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Prosecutors Allege Scheme by Clinton

Sen. Tom Daschle speaks to the press Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) speaks to the press before the start of the Clinton Senate impeachment trial. (Dudley M. Brooks — The Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page A1

    A team of House Republican prosecutors opened their case against President Clinton yesterday and urged the senators sitting as jurors in his impeachment trial to vindicate "the rule of law" by demonstrating that "the president of the United States has no license to lie under oath."

    Making history in ways large and small, the trial "managers" laid out what they called Clinton's "multifaceted scheme to obstruct justice" to cover up his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and made an impassioned plea for permission to summon her and other witnesses to prove that the 42nd president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.

    "We are here today because President William Jefferson Clinton decided to put himself above the law not once, not twice, but repeatedly," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said in opening a case meant to persuade the Senate to remove a president for the first time since the nation was born.

    Wrapping up the first day of arguments nearly six hours later, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) implored senators to allow live testimony despite pressure from a weary public to end the presidential scandal that has dragged on for a full year.

    "Our founders bequeathed to us a nation of laws, not of polls, not of focus groups and not of talk-show habitues," Rogan said. "America is strong enough to absorb the truth about their leaders when those leaders act in a manner destructive to their oath of office. God help our country's future if we ever decide otherwise."

    Among the witnesses the House team wants to hear from is Clinton himself. Although no decision has been made, several prosecutors said a consensus was emerging to ask the Senate to issue an invitation. Such a move would raise dicey constitutional questions and, while Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) raised the matter with GOP colleagues at a morning meeting, senators remained ambivalent on the subject. The White House again made clear the president has no intention of appearing at the Capitol to answer questions.

    To justify the need for witnesses, prosecutors spent their first day at the lectern walking the senators through the voluminous grand jury record assembled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and pointing to its unresolved conflicts.

    By now all too familiar, the saga of the president and his trysts in the Oval Office suite, the "mission-accomplished" job search carried out by his friend and the subpoenaed gifts hidden under the secretary's bed was retold in painstaking detail. If the story was not new, though, the setting and the stakes were, as the House managers employed a succession of charts and videotaped clips to make their case to a jury of strangely silent senators.

    While the majestic 19th century chamber was converted into a political courtroom with specially built tables for the lawyers and four television screens, the proceedings resembled neither a traditional criminal trial nor a typical Senate debate. The chamber was hushed, the galleries packed and the senators seated and rapt a rarity for them or any other legislators.

    If the floor arguments were calibrated to win support for witnesses, they yielded mixed results yesterday.

    Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who had been leery about live testimony, said he would now vote to allow witnesses to resolve discrepancies between Lewinsky and Oval Office secretary Betty Currie. "Today may have changed my mind on calling witnesses," he said last night. "I definitely think I would have those witnesses" to explain how Currie came to retrieve presidential gifts from Lewinsky.

    Yet Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), a key moderate whom Democrats want to recruit to help block witness subpoenas, had the opposite reaction. "On the witness question, they did such a good job I'm not sure it will be necessary" to hear live testimony, he said.

    The White House, which sent seven lawyers including Clinton's close friend, Bruce R. Lindsey, to sit at the defense table, has adamantly opposed witnesses but had little to say during the first day of the prosecution case, waiting instead for its chance to speak starting on Tuesday.

    "The House Republican managers have begun to lay out a case that is both unsubstantial and circumstantial," White House spokesman James E. Kennedy said. "The reality is there is no case for the removal of the president."

    Clinton stands accused of two articles of impeachment alleging perjury and obstruction of justice connected to his attempts during the Paula Jones lawsuit and subsequent Starr investigation to hide his on-and-off fling with Lewinsky that started when she was 22 years old. Under the Constitution, Clinton would be removed from office and Vice President Gore sworn in to replace him if two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, vote for conviction on either of the two articles of impeachment.

    The trial of the president is only the second in the nation's history and nothing at all like the first in 1868, when Andrew Johnson went on trial for firing a dissident Cabinet secretary and the proceedings were recorded longhand, not by television cameras.

    Still, the Congress of 1999 continues to find modern technology challenging. Never before have televisions been on the Senate floor and when prosecutors first tried to use them to show videotape of Clinton taking his oath of office as president, the sound of his voice echoed through the chamber, but the screens remained blank.

    They were later fixed and Clinton's image became a regular presence in the chamber where his fate is being deliberated as prosecutors showed snippets of his testimony in the Jones case and Starr investigation.

    The historic proceedings on a cold and drizzly day in Washington got started shortly after 1 p.m. when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist entered the chamber to take over as presiding officer, relying on photographs of lawmakers in front of him to keep track of who was whom. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the head of the prosecution team, led off the first of his side's three days of presentations with brief remarks quoting Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare and stressing the importance of the oath to tell the truth.

