Judiciary Committee Republicans grill Clinton's witnesses
White House sends the committee a 184-page defense
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, December 8) -- In a hard-edged, 11-hour session, Republican members grilled President Bill Clinton's lawyer and witnesses Tuesday as the White House opened a spirited defense against the House Judiciary Committee's move to impeach the president.
White House Special Counsel Gregory Craig, four history and legal scholars, three former members of the House and two career prosecutors appeared on Clinton's behalf during the daylong session. The White House will wrap up its case Wednesday.
Republican lawmakers pushed the president's advocates, without much success, to talk about the facts of the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Clinton's team also provided the Judiciary Committee with a 184-page rebuttal to Independent Counsel Ken Starr's charges that Clinton lied under oath, obstructed justice and abused his powers. (Full story)
"The president has not sugar-coated the reality of his wrongdoing," Clinton's lawyers said in their latest rebuttal. "Neither should the committee ignore the standards of the Constitution to overturn a national election and to impeach a president."
Republicans pressed Clinton's supporters to evaluate the truthfulness of witnesses and explain why they favor censure over impeachment.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) asked Craig whether Lewinsky, a former White House intern, lied to the grand jury investigating her illicit sexual affair with the president.
"We think, in some areas, she provided erroneous testimony that is in disagreement with the president's testimony, and particularly in specific areas having to do with the grand jury," Craig said.
When asked if Clinton's secretary Betty Currie or presidential friend Vernon Jordan lied when they testified in a way which conflicted with Clinton's testimony, Craig said he did not believe they had lied.
Almost a year after the sex-and-perjury saga surfaced, the House Judiciary Committee stands at a critical juncture, poised to vote as early as Friday on at least one article of impeachment. The outcome in the full House remains too close to call.
Despite the Clinton legal team's vow to argue the facts of the case, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina) repeatedly chided the president's witnesses for not offering anything new.
"We have yet to hear any facts or evidence," Inglis said. "There is nothing new here."
Craig was asked why the president's attorneys were not presenting any witnesses who had firsthand knowledge of the facts in the case.
Craig said the president should have the presumption of innocence and it was "the burden of the committee" to present witnesses who could testify about the facts.
Craig said Starr had "frequently" mischaracterized the testimony to support his contention that Clinton committed perjury.
But Republican members repeatedly wanted to know from Craig whether the president lied.
Rep. Howard Coble (R-North Carolina) said in Lewinsky's testimony before the Starr grand jury, she said the president had touched her but that in his testimony in the Paula Jones case, the president said he did not. Which one, asked Coble, was lying?
"This is a he-says, she-says situation" where two people made conflicting statements under oath, said Craig. The committee, he said, should not be put into the position of trying to determine who is telling the truth.
Did Clinton lie when he told the American people, "I did not have sex with that woman," Inglis wanted to know.
Craig conceded that Clinton's assertion was "evasive and wrong," but that based on his definition of what sex is, he did not believe he was lying.
In his opening statement, Craig pleaded with committee members to open their minds to the president's defense and the distinction between "immoral conduct and illegal acts."
"Open your mind, open your heart and focus on the record. As you sit there listening to me at this moment, you may already be determined to vote to approve some articles of impeachment against this president," Craig said. "If you are in fact disposed to vote for impeachment, in the name of a justice that is fair and blind and impartial, please do so only on the basis of the real record and the real testimony, not on the basis of what someone else tells you is in the record."
White House officials told CNN the president instructed his attorneys to present a strong defense but "a defense made without undue confrontation." Clinton also told his attorneys to clearly articulate his contrition for his conduct in his affair with the former White House intern, sources said.
"During our presentation today and (Wednesday) we will show from our history and our heritage, from any fair reading of the Constitution and from any fair sounding of our country, men and women, that nothing in this case justifies this Congress overturning a national election and removing our president from office," Craig said.
The shift to a defense based on the facts and the record marks a change in strategy for the president's team. Until now, the White House has concentrated on attacking the independent counsel for the most part.
In contrast to the lead role played by the president's private attorney David Kendall in aggressively questioning Starr last month, Clinton's defense is showcasing Craig and White House Counsel Charles Ruff, who are considered less confrontational.
At the end, said Craig, the committee should conclude that overturning a presidential election and impeaching the president is "neither right, nor wise, nor warranted."
The White House has more than a dozen witnesses scheduled to testify, including legal scholars, historians and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, to rebut proposed articles of impeachment on obstruction of justice, abuse of power and perjury.
But it will be left to the president's lawyers to argue the facts of the case, even though they do not believe they will change any minds on the committee. Their target audience is a handful of still undecided Republicans and Democrats and the American public.
