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Analysis: At Times, Debate Returns to Matters of Fact

Impeachment hearing House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, right, jokes with witness Wayne Owens. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Ruth Marcus
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page A20

    For the first time in weeks, the debate about whether to impeach President Clinton returned yesterday to some of the actual facts amassed against him, even if only for part of the House Judiciary Committee's marathon session.

    Instead of invoking such distracting side issues as on the Democratic side whether independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's prosecutors mistreated Monica S. Lewinsky or on the Republican side whether other Americans have been prosecuted for lying under oath about private sexual matters, the White House and the committee actually engaged in a debate about the details of Clinton's conduct and testimony and its legal significance.

    For weeks, Democrats and the White House have spent their time inveighing against the alleged excesses of the independent counsel and bemoaning what they see as the unfairness of the committee process.

    Yesterday, shifting rhetorical gears, White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig sounded a note of contrition more likely to appeal to the moderate group of House members who hold Clinton's constitutional fate in their hands, using words like "sinful," "morally wrong" and "profound and powerful regret."

    Craig clearly wanted to defer the full debate over the facts and law of the case to the presentation by White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff this afternoon. But GOP members of the committee appeared eager to finally dive into the details, and Craig found himself the focus of much of their initial questioning.

    His statements and later a 184-page White House brief arguing against impeachment underscored the tightrope the administration has to walk in crafting its defense, precariously balanced between making its case that the president did not commit any crimes and risking inflaming even Democratic allies if it mounts what is viewed as a hairsplitting, technical legal defense.

    Craig seemed painfully aware of that predicament. "I understand you're not going to like this," he told Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) about whether Clinton had sex with Lewinsky, "because you will see it as a technical defense or a hairsplitting, evasive answer, but sexual relations is defined in every dictionary in a certain way, and he did not have that kind of sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky."

    Instead of choosing to quibble over such matters as whether the president is the nation's chief law enforcement officer, as the White House did in its answers to the 81 written questions posed by the Judiciary Committee, Craig went about as far as he safely could in acknowledging the extent to which Clinton's sworn testimony strayed from the standard that could be expected from any witness, no less the president of the United States.

    "Mr. Chairman," he said, "I am willing to concede that in the Jones deposition, the president's testimony was evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening, but it was not perjury."

    Taking on perhaps the most dangerous allegation against the president that he lied before the grand jury about the details of his encounters with Lewinsky Craig acknowledged that Clinton's testimony differs sharply from that of Lewinsky, who says that he touched her in intimate ways. But Craig argued that such differing recollections about a private matter do not support impeachment.

    "It's an oath-on-oath, he says-she says situation," Craig said. "This is hardly, I think, the kind of issue that the House of Representatives should send to the Senate for a trial before the American people to determine whether or not the president of the United States should be removed from office."

    But even as debate was finally joined over the facts of Clinton's conduct, some GOP committee members expressed exasperation that the White House just as the committee majority in the previous days of proceedings had not called any witnesses who could testify to the facts.

    "Zero for three," said Inglis as the third panel of the day two Watergate veterans and White House allies testified. "Three panels, no facts, no evidence."

    And some of the White House witnesses seemed to further inflame a panel already hurtling toward approving articles of impeachment against the president, and perhaps ran the risk of turning off moderate GOP House members still agonizing about their vote on impeachment.

    For example, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz warned the panel against a "perverted logic" that it was safe to impeach the president because the Senate would never actually convict him. "Such willingness to pass the buck on so grave and indelible a matter of impeachment is a feeble evasion of responsibility and a degradation of conscience," he said.

    The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, who served on the panel during the Nixon impeachment proceedings in 1974, warned against letting it "go down in the history books as it was dominated by vindictiveness and by vengeance and by partisanship."

    That did not seem to help the White House case. "I'm very disappointed that the president's defense would send witnesses to this committee that would say we're driven by vengeance, that we're zealots and fanatics and cowards," said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.).

    Recalling previous witnesses who had attacked the panel, Rep. Ed Pease (R-Ind.) said, "Today another witness did the same in his accusations of a cavalier attitude among members on this difficult subject. . . . I still believe there are members, despite the attacks, who will try to do the right thing in an atmosphere of civility and respect and words like those heard today make it more difficult for us to do so."

    If the White House witnesses annoyed committee members, its brief enraged them. Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said, "Upon preliminary review, this document, the contents of which we learned from television news, appears to contain no new evidence or challenge of the truthfulness of any testimony." Hyde said the brief featured "more legal hairsplitting and semantic gymnastics we have come to expect."

    Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) noted that the brief sought to rebut the assertion that the president lied when he said he could not recall being alone with Lewinsky in part by saying, "The term 'alone' is vague unless a particular geographic space is identified."

    Indeed, two of the White House's own witnesses appeared sympathetic to those frustrations. "I agree that there has been too much hairsplitting and too much parsing of language in all of this," said former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste.

    Ben-Veniste and another Watergate veteran, James Hamilton, bolstered the GOP case that the president was untruthful under oath even as they sought to convince the panel that his misconduct did not warrant impeachment. "I find the president's testimony very troublesome," Hamilton said. "It was clearly evasive and misleading." Added Ben-Veniste, "I find his testimony extremely troubling."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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