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Clinton lawyers attack impeachment charges

Defense team urges Senate not to undo '96 election

January 20, 1999
Web posted at: 7:47 p.m. EDT (1947 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, January 20) -- President Bill Clinton's lawyers launched a point-by-point attack Wednesday on the perjury and obstruction-of-justice allegations against Clinton, calling them vague and without merit.

"William Jefferson Clinton was elected freely, fairly and openly by the American people to be president," White House Special Counsel Gregory Craig said during the impeachment defense team's second day. "We dare not reverse that decision without good and just cause."

Also in this story:

For the defense team, it was the day to target the House prosecutors' case, and the prosecutors themselves, with Craig focusing on the perjury charges and Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills on the allegation of obstruction of justice.

Mills
Cheryl Mills  

Craig, who led off, said the House of Representatives erred in not outlining precisely what Clinton allegedly lied about during his August 17 grand jury appearance about his relationship with ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

That is what federal prosecutors have to do when they bring perjury cases, and the House's lack of specifics puts the president at an unfair disadvantage in trying to defend himself, Craig said.

"Imagine a murder indictment without identifying a victim," Craig told the senators sitting in judgment of Clinton. "There is a stunning lack of specificity ..."

The House article of impeachment alleges perjury generally, "but it does not allege a single perjurious statement specifically," Craig said.

Clinton's lawyer, standing at a lectern in the well of the Senate, said no reasonable person could read the grand jury transcript and not see Clinton was owning up to his illicit affair with Lewinsky. "I urge you to read that transcript," Craig said. "You will see this president make painful, difficult admissions."

Clinton contended during his August 17 grand jury appearance that he did not lie during his deposition a year ago in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case when he denied an affair with Lewinsky. He based that on a definition of sexual relations used in the Jones case.

Clinton has since admitted a relationship with Lewinsky, but has denied he committed perjury and obstruction of justice while trying to conceal their affair.

Craig apologized if his arguments seemed overly legalistic or technical, but said Clinton is entitled to use all legal means to defend himself.

Craig
Gregory Craig  

"When an individual, any individual, is accused of committing a crime, such as perjury, the prosecutors must be put to their full proof," he said. "Every element of the crime must be proven. And if a criminal standard is going to be used here, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Craig accused House prosecutors of "legal mumbo-jumbo" by converting innocent statements into alleged perjury and of bringing perjury allegations that were "frequently trivial, almost always technical, often immaterial and always insubstantial."

"These charges have been a moving target for us throughout this process," Craig complained.

Craig said prosecutors have made much of the fact that Clinton said the affair began in January 1996 and Lewinsky said in November 1995. The suggestion has been made, said Craig, that Clinton wanted to cover up Lewinsky's age when the affair began.

But Lewinsky's age did not change during that period, Craig said. "Her birthday is in July," he said. "She was 22 in November, and she was 22 in January ... Any dispute over this immaterial issue is silly."

Craig also tried to explain the president's much-ridiculed answer to one question that his answer would depend on the definition of the word "is."

Craig called that "a political mistake" and said Clinton erred in trying to be his own lawyer and argue with prosecutors.

Though he focused in lawyerly fashion on details of the House case and grand jury transcripts, Craig also warned of political consequences if the Senate votes to oust Clinton from office.

"If you convict and remove President Clinton on the basis of these allegations, no president of the United States will ever be safe from impeachment again," Craig said. "And it will happen. And people will look back at us and they will say we should have stopped it then before it was too late. Don't let this happen to our country ... Do not throw our politics into the darkness of endless recrimination."

Mills dissects obstruction-of-justice allegations

White House Deputy Counsel Mills followed Craig, arguing against the House's obstruction-of-justice charges. Mills maintained that Clinton did not ask his secretary, Betty Currie, to retrieve presidential gifts from Lewinsky after they had been subpoenaed in December 1997 by lawyers for Jones.

Mills noted that Lewinsky has given 10 accounts of a December 28 meeting with the president where they discussed the gifts, but House prosecutors have quoted only the one least favorable to the president.

Even based on that account, no one claims that Clinton ordered, suggested or even hinted that anyone should obstruct justice, Mills said.

"Why haven't you heard these (other) versions?" Mills asked. "Because they weaken an already fragile circumstantial case."

House prosecutors have ignored Lewinsky's own motivations for having Currie take the gifts, Mills said. When Lewinsky got the Jones subpoena, she feared lawyers for Jones would break into her apartment or tap her phone and she wanted the gifts moved.

Why would Currie agree to hold the box of gifts?

"Because she's a friend, and that is not obstruction of justice," Mills said.

Mills also disputed the notion that Clinton tried to obstruct justice by asking Currie leading questions the day after his Jones deposition, trying to influence Currie's potential testimony.

"There was no effort to intimidate or pressure Ms. Currie," Mills said, citing Currie's own grand jury testimony.

Mills also took on the House prosecutors' assertion that failing to convict and remove Clinton would hurt the case of civil rights, since Jones' case alleged a violation of her civil rights.

Jones got her day in court and the Lewinsky matter was judged immaterial to her case, Mills noted. Acquitting Clinton will not "shake the house of civil rights," she said.

House prosecutors fire back at Clinton's lawyers

Outside the Senate chamber, some of the House prosecutors, known as "managers," tried to rebuff the defense team's assertions.

Hutchinson
Rep. Asa Hutchinson  

"It appears the White House strategy is to attack the managers more personally and to make it the managers versus the White House," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas).

"This should not be a battle between the managers and the White House defense team," Hutchinson said. "This is a battle between the facts of this case. The concentration should be on the facts, not on the lawyers, not the managers."

Rep. James Rogan (R-California) said the defense's statements were "riddled with inaccuracies and half-truths." And Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) said it was frustrating not to have an opportunity for rebuttal.

Looking ahead to Thursday and beyond

David Kendall, the president's personal attorney, will wrap up the defense rebuttal to the obstruction of justice charge on Thursday. Kendall has tussled with Independent Counsel Ken Starr since Starr was named independent counsel to investigate Whitewater in 1994.

It was that investigation that evolved into the sex scandal involving Clinton and Lewinsky.

Kendall is scheduled to be followed by former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Arkansas), a longtime Clinton ally who has urged the president to forcefully fight the charges against him.

The White House has dropped plans to add House Judiciary Committee Democrats to the defense team after objections from senators.

Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and fierce defender of Senate traditions, said in a statement "such participation might set an unwise precedent."

On Friday and Saturday, senators will have two days to question the House prosecutors and Clinton's lawyers. The process will be unusual: written questions only, via Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is presiding over the trial.

The proceedings will reach a critical juncture next Monday, when there could be a decision on a motion to dismiss the charges and, if that fails, a decision on whether to call witnesses. If that happens, there likely would be depositions first, before any live testimony before the Senate.

The witness question remains a key point of contention. Clinton's defenders say that calling witnesses could cause the trial to drag into May or June. House prosecutors and Senate Republicans, however, want to hear from key players in the case.


Investigating the President

MORE STORIES:

Wednesday January 20, 1999

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