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Honing Rhetoric, Ruff Jabs at Prosecution

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  • By Ruth Marcus
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A7

    Six long weeks ago, when he spoke to the House Judiciary Committee, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff warned against "putting the country through the horror that we all know will follow, if in fact there is an impeachment."

    Now that impeachment has come to pass, Ruff shifted rhetorical gears yesterday. Opening the White House case in the Senate trial of President Clinton, he moved from conciliatory to combative, from solicitous of the House members considering impeachment to scornful of the House managers prosecuting the case against the president.

    In the House, Ruff had been apologetic about what he described as the "morally reprehensible" conduct of his client, who "violated his sacred obligations" to his family and "betrayed the trust" of the American people. He conceded that "reasonable people" could conclude that Clinton, while trying to be "evasive but truthful," gave false answers during his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

    Yesterday, with his client on trial, it was Ruff the pugnacious, veteran trial lawyer on display with a give-no-quarter defense on the Constitution, the law and the facts. He scarcely acknowledged his client's shortcomings – "distasteful" was about the strongest word he used – while relentlessly and at times sarcastically attacking the strength of the case against Clinton and the motives and practices of those prosecuting him.

    Much like the House managers last week, Ruff did about the best he could with the facts at hand, and at least gave nervous Democrats a powerful preview of the potential holes in the prosecution case.

    Where the managers had argued that senators should look at the big picture of Clinton's involvement in trying to hide the truth of his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, Ruff dissected the obstruction case bit by bit, arguing that the elements did not stand up to scrutiny. As to Clinton's grand jury testimony, he insisted that the president had been truthful, and that the alleged areas of perjury identified by the House managers were, in any event, either too trivial to consider or too subjective to prove.

    Their case, he said, was "constructed out of sealing wax and string and spiders' webs," "shifting sand castles of speculation," "tenuous extrapolations without foundation."

    If independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was the villain in Act I of the drama as scripted by the White House, in Act II it is the reckless and partisan House managers and their "prosecutorial fudge-making" who play that role. The wise and judicious Senate, Ruff said, can rescue the country from the constitutional brink. "Be wary, be wary, of the prosecutor who feels it necessary to deceive the court," he warned.

    The House managers told senators last week that they must convict Clinton in order to vindicate the rule of law and, as Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put it, "cleanse this office." But Ruff, cozying up to the senators with Alexander Hamilton's assessment of the chamber as "the most fit depositary of this important trust," said it was up to them to judge whether Clinton's actions – even if as alleged by the House – were so dangerous that his continued presence in office was intolerable.

    Unlike an ordinary criminal trial, in which a defense lawyer need only convince the jury of a resonable doubt, individual senators will decide for themselves on the proper burden of proof, and Ruff's goal was to convince them to put the prosecution to the highest test, given the magnitude of the consequences.

    In the uphill White House battle to persuade the Senate that witnesses are not necessary in the trial, one of Ruff's most effective moments was his imaginary examination of Vernon E. Jordan Jr. on whether his efforts to help Lewinsky get a New York job were linked to her submitting a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit.

    Ruff deconstructed the events of Dec. 11, 1997, the day Jordan made phone calls on the Lewinsky job front, and the judge in the Jones lawsuit ruled that Jones could seek evidence about government employees who had sexual relations with Clinton. Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) argued last week that the judge's order "triggered the president into action and the president triggered Vernon Jordan into action. And that chain reaction here is what moved the job search along."

    But Ruff produced charts showing that by the time the judge issued her order, Jordan was en route to Amsterdam. "Now, do you think – does any of you think – that you need to look Mr. Jordan in the eye and hear his tone of voice to understand that the prosecutors have got it wrong?" Ruff asked.

    But – as the managers pointed out just after his presentation – Ruff's microscopic focus on the Dec. 11 events did not take into account the suggestive confluence between the sudden help from Jordan in early December, the appearance of Lewinsky's name on the witness list in the Jones case, and Jordan's almost minute-by-minute updating to the White House of his efforts to help Lewinsky on both fronts.

    Indeed, while Ruff said yesterday that Jordan agreed to help Lewinsky "not at the direction of the president, but at the request of" Betty Currie, his longtime friend, Jordan told the grand jury at one point, "The president asked me to get Monica Lewinsky a job." Because his grand jury testimony predated her cooperation, Jordan has never been questioned about Lewinsky's account of their Dec. 11 meeting.

    Ruff dissected other evidence House prosecutors cited as pivotal in their accusation that Clinton must have directed Currie to retrieve Clinton's gifts from Lewinsky, as Lewinsky testified, rather than Lewinsky soliciting Currie to get them, as Currie recalled.

    Lewinsky's version was corroborated, the managers said, by newly uncovered cell-phone records indicating a call from Currie to Lewinsky at 3:32 p.m. Ruff argued that the call undercut Lewinsky, because she testified on three occasions that the gift retrieval came an hour and a half earlier, at 2 p.m. And he argued that the two women couldn't possibly have made an arrangement to transfer the gifts in the space of the single minute recorded on the phone records.

    While the managers may argue that Lewinsky's timing may have been slightly off, Ruff said, "Having been one, I can tell you that's prosecutor's-speak for, If we'd only known about that darn record, we could have gotten her to change her testimony."

    The managers argue that the Senate, armed with the new evidence, should give them the chance to do just that, and hear from both women to try to reconcile the accounts.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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