Query tone falls along party lines

Senators' questioning soft on fellow members, callous toward opposition

Trial In The Senate

January 24, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The president's lawyers and House Republican prosecutors squared off yesterday for the second question-and-answer day of the Senate impeachment trial, fielding pointed queries from senators intent on scoring partisan points.

Senators will convene tomorrow to hear House and White House legal adversaries debate a Democratic motion to dismiss the trial and a Republican motion to depose witnesses.

For nearly six hours yesterday, senators lobbed softball questions to the lawyers of their own party and bombshells at the opposition. There was almost no sign that two days of face-to-face wrangling had persuaded any of the 100 senators to cross party lines.

Democrats used the proceedings to protest independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's successful effort to persuade a federal judge to order Monica Lewinsky to submit to an interview with House prosecutors.

Some Democratic questions also gave White House lawyers the chance to speak on the president's behalf.

Senate Republicans delivered questions calculated to allow House prosecutors to tee off on everything from Clinton's effect on military morale to the Senate's duty to bravely disregard public opinion polls favoring Clinton, to "do the right thing," even if it costs them their Senate careers.

"We're not delegates who are sent here to weigh our mail every day and then to vote accordingly," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, leader of the prosecution team. "Our work here is not an ongoing plebiscite."

White House lawyers methodically reviewed the House case.

Friday, House managers had made much of an exchange between political aide Dick Morris and Clinton, contending Clinton had asked Morris to conduct a poll on whether Americans would forgive the president for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors said Clinton had suggested a news conference to "blast Monica Lewinsky out of the water."

Both points were intended to show that Clinton knew he had violated the law and intended to obstruct justice.

But Charles F. C. Ruff, White House counsel, turned the damaging exchange into another example of what Ruff called prosecutorial distortion. Reading from Starr's impeachment report, Ruff showed that in fact, according to Morris, Clinton agreed that Morris would conduct a poll on "the voters' willingness to forgive confessed adultery."

It was Morris who slipped in questions about perjury and obstruction, according to the Starr report.

Moreover, Morris testified that it was he who had suggested a news conference to attack Lewinsky. Clinton warned him against it, according to the Starr report.

"Close, close, [but] 180 degrees off," Ruff said, his voice seething with sarcasm.

The prosecution might have slipped again yesterday when Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina possibly provided some political cover for Democrats to vote for acquittal. All day, he had played the conciliator as other prosecutors took a hard line for the president's removal from office. But Graham may have gone a little too far when he said he agreed "absolutely" with the notion that "reasonable people" could disagree on whether Clinton's alleged activities warrant his removal.

"It's never been hard to find out whether Bill Clinton committed perjury or whether he obstructed justice; that ain't a hard one for me," Graham said in his folksy Southern drawl. "But when you take the good of this nation, the upside and the downside, reasonable people can disagree on what we should do."

Still, House prosecutors had ample opportunity to give senators reasons to convict, and their secret weapon was often the same: the eloquence of Henry Hyde.

"We are setting the parameters of permissible presidential conduct, the one office that ought to gleam in the sunlight," Hyde said yesterday, his voice rising, then falling to a sad whisper as he mused on the example the president had set for the nation's children. "The kids, that's what this means. The kids."

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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