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From White House, Strategic Silence

President Clinton during a White House ceremony on disabled Americans Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page A1

    An hour before senators began hearing the case that President Clinton is a lawbreaker, he was standing in the gymnasium at the Alexandria police headquarters making the case for his credentials as a law enforcer.

    He was ready with good-news statistics about violent crime rates going down as police hires go up in part a consequence, Clinton contended, of the crime bill he promoted to a close-call passage in the first term. But Clinton said he did not want to boast: "I would rather say less and do more."

    That may be a credo this loquacious president has sometimes had trouble following, but he and his aides were following it yesterday on the one subject that hung over his day like the icy rain outside. Clinton did not watch his impeachment trial and uttered nothing publicly all day about it.

    Even his famously aggressive White House staff let yesterday's extended Senate floor assault on Clinton's conduct and integrity pass with minimum commentary. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart's news briefing, which otherwise would have occurred just as House prosecutors were starting opening arguments, was canceled.

    No one at the White House tried to put a "business-as-usual" face on during an unusual day. It was just that, in a turn of plot that was itself unusual, the White House decided there was little constructive to say. The plan is to have Clinton say nothing about impeachment and, so far as possible, for his aides to do the same while proceedings on the Senate floor are taking place.

    It is a strategy no public campaigning, only tepid behind-the-scenes lobbying that makes sense as a matter of politics and law, say some Clinton advisers, but nonetheless goes against the instincts of a president whose usual practice has been to lead the fight himself on ethical controversies. On the most critical battle of his political life, Clinton has been consigned to passivity.

    "It's brutal," said one Clinton adviser, a former senior administration official. "He really has to bite his tongue. He knows he's good; his persuasive abilities are his greatest strength and he wants to use that on his own behalf."

    "We don't want to be in the business of providing theater criticism," said one White House official. "It doesn't matter what we think about the [GOP] presentation. . . . We want to do everything we can to make the case in the court of the public opinion, but we're not going to do anything that hurts our case in the court of the Senate."

    The White House is on warning that its public comments are not particularly welcome in the Senate. Several Democrats, according to administration and congressional officials, warned the White House that Clinton's cause would be hurt by anything that looked like public campaigning in an already politicized case.

    Lockhart said he canceled his briefing for logistical reasons more than political ones. At 1 p.m., White House reporters would want to watch the opening arguments, and there was no time later in the day. Gregory B. Craig, one of the president's lawyers, made a one-minute statement last evening, avoiding a broad rebuttal to the Republican case and instead focusing narrowly on a single comment that he said was untrue.

    When Clinton did address the impeachment controversy on Wednesday for the first time in nearly four weeks, he kept to his mantra that he was letting his lawyers make his best case in the Senate while he stayed focused on his work. "My instinct is that I should do [the public's] business," Clinton said. "I think they would like it up here if somebody would put their interests first, their business first."

    Clinton, aides said, spent hours working the kind of business that in an ordinary year would be the subject of intense public speculation: what is going to be in his proposed 2000 budget, what is going to be in next week's State of the Union address.

    In Alexandria, Clinton announced that his budget for next year contains proposals to extend the so-called COPS program, passed in the 1994 budget, which the White House said is projected later this year to meet its goal of helping localities hire 100,000 new police officers. Clinton said his budget contains $600 million to allow for the hiring and redeployment to street beats of up to 50,000 more officers over the next five years. In addition, the budget calls for $350 million to help police agencies buy new technology to improve their communications and surveillance techniques and to perform DNA analysis.

    By coincidence, on stage with him was a group who knows what it means to soldier on through controversy. There was Attorney General Janet Reno, who Republicans charged has failed to aggressively pursue campaign finance inquiries against Democrats; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), whose own 1988 campaign for president stumbled in a flap about borrowed speech rhetoric; and Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), who barely survived a scandal over allegations of adultery and illegally taping a political foe in the early 1990s.

    Alexandria City Council Member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D), who attended the event, said Clinton looked "a little subdued this is someone who knows what's happening in Washington, but . . . I think he's telling the whole world that business goes on."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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