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Day Two: Prosecutors Press for Witnesses

McCollum Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) opens Friday's arguments in the Senate impeachment trial. (AP)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, January 16, 1999; Page A1

    The House prosecution team tied its case against President Clinton tightly to the credibility of Monica S. Lewinsky during the second day of arguments in his impeachment trial yesterday and implored senators who do not take her word over his to ask them both to testify.

    "If you have serious doubts about the truthfulness of any of these witnesses, I as all of my colleagues do encourage you to bring them in here," Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), yesterday's leadoff prosecutor, told the senators. "Let's examine Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie and the other key witnesses. . . . Invite the president to come. Judge for yourself their credibility."

    As McCollum and other House Republicans prosecuting the case appealed for the right to put on a full-scale trial, they calibrated their arguments to build up Lewinsky's veracity, further incorporate the Paula Jones lawsuit into their case and preemptively rebut the White House defense scheduled to be presented starting Tuesday.

    With the trial moving further into the nitty-gritty of the case, the only interruption to what shaped up as a daylong law school colloquium on the elements of perjury and obstruction of justice statutes came near the end, when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) abruptly jumped to his feet. Lodging the proceeding's first objection after two days of senatorial silence, Harkin complained that prosecutors kept referring to senators as "jurors" when, in fact, during impeachment trials they also set the rules and consider motions much as judges do.

    Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, serving as the presiding officer, issued his first ruling without hesitation by concurring with Harkin and instructing prosecutors to stop using the word. "The Senate is not simply a jury," he said. "It is a court in this case."

    Despite the linguistic setback, the prosecutors, known as "managers," appeared to be scoring points with some Republican senators in their quest to call witnesses such as Lewinsky; Jordan, the president's friend who helped find her a job; and Currie, the Oval Office secretary who retrieved subpoenaed presidential gifts from the former White House intern and hid them under a bed. But the idea of asking Clinton to explain his conduct from the well of the Senate immediately triggered a raft of disagreements over the political wisdom, tactical consequences and constitutional implications of such an unprecedented move.

    Although McCollum made his pitch on the Senate floor to invite the president, the prosecution team has yet to meet to reach a decision on whether to issue a formal request. However, at least seven of the 13 Republican managers have publicly indicated a desire to do so, arguing that Clinton's testimony is critical to the case. "It's really about the man, it's about the office, it's about what the man did," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the managers.

    Clinton, who was briefed about trial developments by his lawyers, again had nothing to say about it, spending yesterday in New York at a Wall Street conference organized by Jesse L. Jackson intended to encourage big business to diversify. In the only implicit reference to his political dilemma back in Washington, he thanked warm-up speakers for a barrage of praise.

    "It's the sort of thing people say for your funeral," Clinton said to laughter and applause from the audience, "and I don't think we're there yet."

    His aides, however, were more aggressive after largely not responding to the first day of arguments. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart attributed the "obsessive effort" by prosecutors to win Senate permission to call witnesses to "a serious weakness in their case." And he brushed off their desire to invite Clinton to testify as poll-driven politics.

    "We've oftentimes in this process shifted quickly from judicial to political and I think that may be the case here," Lockhart said.

    On the Senate floor yesterday, the prosecution presented the second of its three days of opening arguments in an atmosphere as sober and dignified as the first. All of the senators remained quiet and generally attentive in the chamber through the four hours of speeches. Only Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was absent, having flown home to Hawaii for a funeral, according to a colleague's office.

    Meant to bolster their case for the removal of the president, yesterday's speeches by the prosecutors focused more on the law and less on the evidentiary overview of Clinton's efforts to conceal his affair with Lewinsky. The day began with McCollum, who opened with a summation of that evidence, but moved on quickly to four other managers, Reps. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Chris Cannon (R-Utah), and Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), who discussed the legal underpinnings of their case.

    Even recast, though, the day had a pronounced sense of deja vu. No sooner had Chabot wrapped up by telling senators that "no person is above the law," than Cannon took the lectern to quote Theodore Roosevelt's statement that "no man is above the law and no man is below it" -- the precise presidential quote used barely 24 hours earlier in the opening remarks of Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).

