By Ruth Marcus
The House Judiciary Committee's chief Republican lawyer largely endorsed independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's view of the evidence concerning President Clinton and his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and, more importantly, Starr's assessment of the seriousness of Clinton's conduct.
Republican counsel David P. Schippers repackaged some of Starr's proposed charges against the president but did not back down from any of Starr's essential conclusions about the president's alleged misdeeds. He jettisoned the most controversial count that Clinton abused the powers of his office, by, among other things, invoking executive and attorney-client privilege.
But Schippers's roster of 15 impeachable offenses for the committee to consider represented an aggressive view of Clinton's conduct and the law. If anything, his language about the gravity of Clinton's alleged offenses was more forceful than Starr's.
Although the allegations against Clinton may have arisen from his "sexual indiscretions," Schippers said, they represent "an ongoing series of deliberate and direct assaults by Mr. Clinton upon the justice system of the United States and upon the judicial branch of our government."
The committee is not bound by Schippers's framing of the evidence against the president, but his new list is likely to become the architecture for building articles of impeachment against Clinton.
While omitting Starr's abuse-of-power count and the allegation that Clinton obstructed justice when he delayed testifying before the grand jury, Schippers retained another of Starr's controversial allegations that the president "may have engaged in witness tampering" by repeating falsehoods about his relationship to aides and associates that they then repeated to the grand jury.
He added a broad new allegation that the president, Lewinsky and others conspired to obstruct justice. He expanded into three separate offenses one of Starr's individual obstruction counts that Clinton violated the law by having Lewinsky file an affidavit denying their relationship.
Schippers's Democratic counterpart, Abbe D. Lowell, argued that regardless of how Schippers "subdivided" or "relabeled" the charges, the evidence amassed by Starr did not warrant removing Clinton from office.
Lowell insisted that it was impossible to divorce the president's actions from the context in which they occurred an illicit and embarrassing relationship that he understandably wanted to shield from public view. "The president was engaged in an improper relationship that he did not want disclosed," Lowell said. That "is the core charge that Mr. Starr and majority staff suggest triggers this constitutional crisis."
Lowell said that the allegations that Clinton obstructed justice by encouraging Lewinsky to hide gifts he had given her, by suggesting that she file the untrue affidavit, by helping her get a job, and by coaching his secretary, Betty Currie, to testify falsely" were "undercut by the evidence."
And he continued the long-running assault by Democrats on Starr, saying the independent counsel's conclusions were "often overstated," based on "strained definitions" of the laws involved, and often "not supported" by the actual evidence against the president.
Schippers, who said he had interpreted the evidence "in the light most favorable to the president," agreed with Starr that there was "substantial and credible" evidence that Clinton had lied under oath which he defined as giving "false statements" rather than the more legally portentous term of perjury both when questioned by lawyers for Paula Jones and before Starr's grand jury.
He seconded Starr's view that the president pressed Lewinsky to submit a false affidavit, conspired with her to hide gifts that were subpoenaed by Jones's lawyers, "coached" his secretary to cover up the affair and endeavored to buy Lewinsky's silence by helping her get a job in New York.
Schippers's language yesterday about the gravity of lying under oath was more ringing than Starr's. He invoked the "higher standard" imposed on the president, as the nation's chief law enforcement officer and "the repository of a special trust."
He also rejected the argument that it was tolerable for the president or anyone else to lie about a private, consensual affair. "If lying under oath is tolerated and, when exposed, is not visited with immediate and substantial adverse consequences, the integrity of this country's entire judicial process is fatally compromised and that process will inevitably collapse," Schippers warned.
Schippers led his charges with a sweeping new conspiracy count that charged that Clinton conspired with Lewinsky and unnamed others in virtually all of his alleged misconduct.
Using a chronology assembled by Starr, Schippers offered a detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of the frantic flurry of telephone calls and other activity on Jan. 18 and 19, just after the Jones lawyers quizzed Clinton about his relationship with Lewinsky and an Internet news report hinted at the Lewinsky relationship evidence, he said, of the conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Jones case. But he did not yesterday take on what is certain to be the Democratic defense to that allegation, that the intense post-deposition scrambling was aimed not at keeping the information from the Jones lawyers, but at containing and controlling the inevitable media eruption.
While Starr focused his allegations on the president rather than accusing his star witness, Lewinsky, of engaging in a conspiracy, Schippers made Lewinsky herself into what amounted to an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.
While that casts Lewinsky in a less-than-flattering light, Schippers addressed the question of Lewinsky's credibility head-on, acknowledging that her account "may be subject to some skepticism" because she admitted to having lied and to submitting a false affidavit. But he said Lewinsky was "an embarrassed and reluctant witness" against the president who "demonstrated a remarkable memory" and whose testimony was supported by "ample corroboration."
In slicing into three Starr's one count of obstruction related to Lewinsky's Jones affidavit denying any sexual relationship with Clinton, Schippers said there was evidence of three different crimes: that Clinton "aided, abetted, counseled and procured" Lewinsky to file a false affidavit; that he helped her to obstruct justice by doing so; and that he engaged in "misprision" of her felonies by failing to reveal the affidavit's falsity.
Schippers also used that episode to add to Starr's allegations that Clinton lied to the grand jury, asserting that Clinton lied then not only about his relationship with Lewinsky, as Starr alleged, but about the affidavit and whether he was paying attention when his lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, argued that the document showed there "is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form with President Clinton."
While Schippers concentrated on the facts amassed against the president, Lowell focused on the constitutional standards for removing Clinton from office.
Lowell contended that launching an impeachment inquiry without deciding on the standard for what constitutes impeachable crimes in advance was like "a ship's captain leaving on a difficult and uncharted voyage, hoping to find his or her compass somewhere along the way."
Arguing that the framers of the Constitution intended to include only grave injuries against the state, Lowell noted that when the committee considered articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, it dropped charges of tax evasion. "If President Nixon's alleged lies to the IRS about his taxes were not grounds for impeachment in 1974," Lowell asked, "how then are alleged lies about President Clinton's private, sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky grounds in 1998?"
The gulf between lawyers for the two sides was echoed by the members themselves as they launched into what will be the first of many debates about what constitutes the "high crimes and misdemeanors" necessary for removal of a president.
They differed over how the process should be structured, with Democrats contending that the committee should decide on the proper standard for impeaching a president before reviewing the allegations against Clinton. They disagreed about Starr's role, about the strength of the evidence against the president, and fundamentally about what actions amount to "high crimes and misdemeanors."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company