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'Honor' of Presidency Invoked at Trial

Hyde,CSPAN Rep. Henry Hyde summing up the prosecution's case on the Senate floor. (CSPAN)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page A1

    Summoning the ghosts of war dead and the judgment of history, House prosecutors wrapped up their opening presentation at President Clinton's impeachment trial yesterday with a call to restore the "sacred honor" of the presidency lest it become "deeply and perhaps permanently damaged."

    After two days of touring the factual and legal foundations of their case, the Republican trial "managers" brought their arguments back to a loftier rhetorical plane on their final day, casting Clinton's actions not as forgivable personal foibles but as an egregious attack against the judicial system itself.

    "The matter before you is a question of the willful, premeditated, deliberate corruption of the nation's system of justice through perjury and obstruction of justice," Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the lead prosecutor, told the senators sitting as judge and jury in the case. "These are public acts. And when committed by the chief law enforcement officer of the land, the one who appoints every United States district attorney, every federal judge, every member for the Supreme Court, the attorney general, they do become the concern of Congress."

    The day's speeches were designed as a decorous conclusion to a case with tawdry origins in a series of presidential trysts with a former White House intern. Acknowledging that their case is "colored by sex," prosecutors calculated their remarks to counter what both sides consider the strongest element of the defense – that even if true, the allegations about covering up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky do not constitute grave offenses against the state that justify throwing the president out of office.

    Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in a folksy, engaging lecture that even Clinton aides grudgingly called effective, cited past impeachment trials of judges who were removed from the bench for perjury even though the lies under oath at issue were not directly related to their official positions.

    "You couldn't live with yourself knowing that you were going to leave a perjuring judge on the bench," Graham reminded the Senate about a case it heard in the 1980s. "Ladies and gentlemen, as hard as it may be, for the same reasons, cleanse this office."

    As prosecutors finished what many senators in both parties deemed an unexpectedly strong presentation, the juror-judges off the floor were clashing again over whether to call the witnesses eagerly sought by the managers. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made another stab at forming a bipartisan team of senators to head off "any complications" in that dispute, only to run into objections again from the Democrats led by Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.).

    In a strained exchange of "Dear Tom" and "Dear Trent" letters underscoring the frailty of the bipartisan pact on trial rules, Lott asked Daschle to create a joint group to discuss testimony with prosecutors, noting "the president's representatives have been in contact with your office" on such issues. "I think it would be proper, for the balance of the trial, that you and I both participate in such conversations," Lott said.

    Daschle responded with appreciation of Lott's "desire to continue to work toward a fair and expeditious" resolution, but stressed that assigning such a bipartisan group "would violate the bipartisan agreement that now governs our process" and that puts off the witness question until a possible Senate vote next week. "It is my hope that such arrangements will ultimately prove unnecessary," Daschle said.

    Clinton remained out of sight yesterday, mostly preparing for his State of the Union address to be delivered to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night – just eight hours after his lawyers open their defense case on the Senate floor. The president conducted a run-through in the White House theater shortly after yesterday's trial proceedings ended.

    On Friday night, he appeared to bring Hillary Rodham Clinton to tears with a moving tribute to her at a Democratic dinner at the Corcoran Museum of Art. "Of course, I don't even know how to talk about what I believe Hillary has meant to the success of our endeavors," Clinton said. "And she has done it under circumstances I think are probably more difficult than anyone who has ever done it before," he added, as she wiped her eyes. "I love her for it, but our country should love her for it as well."

    As he has throughout the trial so far, Clinton left his defense to his lawyers yesterday. White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig issued his strongest attack on the managers since they began opening arguments Thursday. "The House Republicans' case ends as it began, an unsubstantiated, circumstantial case that does not meet the constitutional standard to remove the president from office," he said. "The simple truth is that the House Republican prosecutors failed to demonstrate that the will and interests of the American people would be served by nullifying the results of a national election."

    At the Capitol, the lines snaked outside for the third day as visitors waited for the chance to watch 15 minutes of history. Only 50 seats in the galleries have been reserved for the general public to rotate in and out and Senate officials estimated that 1,500 people stood in line Thursday and Friday, a considerable increase over the ceremonial initial trial days.

    Those who got in yesterday were witnesses to a prosecution summation that ranged from stirring oratory to monotonous repetition, focused on the constitutional standards for impeachment and conviction. All but two of the senators were planted firmly in their seats, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew who observes the Sabbath. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), like Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) earlier in the week, left town to attend a memorial service in his home state, this one for former Democratic representative Morris K. "Mo" Udall.

    Over the course of nearly four hours yesterday – all told, the prosecution used less than 14 of the 24 hours allotted to it – the five speakers quoted notables from James Madison and George Mason to Douglas MacArthur and even Vice President Gore to make the point that perjury and obstruction undermine the integrity of government. In case anyone missed the point, prosecutors used the phrase "rule of law" 44 times.

    Employing one of the politician's most time-honored techniques, Hyde even read a letter from a third-grade student in Chicago, who wrote to suggest that Clinton pen a 100-word essay by hand to make amends for lying. "If you cannot believe the president," the youngster wrote, "who can you believe?"

    Hyde then read a postscript from the boy's father, saying he made his son write the letter as punishment for lying himself. "Part of his defense for his lying," the father said, "was that the president lied."

    As he did during last month's House debate, Hyde invoked the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta and the soldiers who died at Bunker Hill, Normandy and Saigon. Accusing Clinton, the "presidential perjurer," of breaking his "covenant of trust with the American people," Hyde noted those sitting in prison for lying under oath and obstructing justice. "What in the world do we say to them about equal justice if we overlook this conduct in the president?"

    But Hyde also responded to the massive criticism heaped upon him and his 12 fellow Republican prosecutors in recent weeks, denying that they are "Clinton-haters" or "mean-spirited" hypocrites.

    "None of us comes to you claiming to be a perfect man or a perfect citizen, just as none of you imagines yourself perfect," said Hyde, who was forced to admit to a long-ago extramarital affair because of media inquiries generated by his involvement in the impeachment proceedings. "That is the way of this world – flawed human beings must, according to the rule of law, judge other flawed human beings."

    The difference here, Hyde added, is between "personal moral condition" and the "public issue" of Clinton's conduct during the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and the subsequent investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

    Preceding Hyde yesterday were four other managers, Reps. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) and Graham, who reviewed the constitutional issues and offered the House view of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors" that merit impeachment and removal from office.

    The crux of their argument was that perjury and obstruction were not merely lesser offenses but in fact equate to those high crimes. Perjury, they noted again and again, is punished more severely than bribery in the criminal code. Buyer held up a yellowed souvenir reproduction of the Constitution and argued that the president had set a "poor example" as commander-in-chief and was seeking a "double standard" in which he would not be punished the same way members of the military would be.

    "The lack of trust in the president's motives, his veracity, his judgment is inherently corrosive and can only be detrimental on the effect of our military and credibility overseas," Buyer, who served in the Army, said in an implicit reference to the questions that arose when Clinton bombed Iraq just before the House began debating impeachment last month.

    Rather than soldiers and sailors, Graham compared Clinton with federal judges impeached and convicted for perjury. "The question becomes: If a federal judge can be thrown out of office for lying and trying to fix a friend's son's case, can the president of the United States be removed from office for trying to fix his [own] case?" Graham asked.

    With his soft South Carolina lilt, Graham offered more of a courtroom homily than his colleagues, sometimes wandering away from the lectern as he spoke and even eliciting what might the only laugh in the proceedings. Yet he also touched on the difficulties of the prosecution's case in a more direct way than other managers, conceding the public opposition to conviction.

    "I don't know why all this occurred and we [still] have a popular president," he said. "I know this: that the American people are fundamentally fair." But, Graham added, they were swayed by "tons and tons and tons of spin" and would respect senators who decide conviction is warranted. "You are their representatives. They will trust you."

    Graham's presentation impressed many senators, although they did not suggest it swayed their votes. "Obviously they did what they came to do," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "They gave a fairly strong presentation."

    At the White House, though, officials complained that Graham's comparison to judges was invalid because they are appointed for life and not subject to the accountability of elections. Attorneys preparing for Tuesday's opening dissected the prosecution presentations and began preparing specific rebuttals to much of it.

    Among other things, a White House aide said, the president's lawyers intend to cite different quotations by some of the same Founding Fathers relied on by prosecutors that would seem to support the Clinton position. They plan to point out that a famous legal guide equated perjury and bribery long before the Constitution was drafted and yet the framers still did not include perjury among the listed crimes in the impeachment clause.

    And they may pounce on factual mistakes made by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) on the opening day to undercut the credibility of the entire presentation with senators who do not have the time to read the thousands of pages of evidence themselves and have to rely on the lawyers to summarize it.

    "That's a fatal error," the Clinton aide said. "You're going to make the most important constitutional decision – at least do it with what the record says."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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