History demands a better ending to trial

January 29, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the rush to put an end to the impeachment trial of President Clinton, the Senate Republicans' decision to limit the House prosecutors to three witnesses invites even more ridicule of the whole exercise than existed before.

The omission by the prosecutors of presidential secretary Betty Currie as one of the three challenges the seriousness of their efforts to clarify issues in the article of impeachment charging Mr. Clinton with obstruction of justice.

Ms. Currie, who was a go-between for Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, is essential in constructing the case that the president tried to shape what she would say to a federal grand jury. Also, she's crucial in the prosecutors' attempts to prove that Mr. Clinton tried to obstruct justice in getting Ms. Currie to hide gifts that he had given to Ms. Lewinsky.

The House prosecutors spent hours on Ms. Currie's testimony about Ms. Lewinsky's White House visits. They repeatedly challenged the president's contention that, in calling Ms. Currie to the White House on a Sunday and making leading statements about such visits, he was merely refreshing his own memory, anticipating press questions. What he really was doing, they alleged, was coaching her to give answers in court that would support his own untruthful statements.

Considering the reliance that the prosecutors have placed on Ms. Currie's testimony in making the allegation of obstruction of justice, it was widely expected that she would be the one figure in the case other than Ms. Lewinsky herself sought by the prosecutors. Instead, limited to three, they picked presidential friend and adviser Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal along with Ms. Lewinsky.

The choice of Mr. Jordan was understandable: He was a central figure in the job search for Ms. Lewinsky that the prosecutors contend was intended as a payoff to encourage her to continue to deny that she had been sexually involved with Mr. Clinton, and as a means of getting her out of Washington (as if New York could be reached only by space shuttle).

But choosing Mr. Blumenthal, a minor player in the drama, over Ms. Currie was astonishing. His grand jury testimony went principally to the question of whether Mr. Clinton tried to discredit Ms. Lewinsky as a witness by describing her to Mr. Blumenthal as a "stalker" determined to ignite a relationship with him. The notion that Mr. Clinton would face removal from office for that is equally ludicrous.

If the Senate was going to allow witnesses at all, what was so magic about the number three? Would adding Ms. Currie have resulted in an unreasonable extension of the trial any more than calling three?

The prosecutors started by saying they needed about 15 witnesses to make their case properly. The White House lawyers replied that with 60,000 pages of testimony available, there was no need to call any witnesses.

But when the specter of witnesses loomed, defense attorney David Kendall insisted that he would need "months and months" of discovery -- the process of learning and digesting all manner of information about the witnesses -- to provide Mr. Clinton with a proper defense. And after arguing loud and long that no witnesses were needed, Mr. Kendall raised the notion that the defense might need witnesses of its own and ought not be denied the chance to call them.

In any event, the whole idea of short-circuiting the process demeans its significance as history. Since the case has gone this far, there was no reason to call the game off in the eighth inning just because the outcome -- Mr. Clinton's survival as president -- is deemed certain. If there's a rush to end the trial, the solution is easy: Vote for or against removal.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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