With 100 senators sitting in silent attention, Houseprosecutors opened their case yesterday against William Jefferson Clinton,charging that he had "piled perjury upon perjury," engaged in a "multifactedscheme to obstruct justice" and should be removed from the office of thepresidency.
"Failure to bring President Clinton to account for his serial lying underoath and preventing the courts from administering equal justice under law willcause a cancer to be present in our society for generations," intoned Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, as the second presidentialimpeachment trial in history began in earnest.
"When a cancer exists in the body politic, our job, our duty, is to exciseit."
Thirteen Republican prosecutors drawn from the House of Representativeslaunched into their case, struggling against long odds to persuade thenecessary 67 senators to remove an elected president from office for the firsttime. Combining lofty, sometimes scathing rhetoric with a methodicalpresentation of the evidence, the House members held forth for nearly sixhours, trying to inflict significant damage on a president who has withstoodthe storm of scandal for a year.
Republican leaders pressed the case last night that the president shouldtestify before the Senate, trying to pressure Clinton to abandon his strategyof appearing above the impeachment proceedings. White House aides have statedemphatically that the president will not do so.
Said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah: "I do think if the president refused thatit would be a tough political problem for him."
Yesterday's presentation was crucial for House prosecutors if they are tomaintain that pressure. Most of the House presentation today and tomorrow willbe consumed in constitutional arguments over whether the president's conductwarrants removal, and then summations. Clinton's defense will follow,beginning Tuesday.
If the evidence laid out yesterday did not persuade two-thirds of theSenate to convict, House prosecutors must ultimately prevail on the senatorsto extend the trial by allowing them to call witnesses.
But so far, no Senate Democrat appears ready to vote to convict. At least12 would have cross party lines to remove the president.
"They threw facts at the Senate and obscure legal arguments, but they neveraddressed the key question: What is the threshold of an impeachable offense?"said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who as a House member votedagainst impeachment in December. "What I am looking for to change the views ofpeople is new facts."
Prosecutors tried yesterday not only to lay out their case for Clinton'sremoval, but also to persuade senators to allow them to call live witnesses tohelp make that case. They were treading a delicate line between contendingthat they were making a convincing case for conviction while also saying thatthey need to call witnesses to bolster that case.
And they appealed directly to the silent jurors' sense of history.
"Members of the Senate, what you do over the next few weeks will foreveraffect the meaning of those two words, `I do.' You are now stewards of theoath," declared Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the prosecution team's leader, referringto the president's pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
By now, the evidence is familiar to most Americans and the Senate jurors.House prosecutors had hinted that they would lace their presentation with"nuggets" of new revelations, but none emerged. At times, the prosecutorsappeared uncomfortable as they stumbled through their presentation.
But as Rep. Asa Hutchinson compellingly presented the charges ofobstruction of justice against his fellow Arkansan, fidgeting jurors moved tothe edge of their seats, furiously jotted down notes and appeared transfixed.Hutchinson presented a damaging, if circumstantial, case that once MonicaLewinsky's name appeared on the witness list for Paula Corbin Jones' sexualmisconduct lawsuit on Dec. 5, 1997, "the wheels of obstruction startedrolling."
"And they did not stop until the president successfully blocked the factsfrom coming out in a federal civil rights case," Hutchinson said.
Clinton's friend and confidant Vernon Jordan had been enlisted to findLewinsky a job in New York even before she became a witness in the Jones case.But prosecutors contend that this effort shifted into high gear once Lewinskyappeared on the witness list. At the same time, Hutchinson said, Jordan andClinton were scrambling to persuade Lewinsky to sign an affidavit denying asexual relationship with the president.
On Dec. 19, 1997, Lewinsky received a subpoena from Jones' lawyers. Thatday, according to testimony before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr'sgrand jury, she met with Jordan to tell him to inform the president of thesubpoena. That night, Jordan went to the White House to meet the president.
"I knew the president was concerned about the affidavit and whether or notit was signed," Jordan told the grand jury.
