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Clinton Lawyer Lays Out Vigorous Defense

White House Counsel Charles Ruff denounced a "witches' brew of charges" at President Clinton's impeachment trial. (CSPAN)

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A1

    President Clinton's legal team opened its defense case yesterday with a scathing assault on the impeachment charges against him, dismissing them as a "witches' brew" of conjecture and "prosecutorial fudge-making" that do not add up to high crimes and misdemeanors.

    Appearing on the Senate floor just eight hours before the president entered the other side of the Capitol to deliver his annual State of the Union address, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff accused the House Republican prosecutors of twisting the facts last week and imputing sinister motives to innocuous events based on nothing more than "shifting sand castles of speculation."

    "William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been preferred against him," Ruff said as he began his presentation shortly after 1 p.m. "He did not commit perjury. He did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office." Two and a half hours later, he closed with the same flat denial.

    Ruff's calm but stinging arguments in the president's impeachment trial marked the start of an aggressive, three-day White House defense aimed not only at more directly rebutting the evidence than during the House impeachment debate but also at undercutting the credibility of the GOP "managers" trying the case.

    In a performance later praised on both sides of the aisle, Ruff maintained his characteristically measured demeanor until the end when he choked up at the mention of his father's service in World War II. Yet his mostly dry tone belied the biting flavor of his remarks. The prosecutors advanced a "simplistic proposition" in comparing the impeachment of judges to the president's case. The suggestion that Clinton's prepared statement before the grand jury was a premeditated lie is absolute "nonsense." The House deliberations were not a considered appraisal but a partisan "rush to judgment."

    Indeed, Ruff all but accused the House managers of lying to the Senate last week. "Be wary of the prosecutor who feels it necessary to deceive the court," he told the 100 juror-judges.

    Through it all, the managers sat silently a few feet away at the prosecution table. But minutes after Ruff left the floor, they handed out the first of eight fact sheets they would distribute during the afternoon to rebut the counsel's statements, mimicking the leave-no-attack-unanswered strategy of the Clinton campaign war room.

    In particular, they said Ruff glossed over the full scope of Clinton's alleged false testimony, incorrectly asserted that the president did not expect aides he misled to be called before the grand jury and blew out of proportion small inconsistencies in the prosecution time line.

    "He put the president's behavior in the best spin possible," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), one of the managers. "The facts and the law are against him. . . . Our case isn't made of sealing wax and spider webs. It is made of testimony under oath. It is made of facts. It is made of law."

    As Ruff opened the defense, the White House added to its legal team former Democratic senator Dale Bumpers, a longtime Arkansas ally of the president who has been urging him to fight vigorously and not make any of the concessions demanded by some congressional critics. Bumpers, 73, who retired this month, sat at the defense table yesterday and was greeted with clubby exuberance by arm-clasping, shoulder-patting former colleagues of both parties.

    The White House tried to recruit former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) to join its defense team, but while he advises from the outside he has declined to take a formal role. Instead, it will fall to Bumpers to take on some of the duties envisioned for Mitchell, serving as an ambassador to the senators who trust his judgment. The White House assigned him to deliver closing remarks on Thursday.

    "We thought he could add valuable input to the team in terms of the constitutional issues and the institutional issues," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

    A parallel plan to bring other congressional Democrats on board, however, collapsed in a matter of hours yesterday. The White House had decided to add several of the president's Democratic defenders from the House Judiciary Committee to its team to tell the Senate about what they considered the illegitimate process leading to last month's impeachment vote by the full House. Clinton aides wanted to tap Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Thomas M. Barrett (Wis.) and Rick Boucher (Va.).

    But while consulting with the committee, the White House did not clear its idea first with key senators or even all three of those House members. Not long after disclosing the plan, the Clinton team was forced to drop it in response to objections by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the protector of senatorial prerogatives, who deemed it inappropriate for sitting members of Congress to serve on the defense team.

    As it was, Boucher declined to serve anyway, telling White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta yesterday that he had scheduling conflicts.

