Clinton's plan for eluding infamy

Defense uses contrition, legalisms to elicit backing of Republican moderates.

The White House impeachment defense takes a dash of contrition, mixes in a dose of legalisms, and covers it all with a new ingredient - warnings about the momentous implications of a House vote to put President Clinton on trial in the Senate.

Mr. Clinton's team hopes this recipe will cause a small but crucial group of moderate Republicans to cast "no" ballots when the full House votes on articles of impeachment next week.

In essence, the administration is trying to raise the level of tension in Washington in these last crucial days of the impeachment process.

Some House Republicans have said they believe a vote to impeach would be a way to strongly censure Clinton, since the Senate is unlikely to remove him from office. The White House defense insists that, to the contrary, the impeachment of a president on narrow grounds by a lame-duck Congress despite overwhelming public opposition could plunge the nation into chaos.

The spectacle of a lengthy Senate trial would hinder other work for months and hold impeachment in voters' faces despite their desire for the whole thing to go away.

"They assumed they didn't have to think about this any more ... it's going to have a substantial public effect, let's just put it that way," says Ann Lewis, White House communications director.

If nothing else, the odd final days of the House impeachment inquiry are showing that Congress can switch moods faster than a teenager who has been denied the keys to the car. Early this week momentum seemed to be with the president's opponents. Conventional wisdom held that at least one article of impeachment dealing with perjury might pass the full House.

Now the two days of administration defense before the House Judiciary Committee may have swung momentum the other way. On Wednesday, Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York became the sixth GOP moderate to publicly announce opposition to impeachment.

But a week can be a lifetime in public life, and the mood of Washington is likely to shift again before the full House votes.

Meanwhile, the two days of defense-team presentations before the Judiciary Committee displayed the most important aspects of Clinton's struggle to avoid joining Andrew Johnson in the exclusive club of impeached chief executives.

One was diminished volume for attacks on the process. The administration pulled a scheduled panel of witnesses that would have talked about prosecutorial misconduct, and White House special counsel Gregory Craig emphasized contrition.

"No technicalities or legalities should be allowed to obscure the simple moral truth that [Clinton's] behavior in this matter was wrong," said Mr. Craig.

But that doesn't mean the legalities have disappeared. It just means they're batting second. A second aspect of the Clinton defense remains his defiant arguments that he has done nothing that is against the law.

The defense even launched its most ambitious attempts yet to deal with the actual facts of the case. It released a lengthy, printed rebuttal of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's referral to Congress.

Among other things, the rebuttal argued that Clinton did not commit perjury when he said he could not recall being alone with Monica Lewinsky because, among other things, "the term 'alone' is vague unless a particular geographic space is identified."

The rebuttal also attacked Ms. Lewinsky's credibility on certain statements - a first for the White House. And it dealt with the key perjury accusation, that the president lied when he said under oath that he had never had sex with Lewinsky, by arguing that the definition of "sexual relations" presented to him prior to his deposition in the Paula Jones case was "bizarrely narrow" and thus open to multiple interpretations.

The reliance on these arguments reflects the fact that Clinton is trying to avoid prosecution for perjury after he leaves office, as well as impeachment now. But it is also likely part of the storyline he is attempting to show House GOP moderates. Perjury is a complicated area of law. Should you impeach a popular president who might then beat the rap?

And the Clinton team's depiction of Impeachment Future is not a pretty one. Again and again, his defenders have said that it might cause gridlock in Washington for months, whatever its outcome. "Is it appropriate to also measure the impact of a trial on the well-being of our nation?" asked Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California.

* Francine Kiefer in Washington contributed to this report.

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