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Both Sides Conclude Their Cases Before Senate

Charles Ruff, Reuters White House Counsel Charles Ruff makes his closing arguments during President Clinton's Senate impeachment trial Monday. (Reuters)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, February 9, 1999; Page A1

    House Republican prosecutors facing near-certain defeat in President Clinton's impeachment trial mounted a final defense of their case yesterday as an unpopular but just cause, while the White House legal team condemned their efforts as an exercise in political retribution.

    In a series of rhetorical salvos perhaps aimed more at the history books than the Senate jurors who appear to have made up their minds, the two sides closed the first presidential trial in 131 years with an afternoon of argument focused not just on Clinton's guilt or innocence but on the legitimacy of the entire proceeding.

    From the prosecution, the last oratory before the Senate begins deliberations today blended anger and concession, piety and valedictory. Each of the 13 House "managers" spoke in turn, some shouting their indignation, others softly describing the personal toll, all trying preemptively to shape the legacy of their seemingly futile campaign.

    From the defense came just a single voice, the president's chief lawyer quietly and methodically slicing away at the case piece by piece, while scornfully deriding the managers for their pursuit of a Democratic president.

    "I believe their vision to be too dark, a vision too little attuned to the needs of the people, too little sensitive to the needs of our democracy," White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff said of the Republican team. "I believe it to be a vision more focused on retribution, more designed to achieve partisan ends, more uncaring about the future we face together."

    His pointed words continued: "Our vision, I think, is quite different, but it is not naive. We know the pain the president has caused our society and his family and his friends. But we know, too, how much the president has done for this country."

    Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the lead prosecutor who closed the case at 6:35 p.m. after nearly 5 1/2 hours of competing arguments, made little pretense of having persuaded the necessary two-thirds of the Senate to vote for conviction, calling the day a "melancholy procedure" and comparing his side's experience to the noble cause of Shakespeare's outnumbered Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt.

    "To my House managers, your great enterprise was not to speak truth to power, but to shout it," he said, uttering the trial's final words from the lawyers. "And now let us all take our place in history on the side of honor. And, oh, yes, let right be done."

    With the closing arguments complete, the Senate reconvenes at 1 p.m. today to begin deliberations on the two articles of impeachment charging Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice in covering up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Although many senators are pushing to open that debate to the public, they did not appear to have secured the two-thirds vote needed to suspend the rules.

    Open or closed, each senator will be limited to 15 minutes of speaking time, for a total of 25 hours of debate likely to be spread over three days. Final up-or-down votes on conviction will take place in open session following the deliberations, possibly on Thursday.

    With the end nearing and not enough votes for conviction in sight, Democrats scrambled yesterday to find a way to force the Senate to consider a resolution censuring the president for misconduct once the trial is over and before the start this weekend of a week-long recess.

    In a motion filed late yesterday afternoon, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) outlined a filibuster-proof way of forcing one or perhaps two procedural votes aimed at bringing a censure resolution to the floor this week. Even though the resolution itself could be filibustered by Republicans who argue that censure is a constitutionally suspect way of providing political cover for senators who plan to vote against conviction, Democrats could go on record as favoring a censure vote before the recess and force critics to go on record against it.

    Daschle said he wants to demonstrate that censure proponents have the 60 votes to cut off a filibuster eventually. "It's only a matter of time," he said. "It would be in everybody's interest to finish this before we leave."

    But it was not immediately clear whether anti-censure Republicans could block the strategy and leave the matter in limbo until after the recess, when many of them believe that support for censure will fade as lawmakers hustle to get back to legislative business. With a handful of the Senate's 45 Democrats opposed to censure, Daschle said it would take 20 Republican senators to force a censure vote.

    Daschle made it clear he intends to keep offering the censure proposal by trying to tack it on to other legislation if Democrats are blocked from bringing it up before the recess. "We may have to come back and offer amendments in the form of substitutes to bills when we return and we'll do that if we have to," he said.

    Even as he tried to find ways around procedural roadblocks on censure, Daschle yesterday single-handedly blocked Republicans from introducing new evidence at the trial. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) tried to insert into the record affidavits from two writers who stated that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal described Lewinsky last March as a "stalker" to them, despite his sworn testimony that he did not plant malicious stories about the former White House intern.

    Because such a move at this point in the trial requires unanimous consent, Daschle's objection was enough to prevent the record from being amended. Hyde then sent a letter to Lott and Daschle asking for three subpoenas to determine whether Blumenthal "testified falsely before the Senate."

