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Washington Journal: Clinton Defense Opens With Assertion Of Innocence

Washington, 20 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With a simple but forceful declaration of innocence, U.S. President Bill Clinton opened his defense Tuesday on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

While Clinton stayed at the White House preparing an annual message he is required to deliver to the U.S. Congress, the chief lawyer on Clinton's defense team -- a well-known Washington attorney named Charles Ruff -- rolled his wheel chair to the middle of the U.S. Senate floor to begin the case on the president's behalf.

He said: "Mr Chief Justice, members of the Senate, distinguished managers: William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been preferred against him. He did not commit perjury. He did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office."

The first impeachment trial of a U.S. president since 1868 resumed in the Senate following a three-day recess. The 100 members of the Senate are sitting as the court of impeachment and are also serving as jurors who will render a final decision on the case. The Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, is presiding.

Ruff stated that the charges against the president are not true and that the president's defense team will prove that they are false. He said the defense welcomes the opportunity to answer the accusations.

Under the U.S. Constitution, a president can be removed from office if he has been impeached by the House of Representatives and then found guilty by a two-thirds majority of senators present after a trial in the Senate.

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 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 -- and the Senate -- are controlled by the Republican Party. Clinton had admitted to an improper relationship and has said that he "misled" people, but he 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 followed party lines almost exactly. Ruff said Tuesday the impeachment articles were prepared in haste. He said: "And so what lesson can be learned from the process followed by the House? I suggest that what you have before you is not the product of the Judiciary Committee's well-considered assessment of their constitutional role. Now what you have before you is the product of nothing more than a rush to judgment."

President Clinton and his defenders hope the trial can be brought to a close next Monday. That is because the Republicans and Democrats in the Senate agreed to take two votes once the prosecution and defense have given their opening arguments and after the senators have been given time to pose questions.

The senators agreed to take a vote on whether to dismiss the case, and then whether to take written depositions from witnesses who were questioned during the investigation that led to the impeachment proceedings to the Senate floor. Senator Robert Torricelli, a Democrat from the eastern state of New Jersey, pledged to offer a motion to dismiss the case after the opening proceedings. It would take only a simple majority of the senators present to be approved.

If that motion failed and if the Senate then approved taking depositions, which are sworn statements, the Senate would then vote on which witnesses, if any, should give live testimony.

The Republicans hold the majority in the Senate by 55 seats to 45. It appeared Tuesday that sentiment was growing among the Republicans to listen to testimony, including from Monica Lewinsky and from the president's personal secretary Betty Currie.

Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), the majority leader, said he disagreed with the view of many Senate Democrats that calling witnesses would turn the trial into a lurid spectacle that would include discussion of alleged sexual activities in the White House that would be broadcast live on national television.

Said Lott: "I don't think it should lead to an unseemly spectacle. You don't have to get into the details." He said he hadn't made a final decision on recommending witnesses, calling it premature to do so before the White House finished its opening arguments.

White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart said the idea of calling witnesses was ludicrous. He said witnesses would only prolong a trial the White House has felt has gone on too long already.

Earlier Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said there is no guarantee that witnesses could resolve whatever conflicts might exist in testimony.

He told NBC television that, "We think after our defense team has put down the case on the facts, the law and the constitution, have reminded the senators there are 60,000 pages of testimony from over 100 witnesses that are before them already, they may find there is no need for witnesses." Podesta said on NBC's "Today."

Podesta said all of the potential witnesses have already been questioned at length and have given testimony under oath. He said that once the motion to dismiss the case has been made, the impeachment trial will be "brought to an expeditious end and ... we can get on with the challenges that we face as a country."

In his opening remarks, Ruff said the Senate had all the information it needed. "You have before you all that you need to reach this conclusion: there was no basis for the House to impeach and there is now and never will be any basis for the Senate to convict."

Lockhart also announced that the president's defense counselors have added several Democrats from the House of Representatives to the defense team, and former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers from Clinton's home state of Arkansas.

Lockhart would not identify the House members but he said they were joining the team at the White House request to "offer some valuable insight into how we got to this point."

Press reports said the White House had asked three Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee, which drafted the articles of impeachment against Clinton. Each of the three members -- John Conyers of Michigan, Richard Boucher of Virginia and Thomas Barrett of Wisconsin -- would speak before the Senate as part of the president's defense.

During the first phase of the trial last week, 13 Republicans from the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois, presented the case against Clinton. They had 24 hours to make their arguments and they were spread over three days.

In his summation on Saturday, Hyde said that by his actions, Clinton had "broken his covenant of trust with the American people," and should be removed from office.

Once the president's counselors conclude their allotted 24 hours, the senators will have 16 hours to submit written questions to the presiding judge, U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist.