Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 22 1999 9:30 PM

Clinton on Trial

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The Final Days

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The death of Flytrap has been foretold so many times that it is undoubtedly a mistake to predict its end again, but what the heck. Something happened at 3 p.m. today that may really signal that the end is near. Sen. Robert Byrd, the pompous old West Virginia Democrat whom senators always heed on matters of procedure, distributed a press release declaring that he will move to dismiss the case on Monday. As the statement circulated through the Senate chamber, there was a buzz, a palpable buzz. My seatmate, a distinguished political reporter, turned to me and whispered, "That's it. It's over."

A few days ago, just after the prosecution presented its case, Trent Lott's spokesman doubted that Democrats would even bother to introduce a motion to dismiss. If Byrd, who has been highly skeptical of the president's defense, wants to end the trial, then the Democrats may be golden. Byrd gives cover to ambivalent moderates and conservatives who want to make a deal. As the Senate breaks for the evening, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., announces that "the most profound thing that happened today is Sen. Robert C. Byrd's motion to dismiss. This is the most respected member of the Senate. ... He has listened to the evidence and made up his mind that it should end." Even if Byrd's motion doesn't win 51 votes, it may create enough momentum to prevent the calling of witnesses, something that had been considered a certainty. Either way, the trial could wrap next week. (Second prediction, a corollary of the first: The most overused phrase of this weekend will be "exit strategy.")

Today's question time proceeds much more mechanically than expected. It's more Kabuki than improv. The Republican and Democratic senators seem to have forewarned their respective allies about questions, so there are few surprises. (Almost all Democratic questions go to the White House lawyers, and almost all Republican questions go to the House managers. Most of the Republican questions are submitted by more conservative members, and most of the Democratic questions are submitted by more liberal ones.)

The first Republican question, posed by interlocutor Chief Justice William Rehnquist, asks the managers to describe any misstatements or errors in the three day defense presentation. Manager Ed Bryant immediately takes the podium and reads from a prepared, typed answer. When he finishes, a Democratic question asks the White House to respond to any "legal or factual assertions in the previous response by the House managers." White House Counsel Chuck Ruff answers by reading a prepared statement of his own. The day continues in this pattern: Republicans ask the managers to hit weak points in the White House case; Democrats ask the White House lawyers to hit the weak points in the managers' answers. It is all very self-referential: At one point, Ruff answers a question about an earlier question that was itself about an earlier question.

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Both sides talk faster and nastier than they did in their opening presentations. The managers repeatedly accuse the defense of "fudging" and "misrepresenting" the evidence. Ruff and Co. are equally harsh. But both sides also land substantive blows. The prosecutors undermine the White House claim that Clinton didn't know Betty Currie would be a witness when he coached her after the Paula Jones deposition. "The president left the deposition knowing that Betty Currie would be a witness," asserts Manager Asa Hutchinson. After all, Hutchinson says, the president himself repeatedly told the Jones lawyers, "Ask Betty. Ask Betty. Ask Betty."

Republican questioners also stump the usually unflappable Ruff with two questions: If Clinton was innocent, why did he ask Dick Morris to conduct a poll about whether the American people would forgive perjury and obstruction of justice? And would a federal judge be impeached and convicted if he did what Clinton did? Ruff wisely ducks both questions, without much grace.

The White House, for its part, repeats its assault on the obstruction of justice charges. Ruff goes after the notion that the Lewinsky job search was "catalyzed" by a Jan. 11 court order in the Jones case, noting that the job search began before the court order. Manager Hutchinson tries to weasel out of the Jan. 11 date by claiming the job search was really energized by events on Jan. 5 or Dec. 19. "If ever there were a moving target, we have just seen it," mocks Ruff. "If it wasn't Jan. 11, let's go to Jan. 5 or Dec. 19 or whenever."

As they have in previous appearances, the managers plead for witnesses. Manager Henry Hyde and several of his colleagues answer questions with vehement requests for witnesses. The managers also distribute a letter they wrote to the Senate urging it to ask the president to testify. Some of the managers also still hope to call "Jane Doe" witnesses to recount new Clinton horror stories. As I listen to and read their pleas, it occurs to me that the managers are still stuck in the great Flytrap fallacy. At every stage of the scandal, the president's critics have believed that the next evidence will surely damn him. Surely Kathleen Willey's 60 Minutes appearance would destroy him, or his admission of adultery, or the Starr report, or the release of the supporting documents, or the airing of the Lewinsky-Tripp tapes. Now the managers have hung their hopes on witnesses: Surely witnesses will finally convince the American people and the senators that he must be removed.

The next evidence is never enough, but I doubt the managers will ever find that out. Presidential lawyer David Kendall talks about witnesses, too. He tells the Senate that it would be "malpractice" for the president's counselors not to conduct "full discovery" if witnesses are called. "I think you are looking realistically at a process of many months to have a full discovery process." As Kendall says this, I can almost hear senators shuddering.

Jeepers, Creepers: When Cheryl Mills takes the podium this afternoon, those of us in the press gallery behind her see that she's wearing a beeper. This is the impeachment trial of the president, the most important case of her life. Why would she wear a beeper? Who is she expecting to call her? God?