the evidence in the president's favor would be "malpractice," he said.

Republicans drew blood when they asked, "Four days after the president's Paula Jones testimony, why would [Clinton political adviser] Dick Morris conduct a poll on whether the American people would forgive the president for committing perjury and obstruction of justice?"

Clearly at a loss, White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff joked, "I couldn't find any volunteers" to answer.

But House prosecutor Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had a ready reply: "I know why he took a poll. His political and legal interests are so paramount in his mind, the law be damned. And anybody that got in his way be damned."

Ruff ultimately dismissed the poll as irrelevant to the question of whether Clinton should remain in office.

White House lawyers scored points after Republican senators asked how the Senate could do impartial justice if House prosecutors are not allowed to call witnesses. That let Ruff respond sharply that House Republicans had "violated their constitutional responsibility" when they failed to call witnesses before impeaching the president.

"They knew everything they needed to know, as you've heard them say so eloquently and so forcefully here, to remove the president of the United States from office," Ruff said. "And now they're saying to you, `Well, maybe not.' Having abandoned their obligation to do the right constitutional thing a month ago, they turn to us and say, `Protect our rights.' "

House prosecutor Steve Buyer of Indiana responded moments later, snapping, "I violated no oath, nor the Constitution."

At one point, Rep. Asa Hutchinson criticized White House lawyers for saying the president could not have been trying to influence his secretary's testimony in the Jones case by posing pointed questions to Betty Currie about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

White House lawyers had said the exchange had been innocent, because Currie had not been on the Jones lawyers' witness list and could not have been expected to testify in the matter. But, Hutchinson said that within days Currie was subpoenaed to testify -- which the president's lawyers neglected to mention.

"They talk about prosecutorial fudging," the Arkansas Republican fumed. "How about defense fudging?"

Ruff was forced to concede to Hutchinson, "I owe him an explanation."

Ruff quickly struck back, reminding senators that Hutchinson had said Clinton friend Vernon Jordan's efforts to find Lewinsky a job had intensified immediately after a judicial order allowing Jones' attorneys to question Lewinsky. The problem with that timeline was clear: Jordan was on a plane to Amsterdam when that order was delivered.

"I get carried away in my argument," Hutchinson conceded.

But for all the jousting, it was not clear whether anyone was listening. As both sides struggled to answer their questions, senators were discussing an announcement by Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia that he would move to dismiss the charges Monday. Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah announced he, too, was formulating a way to end the trial and leave the president in office.

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