By Joan Biskupic
In a sharply worded, defiant response to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's allegations, President Clinton yesterday declared that his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky was a personal matter that does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
The president's lawyers emphasized in their preliminary defense that while Clinton's behavior amounted to an embarrassing, personal failure, it did not involve his conduct in office or break the public trust.
"[N]o amount of gratuitous details about the President's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, no matter how salacious, can alter the fact that: The President did not commit perjury. The President did not obstruct justice. The President did not tamper with witnesses. The President did not abuse the power of his office," according to the document. It also questioned whether Starr acted properly when he expanded his investigation from an Arkansas land deal into his relationship with the former White House intern.
The 73-page rebuttal represented the most thorough laying-out of Clinton's legal strategy as he attempts to defend himself from charges that could end his presidency.
Clinton's lawyers hastily prepared the report to answer the sudden and dramatic release of Starr's report to millions of Americans over the Internet yesterday. Members of Clinton's legal team, led by private lawyer David E. Kendall and White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, said they intend to write a more detailed point-by-point response to Starr but were attempting to offer some rebuttal to the allegations that preoccupied the nation and to blunt the political fallout from the reams of sexually detailed testimony and other evidence Starr turned over to Congress this week.
They emphasized that the Starr report is one-sided because it is based entirely on allegations obtained by a grand jury. It notes that grand juries exist to hear only the prosecution's side and then decide whether to bring charges, not whether someone is guilty. The president's lawyers have not been able to examine the evidence or to cross-examine any of the witnesses.
"They only exist to accuse. Yet this is the process that the Independent Counsel has chosen to provide the 'evidence' to write his report."
Clinton's defense adopts a high constitutional standard for removing a president from office and relies on technical interpretations of the law of perjury, obstruction of justice and other crimes cited by Starr.
Clinton's lawyers also dispute Starr's rendition of the facts related to Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.
The response contends that Clinton did not commit perjury during his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit because he was asked poorly phrased questions to which he gave technically accurate answers. "He gave narrow answers to ambiguous questions," the lawyers wrote, adding that "no accused has an obligation to help his accuser."
The Starr report contends that Clinton obstructed justice and tampered with witnesses by seeking the return of gifts he had given Lewinsky and by helping her find a job to influence her testimony in the Paula Jones case.
But the Clinton response says he never suggested that the gifts he gave to Lewinsky "should be disposed of" and asserts that he never Clinton's defense adopts a high constitutional standard for removing a president from office.
asked his secretary Betty Currie to pick up the gifts, as Starr has alleged.
He acknowledged that he helped ensure that Lewinsky "had a fair shot at a job" when she was trying to leave her Pentagon position, but "at no time did the president ask that Ms. Lewinsky be accorded specially favorable or unfavorable treatment."
Citing the Federalist Papers and other historical documents, the rebuttal stresses the gravity of impeachment and the high threshold that must be met: "Allegations concerning private conduct private sexual conduct in particular simply do not implicate high crimes or misdemeanors."
"Elected officials are no more qualified than ordinary voters to assess the private wrongs of public officeholders," Clinton's lawyers said. "The Constitution's impeachment mechanism does not exist to punish such wrongs."
Starr also asserted that when Clinton lied to the public and tried to invoke executive privilege to avoid having his top aides go before a grand jury, the president abused his authority. But Clinton said he was simply, and legally, trying to defend himself.
Starr contends that Clinton lied during his deposition in the Jones civil case and under oath last month when he denied engaging in "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Clinton had maintained that the definition did not cover situations in which Lewinsky performed oral sex on him, and he denied engaging in other behavior covered by the term, such as touching Lewinsky's breasts or genitals. The Starr report offers graphic details contradicting Clinton.
During a news conference yesterday afternoon, Kendall sidestepped questions about Clinton's version of his relationship with Lewinsky, saying he had not had a chance to look at the Starr report in detail.
But in the end, Clinton's written defense was also an ardent plea to imagine the dilemma of an unfaithful husband: "The simple reality of this situation is that the House is being confronted with evidence of a man's efforts to keep an inappropriate relationship private."
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