Opening Defense Impresses Both Sides
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A7
White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff Tuesday drew strong praise from senators of both parties for his opening defense of President Clinton, raising Democrats' spirits but reinforcing Republican demands that witnesses be called in the Senate's impeachment trial.
Three days after senators from both sides of the aisle credited House prosecutors with making a powerful case for Clinton's conviction, Republicans joined Democrats in concluding that Ruff laid out the White House case in compelling detail, including a point-by-point rebuttal of many of the House charges.
"The House did a good job in presenting its case and Mr. Ruff did an excellent job in presenting his," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), one of the Senate's most conservative Republicans. GOP moderate Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) added: "They were very credible in their presentation."
Democrats, who had been shaken with the strength of the House GOP presentation last week, were clearly relieved by Ruff's presentation and even more glowing in their praise.
"Last week I was very frustrated because I knew some of the facts that hadn't been brought out. Now they have," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D- N.Y.), who fought against Clinton's impeachment as a member of the House Judiciary Committee before he was sworn in to the Senate earlier this month.
Neither the House prosecutors nor Ruff appear to have changed many minds. But to the extent that he helped solidify Democrats on Clinton's behalf, Ruff made it harder for Republicans to peel off the dozen Democratic votes needed for the two-thirds majority to oust Clinton from office. And just as the House team impressed the Senate with the sweep and seriousness of its case, Ruff laid out the president's case in a clear, detailed – even emotional – way.
"When he started off, it was almost that you had to strain to listen to him, and then he brings you into his thought process," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "And at the end, well, you could have heard a pin drop. Yeah, I thought it was really very, very powerful."
Ruff also said what senators had not heard before, directly challenging the House on the facts of the case.
Several Democrats agreed with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) that Ruff had "unraveled" the House managers' contention that Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. met with Lewinsky to discuss her job search after Judge Susan Webber Wright on Dec. 11, 1997, ordered Clinton to provide information on federal employees with whom he had sought sexual relations.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said Ruff showed that the Jordan-Lewinsky meeting took place before Wright's order, which came on the evening of Dec. 11, "and it is a very serious problem for the House of Representatives to have presented this fact so erroneously . . . on such a critical issue in their presentation."
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) also said the prosecutors hurt their case by not focusing, as Ruff did, on the specific grand jury perjury charges in the first impeachment article. "From Ruff's testimony it appears there is simply no factual basis" for perjury, Torricelli said.
But Ruff's arguments may have had the ironic effect of bolstering claims by Republicans that witnesses are needed to resolve factual discrepancies, both through depositions and live testimony. It now appears that the votes are present for the Senate to call key figures like Monica S. Lewinsky and Clinton secretary Betty Currie, senators have said.
"By raising questions about disputes in sworn testimony, he may have strengthened the case for witnesses," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).
"He really made a case if anybody has" for calling Lewinsky and Currie to discuss discrepancies over gifts that Clinton gave to Lewinsky, said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "He didn't quite touch on the question of why the gifts were under Ms. Currie's bed, did he?"
Democrats, by contrast, said Ruff was so devastating to the House case that there is even less need for witnesses than there was before. "It's become more and more clear that we have enough information on the record to make a decision without witnesses," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.).
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the case for witnesses was hurt when Ruff "straightened out the time line" on how Jordan aided Lewinsky's job search.
Before yesterday's trial session, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he had not made a final decision on whether to urge that witnesses be called, saying it would be "premature" to do so before the White House has completed its presentation.
But Lott disputed arguments by many Democrats that calling witnesses would drag out the trial and expose the country to a round of salacious information. "I don't think it should lead to an unseemly spectacle," he said.
One point on which there was no disagreement: The White House decision to add former senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to the defense team was a smart move. "He's experienced in the ways of the Senate, he's an excellent trial lawyer . . . and he knows Bill Clinton better than any of the rest of us," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
Meanwhile, the leadership of both parties began screening questions that senators will begin asking the House prosecutors and White House lawyers on Friday, the day after Clinton's defense team is scheduled to complete its opening presentation.
Leadership aides from both parties said the process, which grew out of a conversation last week between Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), was aimed solely at averting redundancy that would cut into each side's limited time to ask questions.
While senators said there has been no effort to censor or orchestrate the questions, they said the process could become contentious and potentially disruptive if it turned into an effort to use the questioning process to score points for or against conviction of the president.
Senators will submit their questions in writing to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will read them and identify the questioner, according to Senate aides.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company