Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 19 1999 10:00 PM

Clinton on Trial

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Sorry, but Clinton Is Out of Apologies

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There is something missing from White House Counsel Chuck Ruff's impeachment trial presentation, but it takes me a few minutes to pinpoint what it is: Ruff's not sorry. On every previous occasion--in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, in court documents, in press statements--Ruff and the president's other defenders have always made sure to apologize for the boss. They have called his behavior reprehensible, immoral, horrible, etc.

But the groveling and regrets have been shelved. Today, as the White House begins its three days of rebuttal, its defense is all offense.

This offense does not, it must be said, begin well. The only speaker on this "historic day" (as everyone insists on calling it) is Ruff, and the first hour of his two and a half hour presentation is filled with exactly the kind of technical legal defenses that infuriate conservatives and editorial page writers.

The highlight (lowlight?) is Ruff's novel argument that the president should be held to a lower standard than other impeachable officials, notably federal judges. Judges have lifetime tenure, while voters can replace the president after four years. Ergo, the president should be allowed to get away with more. As a constitutional argument, this may be compelling. As politics, it seems a loser. Ruff also attacks the impeachment articles as "constitutionally deficient" for their vagueness and gives a dreary pocket history of impeachment, analyzing why the framers replaced the word "maladministration" with "other high crimes and misdemeanors." (The "maladministration" of Ruff's microphone makes him nearly inaudible for this first hour. Considering the substance of his presentation, this may have been his good fortune.)

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When the Senate takes a break, Republicans seem smug in their press comments and Democrats irked. When Ruff resumes--his mike now fixed--he picks up where he left off, making the preposterous claim that "before the grand jury, the president was open, candid, and truthful." That's candid? I'd like to see what it's like when he really lies.

But then the White House counsel hits his groove. Ruff starts battering some of the evidentiary columns of the prosecution case. In a brilliant moment, Ruff challenges Betty Currie's much-ballyhooed cell phone call to Monica Lewinsky on Dec. 28. The call is key to the prosecutors' claim that Clinton concocted the gift concealment. According to the managers, Currie was calling to schedule the gift pickup. But Ruff reveals that Currie called Lewinsky 90 minutes after Lewinsky says the gifts were picked up. The managers have conveniently overlooked this fact, an omission Ruff calls "prosecutorial fudging."

Ruff also undermines the managers' account of the Lewinsky job search, saying that it is constructed out of "sealing wax and string and spider webs." Ruff counters the prosecution claim that Vernon Jordan stepped up job assistance to Lewinsky in response to a particular court order in the Paula Jones case. In fact, Ruff points out, Jordan had increased his assistance to Lewinsky before the order was issued. (Ruff also notes that it was Linda Tripp who told Monica to get Jordan involved in the job search. This prompts his best line of the day: "I am reminded of Iago and Desdemona's handkerchief.")

As Ruff jabs at the prosecutors' evidence, you can almost feel Democratic senators exhaling with relief: He's answering the facts! He's not just weaseling about the law!

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Ruff also delivers the White House response to the prosecutors' repeated pleas for witnesses. He asks senators to imagine what it would be like to have Tripp testifying on the Senate floor and wonders whether senators really need to hear Vernon Jordan--"one of this country's great lawyers and great citizens"--to know that he told the truth.

In the press scrums after the Senate adjourns, Democrats are gloating (solemnly, of course). Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., repeatedly calls Ruff's testimony "powerful," while Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., predicts that it may reduce the Republican enthusiasm for witnesses. The Republicans seem to have moved on. By 4 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is rebutting the State of the Union--five hours before Clinton delivers it.

More on the speech later--after the president gives it.

Click here after midnight ET to read David Plotz's dispatch from the State of the Union.