    "If the president, in telling false stories to Mr. Blumenthal, intended to discredit a witness both before the grand jury and in the public realm for political and legal purposes, the articles charging obstruction of justice and making false and misleading statements before a grand jury about those acts of obstruction are given even more weight," Hyde wrote.

    The issue arose after House managers obtained an affidavit Friday from journalist Christopher Hitchens, who said his then-friend Blumenthal used the word "stalker" repeatedly during a lunch last March. Hitchens's wife, writer Carol Blue, who was at the lunch, has since submitted her own affidavit corroborating the account. Another journalist, R. Scott Armstrong, swore out an affidavit yesterday saying that Hitchens and Blue told him about the Blumenthal conversation shortly afterward.

    Courtesy of the latest dispute, Blumenthal made another cameo appearance on the Senate floor yesterday as House managers played videotaped excerpts of his deposition, showing him saying he never told friends or reporters about his conversation with Clinton in which the president described Lewinsky as a stalker. Blumenthal has denied being untruthful in that deposition.

    Other central players made return engagements during closing arguments as well, including Clinton, Lewinsky and presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., whose videotaped images were used to back up the points of lawyers on one side or the other.

    The closing arguments sounded achingly familiar to the senators who have sat mostly silent through a month of evidence and exhortations. With only Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) absent to accompany Clinton to Jordan for the funeral of King Hussein, the exhaustion among the presidential jurors was more plain than ever.

    In late afternoon, as Ruff spoke in a dry and deliberate tone, one senator after another rose from his or her desk to stretch and wander to the rear of the chamber. By the time Ruff was done, 15 senators from both parties were standing against the back wall almost as if they were holding a vigil for closure.

    Ruff's presentation was sandwiched between House managers, as the prosecutors initially used up only one of their allotted three hours and then reserved the rest as rebuttal. Clearly chafing, Ruff complained several times that such a move was unfair.

    "That kind of prosecutorial gambit is symptomatic of what we have seen before in these last weeks -- wanting to win too much," he said, echoing a phrase used repeatedly by defense lawyers over the course of the trial.

    A longtime Washington attorney who served as the last Watergate prosecutor, Ruff took a lawyerly approach to his final appearance in the well, one by one analyzing the elements of the case and finding fault with each. The prosecution, he said, was made up of "moving targets and empty pockets," lodging a series of shifting allegations that did not hold up to scrutiny.

    After reviewing a prosecution timeline suggesting Clinton linked the job search for Lewinsky with her eventual testimony in the Paula Jones case, Ruff dismissed the managers' theory about the president's motivations.

    "Nice try," he said. "No facts."

    In summarizing the evidence, Ruff suggested that Lewinsky, not Clinton, was the sole force behind the events that led to the obstruction charge because she had her own motives for filing a false affidavit denying her affair with Clinton and for hiding gifts that had been subpoenaed by the Jones lawyers.

    The lawyer coupled his factual arguments with a constitutional contention that the allegations did not rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" envisioned by the framers, and then ended his speech with the same words he used in his opening arguments weeks ago: "William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been brought against him. He did not commit perjury. He did not commit obstruction of justice. He must not be removed from office."

    The managers spent less time reviewing the specifics and more time offering personal testimonials about why they pursued the case as vigorously as they have and how it has affected them. Reps. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) and Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) barely restrained their rage at the expected outcome. Rep. Christopher Cannon (R-Utah) talked about his 10-month-old baby. Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) both told the senators that they voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 out of revulsion for Watergate.

    "The news media characterizes the managers as 13 angry men," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who opened the prosecution arguments shortly after 1 p.m. "They are right in that we are angry, but they are dead wrong about what we are angry about. We have not spent long hours poring through the evidence, sacrificed time with our families, and subjected ourselves to intense political criticism to further a political vendetta.

    "We have done so because of our love for this country and respect for the office of the presidency, regardless of who may hold it."

    The managers grudgingly conceded that White House lawyers presented an effective defense, though they called it "smoke and mirrors" that obscured the truth. "You may dress the shepherd in silk," Hyde said, quoting an Italian saying. "He will still smell of the goat."

    Hyde also bristled at the White House refrain that his team wanted to "win too much," noting that "none of the managers has committed perjury nor obstructed justice, nor claimed false privileges; none has hidden evidence under anyone's bed, nor encouraged false testimony before the grand jury. That's what you do if you want to win too badly."

    Given the odds against them, the managers sought to explain themselves, it seemed, in search of vindication in posterity. "I hope that history will judge that we have done our duty well," Cannon said. "We have been congratulated and condemned. But we are done."

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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