When the day began, Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, delivered opening remarks.
Hyde restated his pledge to finish the impeachment proceeding by the end of the year and said the committee will begin debating articles of impeachment Friday, after opening statements from all committee members Thursday night.
Conyers charged the Republican leadership, singling out House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-Louisiana) and Major Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), are "thumbing their noses at the American people" by not allowing the question of censure of the president to come to the floor of then House for a vote.
Conyers said the Republicans want to switch the venue to the Senate where he said the impeachment process could be extended by another six months. Their actions, said Conyers, demonstrate "extremists are in charge of the process."
The White House has a total of 30 hours over Tuesday and Wednesday to make its case against impeachment. Ruff will deliver the closing arguments on Clinton's behalf at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday.
During their defense of the president, the White House legal team plans to call four panels of witnesses.
The first panel to testify Tuesday morning dealt with "Historical Precedents and Constitutional Standards." The panel included former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, Harvard professor Samuel Beer and Yale Law professor Bruce Ackerman.
Katzenbach contended that impeachment is essentially a political rather than a legal process.
"The fundamental question is simply whether the president has done something which has destroyed public confidence in his ability to continue in that office," Katzenbach said. "If the public doesn't believe that what he has done seriously affects his ability to perform his public duties as president, should the committee conclude that his acts have destroyed public confidence?"
Ackerman argued that since the House is not a "continuous body" all issues die with it at the end of its term in January. "A lame duck bill of impeachment dies with the lame duck Congress that passed it," said Ackerman.
He contended the only way that the Senate could consider articles of impeachment would be if the newly elected House voted them again.
A second panel addressed the issue of "Abuse of Power." The panel included three people who sat on the House Judiciary Committee when it debated the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in 1974: former Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, Rev. Robert Drinan of Massachusetts and Wayne Owens of Utah. All argued that Clinton's behavior did not rise the level of impeachable offenses.
Owens predicted an impeachment vote would polarize a public that does not want Clinton removed from office.
"I think it would have a terrible impact on the public," Owens said.
During the ex-lawmakers' testimony, Hyde and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) argued after Waters -- citing a recent Los Angeles Times article -- accused Hyde of inconsistency in evaluating falsehoods by government officials.
Waters said Hyde's comments during the Iran-Contra scandal shows he was willing to excuse Republican officials then, but now treats any lie as dangerous to the rule of law.
Hyde drew a laugh when he gave Waters more time "to continue her attack on me."
But Hyde turned serious when he said there was a difference between perjury and withholding information about clandestine operations to aid the Contras in Central America or get hostages out of Iran.
"At no time did I sanction perjury," Hyde declared.
Waters tried to break in, but Hyde refused to give her more time. "This isn't going to be the Maxine and Henry show," Hyde said.
A third panel -- "How to Evaluate the Evidence" -- featured witnesses James Hamilton, former assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, and Richard Ben-Veniste, former assistant special prosecutor and chief of the Watergate task force.
Hamilton said the founding fathers envisioned impeachment as a remedy for "great and dangerous offenses against the state." He said Clinton's lying to the public and his cabinet were disgraceful, but Clinton was no danger to the state.
"There must be a higher bar for impeachment," Hamilton said.
On Wednesday, a fourth panel is scheduled to address "Prosecutorial Standards for Obstruction of Justice and Perjury."
Witnesses on that panel are Thomas Sullivan, former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois; Richard Davis, former task force leader for the Watergate Special Prosecution Force from 1973-75; Edward Dennis, Jr., former acting U.S. deputy attorney general; William Taylor, III, former chairman of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association; and Ronald Noble, former undersecretary of the Treasury.
The White House has one additional witness on tap for Wednesday. Two Clinton Administration officials told CNN Tuesday that former Massachusetts Republican Gov. William Weld will testify on behalf of the White House.
The White House hopes that testimony from Weld might resonate with moderate House Republicans who are still undecided on impeachment when and if articles of impeachment are passed by the committee and come to a full House vote.
Before he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1990, Weld was the head of the Criminal Division in the Reagan Justice Department as well as a former U.S. attorney with extensive experience prosecuting government corruption cases.
The sources say Weld will make the case that the evidence against the president doesn not add up, and that a prosecutor would have a tough time taking the case to trial, let alone meeting the threshold for impeachment.
Officials of the Judiciary Committee were notified of the addition of Weld as a witness by the White House earlier Tuesday.
Weld stepped down as governor after being nominated by Clinton to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico but the nomination was withdrawn after Weld ran into confirmation problems with congressional Republicans because of his moderate views on abortion and gay rights. Since then, he has gone back into private law practice.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer and John King contributed to this report.
Tuesday, December 8, 1998
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