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'Impeachment Is Not a Remedy for Private Wrongs'

Clinton on Trial
Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A8

Excerpts from the statement of White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, who opened President Clinton's defense:

. . . William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been preferred against him. He did not commit perjury. He did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office. . . .

We will defend the president on the facts and on the law and on the constitutional principles that must guide your deliberations. Some have suggested that we fear to do so. We do not. . . . And at the end of our presentation, we will have demonstrated beyond any doubt that there is no basis on which the Senate can or should convict the president of any of the charges brought against him.

'A Rush to Judgment'

Ruff recited the history of the Paula Jones case against Clinton, beginning with her sexual harassment lawsuit filed May 6, 1994, through its dismissal by a federal judge in Arkansas last April 1, to Jones's appeal and ultimately the out-of-court settlement last Nov. 13. He then moved to "what was happening on the front of the independent counsel's office," beginning in mid-January, when Monica Lewinsky's friend Linda Tripp brought to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr tapes of months of conversations she had had with Lewinsky. Starr's investigation led to impeachment by the House. "And so, we are here," Ruff told the senators.

Before moving on, let me pause on an important procedural point. Although the Senate has asked that the parties address the issue of witnesses only after these presentations have been completed, the managers spent much of their time last week explaining to you why, if only witnesses could be called, you would be able to resolve all of the supposed conflicts in the evidence.

Tell me, then, how is it that the managers can be so certain of the strength of their case? They didn't hear any of these witnesses.

The only witness they called – the independent counsel himself – acknowledged that he had not even met any of the witness who testified before the grand jury. Yet they appeared before you to tell you that they are convinced of the president's guilt and that they are prepared to demand his removal from office.

Well, the managers would have you believe that the Judiciary Committee and the House were really nothing more than grand jurors, serving as some routine screening device to sort out impeachment chaff from impeachment wheat. Thus, as they would have it, there was no need for anything more than a review of the cold record prepared by the independent counsel.

No need for them to make judgments about credibility or conflicts. Indeed, they offered you a short lesson in grand jury practice, telling you that U.S. attorneys do this thing all the time; that calling real, live witnesses before a grand jury is the exception to the rule. . . .

And so what lesson can be learned from the process followed by the House? I suggest that what you have before you is not the product of the Judiciary Committee's well-considered, judicious assessment of their constitutional role. No, what you have before you is the product of nothing more than a rush to judgment.

And so how should you respond to the managers' belated plea that more is needed to do justice? You should reject it.

You have before you all that you need to reach this conclusion: There was no basis for the House to impeach, and there is now and never will be any basis for the Senate to convict.

Now, the managers have not shown and could not on this record or any record prove that the president committed any of the offenses charged in the articles. But even if they could, these offenses would not warrant you deciding to remove the president from office. . . .

Impeachment is not a remedy for private wrongs, it's a method of removing someone whose continued presence in office would cause grave danger to the nation. . . .

'The Balance Is Very Different'

Referring to impeachment and the Senate removal from office of three federal judges in recent years, Ruff argued that the standard for impeachment of the president, as intended by the Framers of the Constitution, is different.

. . . Even [with] the clear and convincing standard that you applaud for judicial impeachments, it does not follow that it should be applied where the presidency itself is at stake. With judges, the Senate must weigh and balance its concern for the independence of the judiciary against the recognition that because a judge is appointed for life, impeachment is the only available method for removing from office those who are corrupt.

On the other hand, when a president is on trial, the balance is very different. Here you are asked, in effect, to overturn the will of the electorate, to overturn the results of an election held two years ago in which the American people selected the head of one of the three coordinate branches of government.

Moreover, you have been asked to take this action in circumstances where even taking the darkest view of the managers' position, there is no suggestion of corruption or misuse of office or any other conduct that places our system of government at risk in the two remaining years of this president's term, when once again the people will get the chance to decide who should lead them.

In this setting, we submit, you should test the evidence by the strictest standard you know. . . .

There is not a court anywhere, from highest to lowest, [that] would hesitate if they were confronted with an indictment, written like these articles, to throw it out. . . .

'That Is Errant Nonsense'

Turning to the two articles of impeachment, Ruff began with the charge that Clinton perjured himself before Starr's grand jury in testimony last August.

Any assessment of that testimony must begin with one immutable fact: He admitted that he had, in his words, inappropriate, intimate contact with Monica Lewinsky. No one who was present for that testimony, has read the transcript or watched the video tape could come away believing anything other than that the president and Ms. Lewinsky engaged in sexual conduct.

Indeed, even the prosecutors, who surely cannot be accused of being reluctant to find presidential misconduct, contended not that the president had lied about the nature of his relationship, but only about the details. Yet the managers, in their eagerness to find misconduct where none had found it before, have searched every nook and cranny of the grand jury transcript and sent forward to you a shopping list of alleged misstatements, obviously in the hope that among them you will find one with which you disagree. . . .

The record simply will not support a finding that the president perjured himself before the grand jury. . . .

Now, the managers began by asking you to look at the prepared statement that the president offered at the very beginning of his grand jury appearance. . . . That statement acknowledged the existence of an intimate relationship, but it did not discuss the specific physical details in what I think we will all understand to have been an effort to preserve the dignity of the office.