    "I think the virtues of repetition were a little strained," Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said afterward.

    Still, McCollum focused more than before on promoting Lewinsky's believability, urging senators to accept her version of events not only because it was consistent and plausible but because it was corroborated in many respects by other witnesses.

    "She's very credible," McCollum said. "If you believe the testimony of Monica Lewinsky, you cannot believe the president or accept the argument of his lawyers, you simply can't." Later in his argument, he added, "The case against the president rests to a great extent on whether or not you believe Monica Lewinsky. But it's also based on the sworn testimony of Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie, Sidney Blumenthal, John Podesta, the corroborating witnesses. Time and again, the president says one thing and they say something entirely different."

    The prosecutors stressed that Jones, as a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit, had a right to learn the truth about Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky because a judge had permitted her lawyers to question him on the topic. Jones's attorneys were seeking evidence of a pattern of sexual misconduct with subordinate employees to help prove her contention that Clinton sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas in May 1991.

    In Jones, the prosecutors found a victim of Clinton's alleged crimes, an attempt to answer what one termed the "so-what" defense by the Democrats. Again and again, they referred to Jones as "a fellow American citizen" who was thwarted in her right to fair justice in the legal system by Clinton's attempts to cover up his affair with Lewinsky.

    "When you combine all the features of the actions of the president of the United States and you see that they are funneled and tunneled and aimed and targeted towards obliterating from the landscape the rights of Paula Jones, a fellow American citizen, then you must take a second look at your own assertion that 'so what?' " said Gekas, who spoke without notes.

    As part of this tactical approach, the managers weaved Clinton's testimony in the Jones case throughout their presentation, even though the House rejected a separate article of impeachment alleging that the president committed perjury in that civil deposition. The two articles of impeachment passed by the House focused instead on alleged perjury before a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice both in the Jones case and the subsequent criminal investigation.

    Prosecutors argued that Clinton's testimony in the civil case cannot be segregated from the charges brought by the House because his alleged lies in the deposition were part of a larger obstruction campaign and because he lied to the grand jury when he said he had tried to be truthful during his session with Jones's lawyers.

    "The fact that the House did not send you the article of impeachment for perjury in the Jones deposition does not keep you from considering the lies in that deposition as an obstruction of justice crime under Article II that is before you," McCollum told the senators. "And you know that it's also incorporated in Article I, because it's one of the four items specifically listed as the perjury that he lied about lying in the deposition."

    The inclusion of the Jones testimony is significant because Clinton advisers have acknowledged privately that it is the hardest to defend as truthful. In addition to denying that he had "sexual relations" or a "sexual affair" with Lewinsky, Clinton also said during that January 17, 1998, deposition that he had no specific recollection of being alone with her or of any of the gifts they exchanged, even though they had been alone to exchange Christmas gifts just three weeks earlier.

    The White House has argued that the House's rejection of the Jones perjury count precluded prosecutors from using that against him and renewed their complaint yesterday after the proceedings had ended.

    "The House Republican managers are seeking to expand and extend this proceeding for one reason," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig. "They do not have a case based on the facts, on the law, on the Constitution or on the voluminous record for overturning the election and removing the president of the United States."

    The White House will be allowed to take that and other arguments before the Senate on Tuesday, but prosecutors previewed much of the defense yesterday through their own prism to knock down what they called "legal smoke screens." Chabot, Cannon and Barr spent several hours methodically walking through the law and standards of evidence on perjury and obstruction of justice to argue that they apply to Clinton's conduct.

    On perjury, for example, Chabot said prosecutors had proven that Clinton's disputed statements to the grand jury met the four elements of perjury -- they were given under oath, he intended to deceive, his assertions were false and the answers were relevant or "material" to the case at hand.

    One standard not mentioned in perjury law, however, was Chabot's family. If the Senate does not hold Clinton accountable, he said, "We will be sending a message to our children, to my children, that telling the truth doesn't really matter if you've got a good lawyer or you're an exceptionally skilled liar," he said. "That would be tragic."

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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