Clinton's risky strategy : attack
Legal team will criticize Starr and 'partisan' inquiry, but tactic could anger undecided House Republicans.
WASHINGTON — President Clinton and his legal team are preparing to mount an aggressive, lengthy defense this week in a last-minute bid to sway a too-close-to-call House vote on impeachment - a vote that could decide Mr. Clinton's place in history.
The thrust of the White House argument will be to attack what it views as a partisan impeachment inquiry by House Republicans and unfair prosecution by independent counsel Kenneth Starr - casting Clinton as a political victim rather than defending his actions, say lawyers close to the president.
The defense strategy, intended to protect Clinton from impeachment now as well as indictment after he leaves office, is bold yet risky. On one hand, it reflects a confidence born of polls that show the public solidly opposes impeachment and gives Clinton higher ratings than either the Republican-led Congress or Mr. Starr.
Still, such aggressive tactics could backfire among a critical group: undecided House Republicans. Already, some GOP members - annoyed by Clinton's perceived evasion in answering factual questions from House investigators - are leaning toward impeachment, making this week's testimony especially crucial.
"The White House ought to start talking about the evidence" instead of "covering up, stonewalling, and demonizing their enemies," said House majority whip Tom DeLay in a television interview Sunday.
Indeed, some Republican lawmakers have urged Clinton to admit he lied under oath, arguing without such a step it will be impossible for the GOP to consider a lesser punishment such as censure. The White House is actively inviting censure proposals. A small group of Republicans and Democrats continues quietly to discuss censure, which is also favored by some GOP governors. House GOP leaders, however, say a large, solid block of members opposes censure, and it will not come to the House floor.
Nevertheless, experts say Clinton's legal team of private attorney David Kendall and White House lawyers Charles Ruff and Gregory Craig are likely to avoid discussing facts and instead continue strenuous efforts to discredit the process.
They are expected to try to deflect any factual questions with the same technically worded responses used throughout the inquiry and criticized by lawmakers from both parties as legal "hair splitting." Meanwhile, they will repeat their blanket assertion that nothing the president did rises to the level of an impeachable offense.
"It's fairly predictable that the White House will not engage in the substance of the investigation, and will go on the offense, attacking the propriety of the Ken Starr investigation and its handling by the Judiciary Committee," says Viet Dinh of the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.
"Kendall will be given the task of shredding Judge Starr," agrees Johnathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University.
Another clear indicator of the Clinton strategy is the flurry of recent White House criticism of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, the veteran lawmaker who is guiding the impeachment inquiry. Under Chairman Hyde, the proceedings have been "chaotic and erratic" and show "a serious lack of constitutional solemnity," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.
Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to Clinton, puts it more bluntly. "The American people have stopped taking the House Judiciary Committee Republicans seriously," he says, "and the last one apparently to figure that out are the House Judiciary Committee Republicans."
Mr. Davis participates in a daily White House conference call on the impeachment issue but says his views are his own.
"[Republicans] have taken a one-sided statement by Starr and reversed the constitutional presumption of innocence," Davis says, adding, "this is 'Alice in Wonderland.' "
The attacks on Hyde come even as White House lawyers continue to press him to grant their last-minute request to present before the committee three panels of witnesses to discuss standards for impeachment and for prosecution of perjury, as well as prosecutorial misconduct.
More time to talk
Hyde indicated on Saturday that he is likely to give the White House lawyers more time than the one day originally allotted. But he said he would oppose a "flurry of possibly redundant witness requests." He noted that the committee already held day-long hearings on both standards of impeachment and the independent counsel report, including "four hours of cross-examination" of Starr on alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Following the White House defense, the committee will hear final arguments from Republican counsel David Schippers, a former Chicago trial lawyer who made his name fighting organized crime, and Democratic counsel Abbe Lowell, an expert in government ethics.
As the legal maneuvering ensues, GOP staffers on the House Judiciary Committee are continuing to draft three articles of impeachment related to alleged perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power by the president in attempting to cover up his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The committee is all but certain to approve at least one article of impeachment, on perjury, in a party-line vote by the end of this week, committee members say. The article, accusing Clinton of lying in his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and in his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, would then go to the full House as early as next week
If the House impeaches Clinton, Senate majority leader Trent Lott said that the Senate would be obliged, although not technically required, to hold a trial.