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Washington Journal: Phase One Of Clinton Trial Ends In Senate

Washington, 18 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The legislators arguing for the removal of U.S. President Bill Clinton from office finished presenting their case against him Saturday by declaring their motives were neither personal nor political but patriotic.

The first phase of the impeachment trial of Clinton in the U.S. Senate came to a quiet end as the 13-member delegation from the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee finished its three-day presentation of why it believes Clinton should be convicted and removed from office.

The summation was delivered by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, a Republican from the state of Illinois. He declared that by his actions, Clinton had "broken his covenant of trust with the American people."

The full 435-member House approved two charges -- called articles of impeachment -- against Clinton last month. The president is accused of perjury and obstruction of justice while trying to conceal a sexual relationship he had with a former White House worker named Monica Lewinsky. The House rejected two other charges against Clinton.

The president is a member of the Democratic Party. The House (lower house) and the Senate (upper house) are controlled by the Republican Party. Clinton had admitted to an improper relationship and that he "misled" the American people but says he has not committed any crimes and should not be removed from office. He and his defenders have said the impeachment effort is motivated solely by a partisan desire to drive Clinton from office.

The vote to charge Clinton was largely partisan.

The House had 24 hours -- spread over three days -- to open its case. The Senate is sitting as a court of impeachment and the 100 senators are acting as a jury. It would require 67 votes to convict the president. There are 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats and few believe the president will be convicted on either charge.

In his summation, however, Hyde reaffirmed the Republican view that Clinton cannot be allowed to place himself above the law.

Said Hyde: "Let's be clear -- the vote you are asked to cast is in the final analysis a vote about the rule of law. The rule of law is one of the great achievements of our civilization, for the alternative to the rule of law is the rule of raw power."

Hyde charged that lying under oath is an abuse of freedom. He said obstruction of justice is a degradation of law. He then said, "There are people in prison for such offenses. What in the world do we say to them about equal justice if we overlook this conduct by the president?"

Hyde contended that if the senators did not convict Clinton, despite the evidence presented, the presidency itself may be "deeply and perhaps permanently damaged."

Hyde said: "And that is a further reason why President Clinton must be convicted of the charges brought before you by the House and removed from office. To fail to do so, while conceding that the president has engaged in egregious and dishonorable behavior, that has broken the covenant of trust between himself and the American people, is to diminish the office of president of the United States in an unprecedented and unacceptable way."

Hyde said the case against the president was not based on a trivial issue of trying to cover up adultery, and he defended his House Republican colleagues who have been criticized for attacking the president just because they do not like him personally or are opposed to his policies.

Said Hyde, "We have brought these articles of impeachment because we're convinced in conscience that the president of the United States lied under oath, that the president committed perjury on several occasions before a federal grand jury. We have brought these articles of impeachment because we are convinced in conscience that the president willfully obstructed justice and thereby threatened the legal system he swore a solemn oath to protect and defend."

This is just the second impeachment trial of a president in U.S. history. President Andrew Johnson was acquitted by one vote in a trial in 1868. The House has the sole power of impeachment. Once it votes to impeach a president, or other federal officials such as judges, a trial is held in the Senate presided over by the chief justice of the U.S. In this case it is William Rehnquist.

The trial was recessed until Tuesday. Then, Clinton's lawyers will have 24 hours to present their case. After that, senators will have 16 hours to submit written questions.

The issue of whether the House prosecutors, who are called managers, will be permitted to call witnesses is still not decided. Democrats do not want witnesses. House Republicans contend that testimony from witnesses, including Monica Lewinsky, will prove conclusively that Clinton is guilty.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) released a letter he had sent to the Democratic leader, Thomas Daschle (dash-el') of South Dakota on Friday night, suggesting creation of a bipartisan group of senators that could "save us time and trouble in the days ahead."

In reply, Daschle declined the invitation for a bipartisan group. He wrote that, "it is my hope that such arrangements will ultimately prove unnecessary."

The president does not have to attend the trial. He was in Washington on Saturday preparing for the president's annual message to a joint session of Congress called the State of the Union. Clinton plans to go to the Congress on Tuesday night and deliver his speech, only hours after his lawyers finish their first day of defending him.