Now, the House has charged that this statement was somehow a "premeditated effort to thwart the OIC's investigation." That is errant nonsense. Even the independent counsel saw no such dark motive in this statement.

Now, first the managers advanced the baseless charge that the president intentionally placed the beginning of his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky in 1996, rather than in 1995, as she has testified.

Interestingly, they don't even purport to offer any support for this charge other than Ms. Lewinsky's testimony. . . .

Next the managers assert that the president's admission that he engaged in wrongful conduct, "on certain occasions," was false because the president actually engaged in such conduct some 11 times.

And they assert, as well, that when the president admitted he had occasional telephone conversations that included inappropriate discussions that was false because they had actually had 17 such phone conversations.

Now, the president gave his best recollection of the frequency of those contacts. Ms. Lewinsky gave hers. Assuming that the majority is correct in its assumption that there are 11 or 17, can anyone imagine a trial in this court or in any other court in which the issue of whether certain occasions by definition could not mean 17 and occasionally could not refer to 11 would be the issue being litigated? . . .

Now to conclude that the president lied to the grand jury about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, you must determine, forgive me, that he touched certain parts of her body. But for proof you have only her oath against his oath. Those among you who have been prosecutors or criminal defense lawyers know that perjury prosecutions, as rare as they are, would never be pursued on the evidence available here; and those among you who do not bring that special experience at least bring their common sense and are equally able to assess the weakness of the case that would rest on such a foundation. . . .

'The Most Sinister Light'

Ruff moved to Article II, obstruction of justice. The House charged that Clinton took action to conceal gifts he had given to Lewinsky. Lewinsky testified that presidential secretary Betty Currie called her and then came to her apartment to pick up the gifts; Currie testified that Lewinsky initiated the exchange. House managers, using telephone records of a call from Currie to Lewinsky on the day in question, concluded that Lewinsky's version was truthful and that Currie would not have taken such action unless Clinton had told her to. Ruff noted that while Lewinsky had testified three times that the Currie visit had taken place at 2 p.m., the records showed the telephone call did not take place until 3:32 p.m.

The next point I want to discuss with you is the statements that the president made [regarding Currie]. There's no dispute in the record, no conflict in testimony, that the president did meet with his secretary Betty Currie on the day after the Jones deposition and. . . . they discussed Monica Lewinsky.

The managers cast this conversation. . . . in the most sinister light possible and alleged that the president attempted to influence the testimony of a. . . . "witness" by pressuring Ms. Currie to agree with an inaccurate version of the facts surrounding his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

President Clinton has adamantly denied that he had any such intention and that denial is fortified by the undisputed factual record establishing that Betty Currie neither was an actual or a contemplated witness in the Jones litigation, nor did she perceive that she was being pressured in any respect by the president to agree with what he was saying.

First, Ms. Currie's status as a witness. In the only proceeding that the president knew about at that moment, the Jones case, Ms. Currie was neither an actual nor a prospective witness.

As to the only proceeding in which she ultimately became a witness, no one would suggest. . . . the president knew that the independent counsel was conducting an investigation into this activities.

In the entire history of the Jones case, Ms. Currie's name had not appeared on any of the witness lists, nor was there any reason to suspect Ms. Currie would play any role in the Jones case. . . .

Now to understand on a human level why the president reached out for Betty Currie on the day after his deposition, you need only to understand that he had just faced unexpected, detailed questions about his worst nightmare.

As he candidly admitted to the grand jury, he had long feared that his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky would ultimately become public. And now, with questioning about her in the Jones case, publication of the first Internet article, the day of reckoning had arrived.

The president of the United States did not tamper with a witness. . . .

'We Are Here to Defend'

Assessing the other elements of the obstruction charge – that Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie in her Jones case affidavit, that he falsely told aides he had no relationship with Lewinsky so they would lie to the grand jury and that he had presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. find Lewinsky a job in New York to buy her silence, Ruff said there was no evidence to support any of these charges.

We are not here to defend William Clinton, the man. He, like all of us, will find his judges elsewhere. We are here to defend William Clinton, the president of the United States, for whom you are the only judges.

You are free to criticize him, to find his personal conduct distasteful, but ask whether this is the moment when, for the first time in our history, the actions of a president have so put at risk the government the Framers created that there is only one solution. . . .

We do not believe that President Clinton committed any of the offenses charged by the managers. . . . we believe the managers have misstated the record, have constructed their case out of tenuous extrapolations without foundation, have at every turn assumed the worst without the evidence to support their speculations. You put these lawyers in a courtroom and they win 10 times out of 10.

. . . I'm never certain how to respond when an advocate on the other side of a case calls up images of patriots over the centuries who have sacrificed themselves to preserve our democracy. I have no personal experience with war.

But I do know this: My father was on Omaha Beach 55 years ago. If you want to know how he would feel if he were here today, he wouldn't fight – no one fought for one side of this case or the other. He fought as all those did for our country and our Constitution. And as long as each of us – manager, president's counsel, senator – does his or her constitutional duty, those who fought for their country will be proud. . . .

When the American people hear the president talk to Congress tonight, they will know the answer to the question: Neighbor, how stands the union? It stands strong, vibrant, free.

I close as I opened. . . . William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been brought against him. He didn't commit perjury. He didn't obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office. Thank you.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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