WASHINGTON — Here's a radical idea for President Clinton's lawyers: Don't present a defense at the Senate trial.
The point is not to take any unnecessary risks. The Senate is unlikely to get the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president, says Susan Fain, law professor at American University here, and "when you have a winner, you make nice" and "keep your mouth shut."
Even though the White House would never consider a defenseless defense, this don't-make-waves advice is not far off the mark, say other legal experts. If the White House team is to avoid irritating the very senators who will determine Mr. Clinton's future, they warn, it must drop the arrogant, attack-dog demeanor it has exuded in the past.
Recent indications are that the president's team is adopting a more conciliatory approach - at least for now. Clinton's lawyers late Wednesday indicated they would not contest the House record in the case - the first time they have done this. In return, the Senate would agree to hold an abbreviated trial that obviates the need for calling or cross-examining witnesses.
The White House has also demonstrated considerable restraint in recent weeks in its public statements, despite its eagerness to know - and influence - the final plan for trial proceedings. Clinton's lawyers are "preparing for all eventualities," a diplomatic Joe Lockhart, White House spokesman, has said.
In the days leading to the trial, Mr. Lockhart has taken care to be deferential to Senate majority leader Trent Lott, though he has questioned the fairness of starting a trial only to find out "what the rules of the game are halfway through."
Still, people like James Carville, the president's Democratic friend and adviser, are watching from the wings - and urging a more confrontational approach. After Clinton's impeachment by the House, Mr. Carville reiterated his declaration of "war" on Republicans, and on the eve of the Senate trial he urged the White House to ratchet up its attack, to "tee it up."
Carville's "curled-lip venom ... certainly doesn't help us," says one source familiar with the White House's defense strategy.
WHITE House gentlemanliness, however, could dissipate if the trial disintegrates into partisanship or if witnesses appear. If witnesses are called, said Lockhart yesterday, then the process opens itself to becoming a lengthy legal one, including discovery, depositions, and motions. In that case, he said, "all bets are off."
In the end, that could backfire against the president, says George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. "The president has comfortable but not generous support" in the Senate, he says.
In fact, not all parties see the Clinton team as being deferential. Some Republicans, for one, see Wednesday's proposal as White House hardball - and as a bald threat to drag out the proceedings.