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Washington Journal: White House Maps Impeachment Defense

Washington, 10 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's top lawyer says the president's private conduct was "morally reprehensible" and that he ultimately "betrayed the trust" of the American people. Still, the attorney says nothing Clinton did warrants his impeachment.

White House attorneys and legal experts for the defense spent two days at the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee to argue against impeachment. The committee will resume its hearings today following a recommendation by Republican panel and staff members Wednesday night to bring four articles of impeachment charges.

The articles, which will be debated by the committee beginning today, include two counts of perjury, one of obstruction of justice and one abuse of power.

In dramatic appearance before the committee earlier Wednesday, White House counsel Charles Ruff urged the panel not to seek impeachment.

Ruff said: "Neither the president nor anyone speaking on his behalf will defend the morality of his personal conduct. The president had a wrongful relationship with (former White House aide) Monica Lewinsky. He violated his sacred obligations to his wife and daughter. He misled his family, his friends, his colleagues and the public. And in doing so, he betrayed the trust placed in him not only by his loved ones but by the American people."

Ruff continued as the committee listened intently: "The president knows that what he did was wrong. He has admitted it. He has suffered privately and publicly. He is prepared to accept the obloquy that flows from his misconduct, and he recognizes that, like any citizen, he is and will be subject to the rule of law. But, Mr. Chairman, the president has not committed a high crime or misdemeanor. His conduct, although morally reprehensible, does not warrant impeachment. It does not warrant overturning the mandate of the American electorate."

Ruff said that in order to have committed an impeachable offense, Clinton must have acted to subvert the American system of government. He said: "And members of the committee, that did not happen."

A vote on impeachment is not expected before Saturday. If the committee decides there is evidence of impeachable offenses, it will prepare an article or several articles and turn the case over to the full House of Representatives. The matter then would be debated and voted on by the entire House.

Republicans hold the majority on the Judiciary Committee and also in the full 435-member House by a margin of 223-211.

A simple majority would be required to impeach the president.

If that happened, the case would move to the 100-member Senate, where the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would preside over a trial. A two-thirds majority is required there for conviction and removal of the president. At issue is whether Clinton committed perjury -- lying under oath -- to cover up his personal relationship with Lewinsky.

Clinton has acknowledged misleading people and withholding information. But he has denied committing perjury while under oath.

Democratic members on the panel have drawn up a draft censure resolution condemning Clinton's conduct.

A censure would exclude the possibility of removing the president from office. Many Democrats favor that approach. The majority Republicans on the House panel have indicated they favor pressing for impeachment. Earlier Wednesday, former U.S. Attorney (eds: federal prosecutor) Thomas Sullivan told the panel that the basic question is if the president is not above the law, as he should not be, is he to be treated as below the law?

Said Sullivan: "Is he to be singled out for prosecution because of his office in a case in which, were he a private citizen, no prosecution would result? I believe the president should be treated in the criminal justice system in the same way as any other United States citizen. If that were the case here, it is my view that the alleged obstruction of justice and perjury would not be prosecuted by a responsible United States attorney."