    "What you do over the next few weeks will forever affect the meaning of those two words, 'I do,'" Hyde told the senators. "You are stewards of the oath."

    Sensenbrenner followed with an hour-long speech aimed at countering the Democratic argument that Clinton lied only about sex and did not commit a grave offense against the system of government warranting the end of his presidency.

    "It is not about the president's affair with a subordinate employee, an affair that was both inappropriate and immoral," Sensenbrenner said. "Mr. Clinton has recognized that this relationship was wrong. I give him credit for that. But he has not owned up to the false testimony, the stonewalling and legal hairsplitting and obstructing the courts from finding the truth. In doing so, he has turned his affair into a public wrong."

    Drawing an implicit parallel to Watergate by summoning one of its most famous phrases, Sensenbrenner added, "It's important, yes, vital, that when a cancer exists in the body politic our job, our duty, is to excise it."

    The prosecution then launched into a lengthy recapitulation of the facts of the case, with a blizzard of colorful charts showing quotations from testimony, sections of the Constitution and dates of Clinton's encounters with Lewinsky and telephone calls to various figures.

    Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) provided the overview of the evidence and charged that the president "continues to this day to use legal hair-splitting" to explain his actions and answers under oath. Bryant mocked Clinton's assertion that oral sex did not qualify as "sexual relations" for the recipient, meaning in the prosecutor's words that "one person has sex and the other person does not."

    With his soft Southern accent, Bryant quipped, "In Tennessee, we have a saying for situations like that that dog won't hunt." Several Republicans laughed mildly, while Democrats sat unamused.

    Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) went next, outlining the case for obstruction of justice by taking senators on a phone-call-by-phone-call tour of Clinton's actions during the Jones case, including contacts with his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who on the president's behalf helped Lewinsky find a job in New York at the same time he found her a lawyer to help swear out an affidavit in the Jones case denying any sexual relationship with the president.

    Hutchinson recounted the "seven pillars" of the alleged Clinton conspiracy, including encouraging Lewinsky to file the false statement, trying to coach Currie's testimony and lying to aides he knew would be called before the grand jury even to the point of calling Lewinsky a stalker.

    "The president who wants to do away with the politics of personal destruction indicates a willingness to destroy the credibility and reputation of a young person who worked in his office for what reason?" Hutchinson asked rhetorically.

    Rogan completed the day's speeches by focusing on the perjury count and turned to the videotape more than a dozen times to use Clinton's own words against him not only his sworn testimony but also his finger-wagging Roosevelt Room statement before television cameras last January when he flatly said he did not have sex with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

    Rogan repeated several snippets of Clinton to urge senators to focus on whether the president was being truthful, particularly his explanation of why he let his attorney in the Jones case introduce Lewinsky's false affidavit and describe it as a blanket denial of any sex of any kind during the Jan. 17, 1998, deposition.

    Clinton later told the grand jury he was not paying attention when his lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, was speaking. Yet Rogan played video that appeared to show the president focused on the discussion. And he reminded senators that Clinton later seized on the definition of the word "is," wondering how the president could have noticed the verb tense Bennett used if he truly was not listening.

    "That," Rogan said, "is like the murderer who says: 'I have an ironclad alibi, I wasn't at the crime scene, I was home with my mother eating apple pie. But if I was there, it is a clear case of self-defense.'"

    Prosecutors tried to avoid dwelling much on one of the central elements of their perjury case, however, namely the dispute between Clinton and Lewinsky over whether he touched her in intimate ways. In reading the definition of sex used during the Jones deposition, Rogan "sanitized" it to avoid mentioning specific body parts. Still, he showed a segment of video where Clinton was asked about contact with genitalia, surely a first for the Senate floor.

    To resolve any questions, Rogan told the senators, they have to call witnesses. "Who is telling the truth? There is only one way to find out," he said, noting that those who provided the evidence used by the prosecution were Clinton's own associates.

    "If all of these people in the president's universe are lying, then the president has been done a grave disservice," Rogan said. "He deserves not just an acquittal, he deserves the profoundest of apologies. But if they are not lying, if evidence is true . . . then there must be constitutional accountability."

    To the senators, though, much of it sounded achingly familiar. "It's tough not to snore, it's hard to sit there," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Asked if he learned anything new, he said, "No, it's just repackaged."

    Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said, "I'm keeping my ears open and my mouth shut and I'm trying to learn something." But he did find one question unanswered. "I'm not the world's greatest Lothario," he said, "but how does one person have sex without the other person having sex?"

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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