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Whittling Down the House Case

Special White House counsel Greg Craig attacks the prosecution case. (C-SPAN)

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  • By Ruth Marcus
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page

    The White House yesterday took a scalpel to the perjury accusations against President Clinton, persuasively paring away some of what it called "trivial" allegations of specific lies to the grand jury investigating his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    But at the close of the second day of arguments by Clinton's lawyers, some of the bigger questions about the truthfulness of Clinton's testimony – perhaps most important, the stark disparity between his account and Lewinsky's about the precise sexual details of their encounters – remained unresolved.

    White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig contended that it was a "staggering thought" to remove a twice-elected president over such "discrepancies" in testimony. But he did not counter the House prosecutors' fundamental argument on the perjury charge: that Clinton had a clear motive to lie to the grand jury about the exact nature of his encounters with Lewinsky because telling the truth would have amounted to an admission that he flat-out lied when he was questioned in the Paula Jones civil case.

    Likewise, tackling pieces of the obstruction-of-justice case against Clinton, deputy White House counsel Cheryl D. Mills skillfully exploited the biggest weakness in the prosecution case – that Clinton corruptly orchestrated the hiding of gifts he had given to Lewinsky. Mills noted that Clinton's testimony is supported by that of secretary Betty Currie, which is damaging to Clinton on another front, and that he gave Lewinsky new gifts the very day he supposedly ordered Currie to retrieve them.

    But Mills had a tougher time refuting the other part of the obstruction case relating to Currie: the president's alleged efforts to tamper with her potential testimony when, summoning her to the White House for an unusual Sunday session the day after the Jones deposition, he recited a series of false statements about his relationship with Lewinsky.

    Because the White House does not question Currie's version of that encounter, it is reduced to arguing that Clinton, although he mentioned Currie several times during the Jones deposition, was not trying to sway her potential testimony in that case but rather to manage what Mills called "a looming media firestorm" and that he told the truth to the grand jury when he described the conversation as an effort "to get the facts down."

    Dissecting the perjury case against the president, Craig belittled the importance of some of Clinton's alleged false statements, using words like "silly," "trivial," "utterly meaningless" and "fundamentally frivolous" to describe the prosecution case.

    Craig's attack was aided by the fact that the House managers have inadvertently undermined the strength of their case by seemingly adding examples daily to their arsenal of perjury allegations.

    In doing so, they have gone well beyond the three instances cited by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in his September referral to Congress – as Craig eagerly and repeatedly noted. "Apparently, the managers believe that Ken Starr and his prosecutors have been simply too soft on the president," he said.

    Indeed, rather than simply rely on their strongest examples, the managers have piled on additional and at times seemingly strained arguments. For example, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) last week argued that Clinton was "intentionally misleading" when he told the grand jury that he and Lewinsky were alone on "certain" occasions when in fact they were alone at least 20 times in the White House and had at least 11 sexual encounters there.

    "The allegations are frequently trivial, almost always technical, often immaterial and always insubstantial," Craig argued.

    On the obstruction-of-justice count, Mills zeroed in on the managers' admittedly circumstantial case about the return of gifts that had been subpoenaed in the Jones lawsuit.

    First, two of the three parties involved in the alleged transaction, Clinton and Currie, deny that gifts were returned to Currie at Clinton's instigation. And, as Mills noted, in endorsing Currie's account of her conversations with Clinton after his deposition in the Jones case in order to make their witness-tampering case against the president, the managers are in a bind if they attack her credibility on the gift score.

    "If Ms. Currie was dishonest, why would she have told the independent counsel about the conversation between the president and her that the managers have recounted as being so damaging? Why would she have said anything at all about that conversation?" Mills asked.

    Second, the managers have to contend with what they acknowledge is the "odd" fact that Clinton gave Lewinsky additional gifts on the very day that he later supposedly ordered Currie to retrieve the gifts from her. As Mills put it, "The only explanation they can conjure is tortured: The president gave her gifts he intended to take back that same afternoon to show his confidence that she would conceal the relationship."

    But much as the managers are somewhat hampered in attacking Currie's credibility on the gift front, the White House is hamstrung in rebutting her troubling account of the president's leading questions on the day after the Jones deposition.

    Mills played to the senators' own sense of vulnerability to the media by arguing that Clinton was not seeking to coach a witness but was trying, as he told the grand jury, "to get the facts and trying to think of the best defense we could construct in the face of what I thought was going to be a media onslaught." Mills suggested the Clinton-Currie meeting was initiated to respond to a Drudge Report item about the Lewinsky affair, but she failed to note that Clinton had in fact set up the session with Currie immediately after his Jones deposition – hours before there was any media report to respond to.

    Her argument also did not address how Clinton hoped to obtain facts by making statements – "I was never really alone with Monica, right?" "Monica came on to me and I never touched her, right?" – that he clearly knew were false.

    In his presentation, Craig asserted that the managers double-charged Clinton by accusing him of witness-tampering with Currie and then of lying to the grand jury about their conversation. He said that if senators find no obstruction, the related perjury charge must also fail. But he offered no explanation for how Clinton's statements that he was trying to "refresh my memory" with Currie could possibly be truthful.

    And in arguing that Clinton was not encouraging the Jones lawyers to call Currie as a witness by raising her name in the deposition, and that he therefore could not have been engaged in witness-tampering, Mills may have inadvertently buttressed the managers' case about why Clinton may have wanted to influence Currie's possible testimony. "If there was one person who knew the extent of his contact with Ms. Lewinsky," Mills said, "it was Ms. Currie."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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