    The addition of Bumpers allowed for some reshuffling of assignments over the next two days of the White House presentation. Instead of talking about constitutional standards, White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig will open the evidentiary defense at 1 p.m. today with a rebuttal to the allegation that Clinton committed perjury before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury last August. Following him will be deputy counsel Cheryl D. Mills disputing part of the obstruction-of-justice case related to the hiding of presidential gifts during the Paula Jones case and the alleged witness-tampering with Oval Office secretary Betty Currie.

    David E. Kendall, the private attorney who has represented Clinton through most of the 4½-year Starr investigation starting with Whitewater, will handle the remaining obstruction allegations, likely on Thursday. In addition to Bumpers, White House aides were still considering whether Ruff might speak again.

    The other side was still hashing through its own internal decisions as well, most prominently a witness list to submit to the Senate for consideration next week. While many of his colleagues want to invite Clinton himself, Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) warned yesterday that such a move would be unwise politically.

    "This could alienate and could create some problems for some moderate Republicans . . . as well as some Democrats," he told reporters at a breakfast.

    The two articles of impeachment lodged against Clinton stem from his attempts to cover up his infidelity with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, first during the Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and then during Starr's criminal investigation. Under the Constitution, conviction requires a two-thirds vote by the Senate, whereupon Vice President Gore would take over as the 43rd president.

    While he was granted as much as six hours on the tentative Senate schedule for yesterday, Ruff kept his presentation to less than half of that to avoid upstaging the president's performance last night and to let his overview of the case sink in.

    In effect, he left it to the president to make his own best case last night. "When the American people hear the president talk to Congress tonight," Ruff said, "they will know the answer to the question: Neighbor, how stands the union? It stands strong, vibrant, free."

    The last of the Watergate prosecutors, Ruff, 59, ascended to the top tier of the Washington bar in part by rescuing several prominent Democrats from their own scandals, including Sen. Charles S. Robb (Va.), now sitting in judgment on Clinton, and then-Sen. John H. Glenn (Ohio).

    Afflicted long ago by a polio-like disease, Ruff addressed the Senate from his wheelchair in the well of the chamber without the lectern used by other lawyers, instead using a small table to his left to keep a glass of water and a book. Speaking in a low, gravelly voice that was sometimes hard to hear, Ruff had trouble with his lapel microphone and eventually decided to hold it in his hand.

    The mild-mannered lawyer sought to distinguish his dispassionate performance from the dramatic orations of the other side. "We will not be able to match the eloquence of the 13 managers who spoke to you last week," he said at the beginning.

    Yet he moved to a more emotional level at his close with a rejoinder to lead prosecutor Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who invoked the ghosts of war heroes from Normandy and other battlefields in imploring senators on Saturday to restore the "sacred honor" of the presidency.

    "I do know this: My father was on Omaha Beach 55 years ago," Ruff said as his voice quavered briefly. "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."

    Ruff went through the now-familiar White House argument that the allegations, even if true, do not rise to the level of impeachment and removal from office, which should be the "last resort" for Congress. Unlike federal judges ousted for perjury, Ruff said, presidents should not be held to that same high standard because they are elected every four years instead of appointed for life.

    But, using a series of charts, Ruff also picked out a few apparent discrepancies in the managers' presentation to undermine the thrust of their case. He said a cellular telephone record relied on by the House to show that Currie rather than Lewinsky initiated the retrieval of subpoenaed gifts did not prove that the secretary was acting on Clinton's direction. Lewinsky herself, Ruff noted, testified three times that the retrieval took place 1½ hours before the call was made.

    And Ruff argued that presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. could not have been motivated to step up efforts to find Lewinsky a job because of a ruling in the Jones case allowing the president to be questioned about women such as her. Lewinsky and Jordan did meet on Dec. 11, 1997, the day of the ruling, Ruff said, but their session ended at 1:45 p.m. and the judge made the ruling in a conference call that started at 6:33 p.m. By that time, Ruff noted, Jordan was already on an airplane to Amsterdam.

    "We are not here to defend William Clinton, the man," Ruff concluded. "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."

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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