On Jan. 6, 1998, Lewinsky's attorney, Frank Carter, presented his clientwith a draft of an affidavit denying a sexual relationship with Clinton.
Lewinsky then went to New York for a job interview with the parent companyof Revlon, an interview arranged by Jordan. On Jan. 8, 1998, Lewinsky calledJordan to tell him the interview had not gone well. Jordan called RonPerelman, the corporation's chief executive, to "make things happen."
"What happened? Things happened," Hutchinson said. "Monica Lewinsky got ajob. The affidavit was signed, and Vernon Jordan declared, 'Missionaccomplished.' "
Rep. James E. Rogan's presentation of the perjury case was less smooth, andat times seemed more provocative then methodical. The California Republicanlaced his presentation with the words "ridiculous," "deceptive," "ludicrous"and "callous" to bolster House arguments that Clinton lied under oath in histestimony Aug. 17 before Starr's grand jury, likening the president'sexplanations of his testimony to a murderer's false alibi.
In grand jury testimony, the president said he regretted "that what beganas a friendship came to include this conduct."
Rogan portrayed the statement as perjurious.
"The very day the president met and spoke with a young White House internfor the first time was the day he invited her back to the Oval Office toperform sex acts on him," Rogan said, calling Clinton's statement "a callousand deceptive mischaracterization of how this relationship really began."
Rogan did not mention that it was Lewinsky who first approached Clintonsexually.
The congressman made liberal use of the president's videotaped grand jurytestimony, presenting Clinton's own words on large-screen, high-definitiontelevisions, apparently to powerful effect.
"Their use of video was a very effective tool," said Sen. Richard J.Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
The House prosecutors sprinkled their presentations with pleas to theSenate to allow them to call witnesses, not just Lewinsky, Jordan, thepresident and his secretary, Betty Currie, but numerous White House aides, andeven someone who could draw a map of the room in which Clinton was deposed byJones' lawyers last January.
"Can you convict the president of the United States without hearingpersonally the testimony of key witnesses?" Hutchinson asked, his voicerising. "Can you dismiss the charges under this strong set of facts withouthearing and evaluating the credibility of key witnesses?"
Representative Bryant said the prosecutors' appeal for witnesses was agesture of fairness to the White House.
"Unless and until the president has the ability to confront witnesses likeMs. Lewinsky, there cannot be any reasonable doubt of his guilt based on thesefacts," Bryant told Senate jurors.
But when pressed, prosecutors conceded that they have little chance ofobtaining a conviction without witnesses to buttress their presentation.
"It would be very, very difficult," Rogan said after the trial wasrecessed. "I don't see how we can win the case."
Such appeals could bring into the open the partisanship hidden just belowthe placid surface of the Senate.
The White House has done its best to call attention to the partisan tones.Even as prosecutors were presenting their case, James Kennedy, a spokesman forthe White House counsel's office, dismissed the case as "both unsubstantialand circumstantial."
"We look forward to presenting our defense based on the facts, the law andthe Constitution," he said.
At the White House, Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, accused Houseprosecutors of making a case so partisan "it isn't on the level."
"I don't think the founders intended [that] a party that is in the majorityin the Congress could remove a president at their whim based on partisanpolitical differences," he said.
The day began with party-line grumbling over a meeting Wednesday betweenRepublican senators and some of the House prosecutors to discuss the prospectof calling witnesses.
But Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota rejected Democraticparticipation in the meeting, saying he believed it violated the spirit of thebipartisan agreement last week to put off a decision on whether witnesses willbe allowed. White House lawyers, following Daschle's cue, also declined theinvitation to participate.
Daschle, the White House and most Democratic senators oppose the calling ofwitnesses and hope that enough Republicans will join them when a vote onwitnesses is taken after both sides finish presenting their cases.
Democrats said the meeting between Republican senators and Houseprosecutors made it appear that a decision to call witnesses has already beenmade.