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Clinton Confident; Prosecutors Set to Begin

Clinton President Clinton speaks to reporters at the White House on Wednesday. (Reuters)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page A1

    On the eve of opening arguments in his Senate impeachment trial, President Clinton broke his silence yesterday to argue that his conduct did not justify throwing him out of office even as the House Republicans prosecuting the case considered whether to invite him to testify.

    In his only public remarks on the subject since the day the House impeached him almost four weeks ago, Clinton said he was trying to ignore the proceedings as much as possible to focus on putting "business first." But he expressed confidence that he will survive the gravest crisis of his career, predicting that "the right thing will be done" by the senators charged with pronouncing a verdict on the perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges.

    His brief remarks, however, did little to satisfy the House prosecutors, who were weighing whether to put him on a list of proposed witnesses to submit for approval by the Senate. "We're all interested in hearing from the president as a witness," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the head of the prosecution team. "The question is whether we should call him or not and that hasn't been resolved."

    The White House last night chided the prosecution for trying to "impose its will on the Senate" by floating such ideas. Advisers have said privately that the president almost certainly will not take the stand of his own volition and it remains uncertain whether the Senate has the power to compel him to even if it chooses to try. Andrew Johnson, the only other impeached president, never appeared in person during his Senate trial in 1868.

    With the floor of the Senate transformed into a quasi-courtroom, the capital was girding for the first presentations to begin at 1 p.m. today, when prosecutors begin outlining their case. To persuade senators to call witnesses in the next trial phase, prosecutors plan to stress the conflicts in the existing record that could be resolved only through live testimony.

    Prosecutors made contact with lawyers for both Monica S. Lewinsky and Kathleen E. Willey this week to discuss possible testimony about whether Clinton tried to influence their sworn statements in the Paula Jones case concerning their encounters with the president. Lewinsky's attorneys declined to make her available for an interview. Other witnesses on the prosecution list as it firms up, according to a source, are Clinton's friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., secretary Betty Currie, chief of staff John D. Podesta and aide Sidney Blumenthal.

    In a 130-page trial memorandum filed yesterday detailing their full version of the case, Clinton's attorneys argued that allowing even a single witness would open the door to extensive evidence-gathering that would delay the trial. While they did not mention how long, advisers said privately that they would need months to obtain and review documents and depose potential witnesses.

    "The president would be faced with a critical need for the discovery of evidence useful to his defense – evidence which would routinely be available to any civil litigant involved in a garden-variety automobile accident case," the brief said.

    The assertions were intended as a polite warning to the Senate of the consequences of permitting prosecutors to call any witnesses, playing to the desire of senators in both parties to bring a quick end to the trial. The Senate will vote, likely the week of Jan. 25, on whether to call witnesses after hearing opening arguments and asking questions of both sides.

    After the House presentation this week, the White House is scheduled to open its defense on Tuesday, just eight hours before Clinton is set to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. With Clinton determined not to postpone his speech, aides made a last-minute overture to the Senate yesterday seeking to delay the opening of their side of the case by a day but received no encouragement from Republican leaders, according to sources familiar with the talks.

    The White House could file a motion to cancel the Tuesday session of the trial, but it would require a vote of the Republican-controlled Senate to do so. If it cannot win a postponement, the White House could decide not to put on any presentation Tuesday and simply sacrifice the first of the three days set aside for its case, although such a decision would not be made until Clinton's lawyers hear and evaluate the prosecution arguments.

    With the first substantive trial proceedings to open today, several of the House "managers," as the prosecutors are known, went over to the Senate chamber for a walk-through to acquaint themselves with the set-up and their accommodations. At least one of the president's lawyers came by as well.

    The Senate chamber was closed to the public all day as its retrofit was completed for the occasion, including the installation of two specially made tables for the House managers and White House lawyers, four huge, flat-screen, high-definition television monitors and a new camera to focus on the lawyers as they come to the center of the well to address the senators.

    Television monitors have never been used before in the Senate chamber, according to officials, and may be used to show videotaped testimony or to display documents visually. Although Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate's leading traditionalist, has objected to other modern devices such as laptop computers in the chamber, he said the video monitors would not breach the rules if they are used solely to assist senators in their role as jurors.

    The Senate's unusual visitors will each have their own temporary homes off the floor as well. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will preside, has been given the President's Room, with its elaborate red leather, crystal and heavy dark wood just off the chamber. The House managers will retire to the Marble Room behind the presiding officer's dais and the White House team will operate out of a suite of offices used by the vice president, who serves as president of the Senate.

    Hoping to stress a sense of sobriety about the proceedings, several prominent Senate leaders including Byrd have served notice that they intend to resist any impulse to rush to the microphones now that the trial is starting in earnest. After a weekend when the talk shows were filled with senators issuing pronouncements on key issues such as whether witnesses should be called, some Senate offices reported criticism from constituents about jurors who have sworn to do "impartial justice" speaking so freely.

    The one player who has not spoken much has been the one at the center of it all. Clinton has avoided all public comment on the subject since the day the House sent the matter to the Senate for trial, with aides even declining to hold the customary joint news conference with the visiting president of Argentina this week.

    Answering questions at a photo opportunity with labor leaders yesterday, Clinton said he does not intend to address the matter publicly because the American people have heard more than enough about the issue.

    "I think they would like it if somebody up here would put their interests first, their business first," he said. "And I think that's what they expect me to do. They know the Senate has a job to do. They expect them to do it."

    Asked if he believed that perjury and obstruction of justice qualify as "high crimes and misdemeanors" as asserted by the House, the president pointed to statements by historians and legal specialists. "The important thing I think you should be asking yourself," he said, "is why did nearly 900 constitutional experts say that they strongly felt that this matter was not the subject of impeachment?"

    Even as he spoke out in his own defense, his lawyers in their brief appealed to the Senate to restore the constitutional standards they maintained the House ignored.

    "The Senate has an obligation to turn away an unwise and unwarranted misuse of the awesome power of impeachment," the White House team said in the brief. "If the Senate removes this President for a wrongful relationship he hoped to keep private, for what will the House ask the Senate to remove the next President, and the next?"

    The lawyers accused the House managers of expanding their case as recently as this week and going even further than independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in detecting foul motives in innocent disagreements. To mock the broad sweep of the prosecution case, the defense team focused on seemingly trifling issues such as whether Clinton lied when he used the word "occasional" to describe the number of phone sex sessions he had with Lewinsky.

    The lawyers also urged the Senate to apply the same standard for conviction used in criminal trials, a finding of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." The Senate has declined to set a standard during impeachment proceedings against judges, so the White House plea amounted to an appeal for individual senators to live by this rule.

    "Nothing said in this Trial Memorandum is intended to excuse the President's actions," the brief said. "By his own admission, he is guilty of personal failings. . . . By the same token, these actions must not be mischaracterized into a wholly groundless excuse for removing the President from the office to which he was twice elected by the American people."

    The House filed its own written response yesterday dismissing the president's "purported defense" in just five pages, saving its real fire for this afternoon's presentation. Largely patterned after the one chief GOP investigator David P. Schippers made before the Judiciary Committee last month, the series of speeches will walk senators through an alleged conspiracy in which Clinton tried to obstruct Jones and Starr, and then tried to surreptitiously undermine Lewinsky's credibility once their relationship became public, according to lawmakers and aides.

    But prosecutors, eager to call witnesses, will also highlight conflicts in the current record, such as the disagreement between Lewinsky and Currie about how the secretary came to retrieve presidential gifts from the former intern subpoenaed by the Jones lawyers and hide them under her bed.

    "What you're going to see are tendencies to focus on the inconsistencies in the testimony," said one House manager, adding that such an approach would make "a harder case for witnesses."

    Although they could run longer, prosecutors plan to speak for 12 hours stretching through Saturday, opting not to use the entire 24 hours allotted to them for fear of encouraging senators to conclude the proceedings after the White House rebuttal without allowing witnesses. The managers plan to use video displays during their presentation, likely including the same portions of Clinton's deposition in the Jones case that Schippers showed the committee.

    For them and their adversaries at the White House, though, nothing was certain as they prepared to begin a showdown no living person has experienced before. As one Clinton adviser put it yesterday, "You're sort of in the parachute plunging into the darkness."

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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