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President's Lawyer Stresses Contrition

Impeachment hearing White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig during Tuesday's hearing. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page A1

    The White House largely dropped its attack-the-accuser impeachment strategy yesterday to offer its most comprehensive rebuttal yet to the case against President Clinton, declaring that he should not be thrown out of office even though his extramarital affair was "sinful" and his sworn testimony "maddening."

    With the House Judiciary Committee poised to approve articles of impeachment this week, the president's legal team shifted its approach to appeal to critical moderate Republicans who will decide his fate on the floor, returning to the more contrite rhetoric of three months ago while dismissing the evidence assembled against him.

    "The president wants everyone to know -- the committee, the Congress and the country -- that he is genuinely sorry for the pain and the damage that he has caused and for the wrongs that he has committed," White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig told lawmakers. Yet, he added, "As surely as we all know that what he did is sinful, we also know it is not impeachable."

    Opening the two-day White House defense with 11 hours of nonstop testimony, the president's team also produced a 184-page report dissecting independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment referral. For the first time, White House lawyers directly challenged the credibility of Monica S. Lewinsky's statements implicating Clinton, calling some of them "erroneous." And they introduced a host of friendly legal scholars to contend that the allegations, even if true, would not constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors."

    Even so, the marathon proceedings had a certain air of inevitability about them. The White House long ago gave up hope of persuading the committee to reject impeachment and tailored its arguments instead to the two dozen or so uncommitted House Republicans pivotal to the floor vote expected next week.

    Judiciary Republicans are drafting three or four articles of impeachment against Clinton and, with votes set to begin Friday, they now appear unified in support of at least one charge alleging perjury. "We're going through motions, but it seems minds are made up," said committee member Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

    Republicans who control the committee left no doubt they were unswayed by the testimony or the new White House brief. "This is not a powerful defense," Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. "Quite frankly, they're trying to reinterpret the facts to me. I can do that. I'm looking for new events, and I haven't found them."

    But outside the committee, momentum appeared to shift slightly toward the president, according to strategists in both camps. Clinton picked up another moderate Republican as Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.) prepared to announce today his support for censure rather than impeachment, according to sources, and there were signs that Rep. Michael Forbes (N.Y.) would join that camp. And while he likely will be leaving the Senate before any vote on conviction because he was defeated by Schumer in November, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) came out against impeachment, saying it would be "hurting the American people and not accomplishing one whit."

    "An impeachment vote would result in weeks and weeks of partisan strife that will not result in one iota of change," D'Amato, who was the chief target of both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton during the fall campaign, told a farewell party at a Washington restaurant last night.

    The White House will try to bolster that point with another prominent Republican today, bringing former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld to testify before the committee.

    An informal House Republican count showed the floor vote next week remains a cliffhanger. Dismissing Houghton as someone who already had been counted as a "no," GOP leadership officials estimated 12 to 20 of the 228 Republicans would vote against impeachment, while impeachment forces would pick up three to eight conservative Democrats. Depending on how those votes break, impeachment could win by as many as six votes or lose by as many as seven.

    A Republican leadership adviser said that impeachment would pass if the vote were held today but added the White House has ample opportunity to block it by mounting a strong, convincing defense over the coming week while GOP members come to grips with the gravity of the vote.

    "The White House can change the landscape at any time and I think the environment of the moment lends itself to the Democrats," the adviser said. "What it boils down to is who screws up first."

    With his legacy, if not his office, on the line, Clinton maintained a studied public indifference, attending a Social Security conference in the morning before flying to Tennessee for the funeral of Vice President Gore's father, former senator Albert Gore Sr. He returned to Washington last evening to attend a dinner honoring him and political leaders from Northern Ireland for their role in promoting peace there.

    Aides, who liked the contrast of a president attending to business while Congress dwelled on scandal, said Clinton had no intention of watching any of the hearing. But that detachment could change if the situation continues to look grim heading into next week's vote.

    With the major broadcast networks largely staying away from the proceedings, yesterday's hearing yielded few of the fireworks that marked Starr's daylong grilling before the committee last month. Instead, it featured the most sober and substantive examination of the case against the president from both sides since the committee opened its inquiry.

    That was no accident. The White House labored to keep its presentation more measured out of deference to fence-sitting lawmakers exasperated by its defiant defense tactics. Throughout his hours at the microphone, Craig smiled and remained deferential even as he politely deflected skeptical Republican questions.

    But some of the witnesses he introduced were less restrained. Princeton University's Sean Wilentz, in particular, infuriated Republican Judiciary members by warning that those who vote to impeach will risk going "down in history with the zealots and the fanatics." To those who support impeachment without being absolutely sure the president's actions amounted to high crimes, Wilentz added, "History will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness."

    Witnesses later in the day also engaged in feisty scraps with committee members over the president's actions and their implications, particularly a panel of former House Democrats who served on the committee that voted to impeach Richard M. Nixon in the same room in 1974, Elizabeth Holtzman (N.Y.), Robert F. Drinan (Mass.) and Wayne Owens (Utah) -- "three ghosts of impeachment past," as Owens put it.

    "It's this committee's responsibility or fault that they gave to America, to the 7- and 8-year-olds, the knowledge or raised the question of what oral sex is, what telephone sex is and what you can do with a cigar sexually," Owens scolded the panel at one point.

    By invoking some of the most famed figures from Watergate, the Clinton team tried to contrast his wrongdoing with that of Nixon's. "There is no comparison between the Nixon case and the Clinton situation in my judgment," said James Hamilton, who served as a lawyer working on the congressional Watergate investigation.

    At one point, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) mocked Republican charges against Clinton by reformulating one of the most famous phrases from the Watergate era to fit the complaints about the president's testimony. The case, he said, boiled down to "what did the president touch and when did he touch it."

    But even some of the president's own witnesses were unwilling to defend his truthfulness in his testimony in the Paula Jones case or before Starr's grand jury. Hamilton acknowledged that he found Clinton's statements "very troublesome" and Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor, agreed that "I have trouble with the grand jury [testimony]."

    "Well," Holtzman said in response to Republican questioning, "he came very close to a line. I don't know whether he danced over it or he didn't."

    From the start, Republicans hammered the White House team for not introducing its own evidence or calling witnesses who actually were involved in the events in question.

    "I'm disappointed that there are no fact witnesses rebutting any of the evidence," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) told Craig. "Are you disputing any of the facts? And if so, why are you not bringing forth witnesses that can provide direct fact testimony, rather than opinion or argument disputing the facts?"

    "We do dispute representations and characterizations that the independent counsel has made, and we do dispute some of the testimony that has been presented in the grand jury," Craig replied. Referring to Starr, he added, "We find that frequently he mischaracterizes that testimony or . . . the testimony of the president in order to construct a perjury allegation."

    "Well," Sensenbrenner said, "let me get to the heart of this case. Did Monica Lewinsky provide false testimony to the grand jury, in your opinion?"

    Craig was delicate in the answer. "We think, in some areas, she provided erroneous testimony that is in disagreement with the president's testimony," he said.

    Until yesterday, the White House had shied away from directly disputing Lewinsky, but her testimony flatly contradicted Clinton's position that he received oral sex but never touched her intimately. The disagreement is important because it speaks to whether Clinton lied when he denied "sexual relations" as interpreted by Jones's lawyers during the Jan. 17 deposition or in reaffirming his stance before the grand jury Aug. 17.

    In Craig's presentation and in the written brief, the White House also directly countered the main allegations against Clinton in a more thorough and detailed way than it had in the past:

    Perjury. Craig contended that Clinton's testimony in the Jones case and before Starr's grand jury was narrowly accurate, if not forthcoming. "I am willing to concede that, in the Jones deposition, the president's testimony was evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening, but it was not perjury," Craig said.

    Regarding Clinton's denials that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky, the written report asserted that he simply relied on the most common definition, meaning intercourse, and cited five dictionaries to bolster his interpretation. As for the definition of "sexual relations" used at points during the Jones deposition, the White House argued that it was "bizarrely narrow and contorted" and therefore subject to multiple interpretations.

    Witness tampering. Craig argued that presidential secretary Betty Currie was not a named witness in any proceeding when Clinton called her to the White House after his Jones deposition to ask her a series of leading questions intended to obscure his affair with Lewinsky.

    Obstruction of justice. Craig maintained that the job search for Lewinsky was not intended to influence her to lie in the Jones lawsuit because it began before she was named as a witness in the case and the president rendered only modest help without applying any pressure.

    As for Currie's collection of gifts from Lewinsky to avoid a Jones subpoena, the White House report accused Starr of picking testimony that helped his case without focusing on contradictory statements, such as Currie's that the president did not order her to retrieve the items. The report said Lewinsky had 10 different versions of her statements about the gifts and asserted that Starr simply assumed the date of the event was Dec. 28 following a Clinton-Lewinsky meeting at the White House, even though Currie did not confirm it.

    Abuse of power. The report disputed assertions that Clinton's claims of executive privilege during the Starr probe and his lies to aides about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky amounted to attempts to illegally impede a grand jury. The lawyers noted that a judge found the privilege claim was properly asserted, even if it was outweighed by Starr's need for evidence.

    But Republicans were unimpressed. Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said the written brief "appears to contain no new evidence" and is founded on more of the "legal hair-splitting and semantic gymnastics we have come to expect."

    Staff writers Eric Pianin and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.


    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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