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President's Case Has Consumed His Team

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 19, 1999; Page A1

    It was Saturday night. Opening arguments in the impeachment trial were to start the next week. And a few of President Clinton's lawyers had finally escaped the office for a few precious hours.

    At the 9:45 p.m. showing of "Shakespeare in Love," though, the coming attractions had not even ended when Lanny A. Breuer's White House pager went off and he trudged to the phone. At a Cleveland Park restaurant a few miles away, David E. Kendall and his wife were lamenting their canceled ski trip. When the trial is over, he told another diner, he will go skiing – even if it means flying to Chile, where Washington's summer is winter.

    For the lawyers who will open their defense of the president on the Senate floor at 1 p.m. today, life in recent months has been anything but normal. Vacations have been canceled, evenings and weekends lost, lives postponed. And in these most extraordinary of times, nerves have frayed and loyalties tested as they work for a client who has misled even them.

    No attorneys alive today have had the assignment they face this afternoon, when they will take the well of the Senate to explain to the 100 juror-judges and a national television audience why the president should not be evicted from the White House for high crimes and misdemeanors.

    Night and day, they have pored through casebooks, grand jury testimony and even dictionary definitions of "sex" to prepare their case. Unlike the House prosecutors, or "managers," who completed their three-day presentation to the Senate last week, the president's lawyers bring to the task a wealth of recent trial and legal experience.

    Yet it will not be enough to establish their client's technical innocence. "They not only have to exonerate the president in terms of the actual impeachment charges, but they also have to reestablish the veracity and credibility of the presidency, which the managers have called into question," said Peter Kadzik, a lawyer who advises the White House.

    Charles F.C. Ruff, the White House counsel, will lead off today with an overview of the president's defense. Under tentative plans still being finalized yesterday, three other lawyers will take the lectern over the remainder of their three-day presentation – special counsel Gregory B. Craig will discuss constitutional standards of impeachment, while Kendall, the president's chief private attorney, and Cheryl D. Mills, deputy White House counsel, will argue the facts underlying the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    Three other lawyers sitting at the defense table will not have speaking roles at this stage. Deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey, the president's discreet friend from Arkansas, is unlikely to make a public presentation. Nicole K. Seligman, Kendall's partner at Williams & Connolly, could handle motions next week, while Breuer, a special White House counsel, may cross-examine some witnesses if they are called.

    "These are among the very finest lawyers this country has," said former White House counsel Jack Quinn, who played a role in hiring some of them. The combination of private and public attorneys "are experienced in lawyering at the intersection between law and politics that is peculiar to Washington legal counsel," added former White House lawyer W. Neil Eggleston.

    Granted the same 24 hours as the prosecutors, the Clinton team is likely to take less than half of that. House managers used about 12 hours and the White House lawyers want to appear less repetitive than the managers. Today's opening presentation may last just a few hours rather than the six on the schedule, allowing the political air to clear a bit before Clinton delivers his State of the Union address at 9 p.m.

    The White House is toying with one possible surprise move to shake up its presentation – recruiting some Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee to join the defense team and describe for senators what they consider the illegitimate process that led to last month's impeachment vote.

    As it now stands, the lineup brings a mix of experiences and personalities to the defense table – a former Watergate prosecutor in Ruff teamed up with a veteran defense attorney in Kendall, an amiable public persona in Craig working with a behind-the-scenes operator in Mills.

    Indeed, the emergence of Mills is a public debut of sorts for the 33-year-old attorney who has earned the trust of the president and first lady by fiercely protecting their interests and keeping their secrets. Known for her intelligence and toughness, the media-wary Mills has usually been the advocate within the White House for releasing as little information as possible, sometimes in sharp disagreement with other aides. As an African American woman, Mills also will stand in contrast to the members of the House prosecution team – 13 white men.

    She is hardly the only taciturn member of the team, however. Ruff is so reserved that even his mother jokes that he never tells her anything, and neither he nor his compatriots granted an interview about themselves yesterday.

    Still, the occasional tensions within the team are detectable to those watching. Ruff and Kendall have struggled privately, though politely, over who would lead the defense, according to people close to the team. After more than four years of representing the Clintons against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Kendall believes he knows the facts of the case better than anyone. Ruff, though, considers impeachment an official matter that should be handled primarily by the White House counsel's office.

    From all indications, Ruff has emerged as lead counsel. But Kendall has beaten back White House critics of his take-no-prisoners style who wanted to shut him out. A favorite of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who says she trusts him implicitly, Kendall won the right to cross-examine Starr at November's House hearings and a prominent role in the Senate trial.

    That left Breuer, 40, a former New York prosecutor, off the lineup card for the presentation, as well as Kendall's partner, Seligman, 42, who has as much experience with independent counsels as anyone, given that she represented Oliver L. North.

    Aside from Mills, the public will see the same triumvirate of faces it has come to recognize in the last few months, all of them intimately familiar with scandals and tough legal challenges.

    Ruff, 59, has helped rescue other politicians in trouble, including then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) during the Keating Five case and Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) during an investigation into the illegal taping of a rival. Kendall, 54, handled death penalty cases for the NAACP and has fought Starr "to the knife," as he once put it, through most of the Clinton presidency. And Craig, 53, the telegenic newcomer who delivered the daily denunciations of the prosecution last week, has represented would-be presidential assassin John W. Hinckley Jr. and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), during the rape trial of his nephew.

    So even with the pressure-cooker environment, associates maintain they are holding up. Said Kadzik, "They're all tested and have been under this kind of pressure in numerous situations."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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