Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 9 1998 9:30 PM

Clinton on Trial

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Ruff Stuff: The President's Lawyer Triumphs

Advertisement

Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy an office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.

This is the last sentence of the Republicans' articles of impeachment, which are distributed at the end of this very long, very solemn day. This sentence may be the best defense the White House has. These words, set in Congress' sober typeface, make real what had been an abstraction. A reminder that Flytrap is no longer spectacle. Congress really is considering removing a president because he lied about screwing an intern.

The sentence may be the best defense, but the second best is undoubtedly White House Counsel Charles Ruff, the final witness for President Clinton. If there is a better advocate for the president in the universe, he has yet to appear on any of my Sunday talk shows.

Ruff appears after a morning panel of former prosecutors who argue that the president would never be indicted for perjury if he were a regular citizen. Witness Thomas Sullivan offers a pithy reversal of one of the Republicans' favorite lines: "If the president is not above the law, which he ought not to be, is he to be treated as below the law? Is he to be singled out for prosecution because of his office?"

Advertisement

When the afternoon session begins at 1:15, Ruff sits alone at the witness table, but the White House's heaviest hitters line up shoulder to shoulder behind him: Greg Craig, David Kendall, Bruce Lindsey, Cheryl Mills, Lanny Breuer. (Craig, Kendall, and Lindsey are preternaturally boyish: Is there some Dorian Gray-like spell that comes from handling the president's dirty laundry?)

As Craig did yesterday, Ruff apologizes for Clinton's misbehavior ("morally reprehensible" is today's phrase), and as Craig did yesterday, he scrupulously avoids the word "lie" (Clinton "misled the American people with malice aforethought"). Ruff presents a four pronged defense-or rather a three pronged defense and a one pronged offense. First, Ruff nibbles away at Ken Starr's perjury and obstruction of justice charges. He contends that Clinton did not perjure himself because he believed he was telling the truth and because there is no corroboration for Monica Lewinsky's claims that he touched her breasts and genitalia. More persuasively, Ruff batters the charge that Clinton obstructed justice by having Monica hide gifts. Why would Clinton tell her to hide gifts, then give her more 10 minutes later? "That's very strange conduct for a bunch of conspirators. Very strange," Ruff says.

Second, Ruff defends "legalism." It's about time. The Republicans have spent much of the last two months-as they spend much of today-bemoaning Democratic "legalistic hairsplitting." Ruff makes a straightforward and convincing case for hairsplitting. He notes that the impeachment hearings are, after all, a legal proceeding. It's absurd to charge the president with perjury-a crime with extremely technical requirements-then berate him when he employs a technical defense. Third, Ruff salves moderate Republicans with concessions, promising that Clinton won't pardon himself or duck any punishment imposed by Judge Susan Wright for perjury in the Paula Jones deposition.

Ruff's offense is even more effective. Without resorting to the ad hominem attacks on Starr that the White House is so expert at, Ruff impugns the Starr referral. He details how Starr concocted one charge against Clinton by grossly distorting what Clinton actually said. Starr claimed that Clinton denied authorizing the assertion of executive privilege, despite having authorized it a week earlier. In fact, as Ruff points out, the transcript of Clinton's remarks shows absolutely that Clinton was denying something else entirely. Toward the end of the day, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., starts referring to the "incomplete and misleading" Starr referral-exactly the same language used to describe Clinton's testimony.

Advertisement

Ruff is an extraordinary witness. Unlike, well, basically everyone else in the White House, he radiates honesty. Republican committee members burst in the face of his calm: The usually unflappable Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida screams at Ruff. So does Rep. George Gekas of Pennsylvania.

Yesterday I called Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., "admirable." I apologize. Graham has been cultivating an image of folksy wisdom throughout the hearings. Amid a crowd of Clinton haters, he has played the open-minded Republican, the guy who's genuinely ambivalent about Flytrap. "Is it Watergate or Peyton Place?" he asked, famously, on the first day of hearings.

This afternoon, Graham reveals himself, and he does it in such a calculating way that I wonder whether everything he has done till now has been pure performance. As the final speaker on the final day of hearings, Graham unleashes a 15 minute harangue about Clintonian evil. Clinton's true crime is not perjury or adultery, Graham shouts, it's that he planned to destroy Monica. Clinton told Sidney Blumenthal that Monica was a "stalker" so that Blumenthal would plant that in the press. "The press operation in the White House turned on that young lady. ... Bill Clinton knew that, like so many women in the past, Monica Lewinsky was going to go through hell. If she did not have that blue dress to prove her relationship, they would have cut her to pieces!"

The unruffled Ruff denies Graham's allegations, rejecting the notion that there was any White House campaign to smear Monica. "You have no evidence, no basis for making that allegation," Ruff says. It is a fitting coda to Ruff's superb testimony: The cool, reasonable Clinton defender chastising another Republican driven mad by Flytrap.

The Weld Plan

The real Flytrap divide is not partisan but geographic. Almost all the Republican House members who oppose impeachment are Northeasterners, as are most of the fence-sitting moderates. And the first Republican witness for the White House is also a Northeasterner, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

Weld, a former U.S. attorney, speaks on this morning's panel of prosecutors, and he forwards the best censure proposal yet. Congress should formally chastise Clinton, issue an exhaustive report detailing the president's misdeeds, require him to make a written acknowledgement of his wrongs, fine him, and let him risk criminal and civil sanction when he leaves office. Long live the Weld Plan!