Trial nears final phase

The House Republican prosecutors and White House lawyersturned the impeachment trial over to the Senate jury yesterday, afterprosecutors implored senators to rise above their political interests, ignoreWhite House "spin" and remove President Clinton from office.

But Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, warned that a convictionof the president would rip a hole in the constitutional fabric that hasclothed American society and will clothe future generations for "millennia tocome."

"We cannot leave even the smallest flaw in that fabric," Ruff said, "for ifwe do, one day someone will come along and pull a thread, and the flaw willgrow and soon the entire cloth will begin to unravel."

After 5 1/2 hours of often repetitive closing arguments from theprosecutors and the White House, senators were left to deliberate the fate ofthe president, with the only real suspense being how far the prosecutors willfall short in seeking 67 votes for conviction on either of two articles ofimpeachment.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the lead House prosecutor, dashed off a letter toSenate leaders, asking them to call three more witnesses to testify to whetherSidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, lied under oath last week. Inhis testimony to the prosecutors, Blumenthal denied giving journalists detailsfrom conversations he had had with Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky storybroke. But two journalists have submitted sworn affidavits that Blumenthaltold them Lewinsky was a "stalker," a term Clinton had used in those privateconversations.

Senators are showing little appetite for prolonging the trial "another twominutes," as a Republican leadership aide put it. Even a bipartisan effort tocensure Clinton after his expected acquittal appears to be faltering in theface of conservative Republican opposition and a rush toward closure thisweek.

The Senate will vote today on whether its final deliberations should beheld in public. It appears unlikely that a motion to change the Senate rulesto open up the deliberations will garner the necessary 67 votes for passage. Afinal vote to convict or acquit Clinton, for perjury and obstruction ofjustice arising from the Lewinsky scandal, will come by Friday, and perhaps asearly as Thursday.

"We are blessedly coming to the end of this melancholy procedure," Hyde, ofIllinois, acknowledged as he began the last of 13 closing statements deliveredby each member of the prosecution team.

The prosecutors concluded yesterday with pleas that were at timespassionate, at times weary, at times bordering on self-pity and at timesseething with frustration and anger. Hyde called the impeachment saga a battlein the nation's "culture war." Another prosecutor, Rep. Lindsey Graham ofSouth Carolina, his voice dripping with indignation, spoke of a nation in"hopeless decline." Another, Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, said it appeared tohim "the fix was in."

"I wonder if after this culture war is over that we're engaged in, if anAmerica will survive that's worth fighting to defend," Hyde said. "Peoplewon't risk their lives for the U.N. or over the Dow Jones averages. But Iwonder in future generations whether there'll be enough vitality left in duty,honor and country to excite our children and grandchildren to defend America."

The prosecutors recognize that they cannot produce the two-thirds Senatemajority needed to remove a president for the first time. They have loweredtheir sights on obtaining a 51-vote majority, the threshold that Hyde saidwould legitimize the House's vote in December to impeach Clinton. ManyRepublicans acknowledge that that simple majority could be in jeopardy, thoughSenate Republicans hold a 55-45 edge over Democrats.

Since last week, Republican senators have openly raised the prospect of atleast a half-dozen Republicans joining all 45 Democrats to vote against aconviction for perjury. Yesterday, some began questioning whether theobstruction of justice charge, which had been considered stronger, can garnera simple majority of senators, either.

The obstruction of justice charge "is like this garbage can that picks upso much of the garbage in this case," said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith ofOregon, who had formerly indicated he would probably vote for the obstructioncharge.

While a parade of House prosecutors used nearly all their allotted threehours, just one of the president's lawyers, Ruff, spoke yesterday. Consumingjust over half his given time, the White House counsel coolly and methodicallydisputed each of the charges, which he dismissed as "moving targets and emptypots."

Nearly a month ago, when he opened the president's defense, Ruff had calledthe charges empty vessels. But he said yesterday that that characterizationstruck him as overly flattering, since a vessel might have "the capacity tofloat."

Few, if any, new arguments emerged as the cases were brought to a close.Though he had fought to keep videotaped depositions out of the trial, Ruffmade much more use of them yesterday than did the prosecutors who hadconducted the interviews.

Ruff raised some new challenges. He used the statements of a prosecutor,Rep. James E. Rogan of California, on a cable news show to try to underminethe perjury charge that Rogan had argued for.

Another prosecutor, Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, suggested last monththat Clinton had examined about 15 drafts of an affidavit Lewinsky gave inwhich she denied having had a sexual relationship with the president. But Ruffshowed that the prosecutors had quietly acknowledged to the Senate that nosuch drafts existed.

The prosecutors had also submitted an affidavit from a clerk in the courtof the judge in the Paula Jones lawsuit, stating, as prosecutors put it, thatthe president was "listening attentively" as his lawyer in that case, RobertS. Bennett, said there had been no sex of any kind between Clinton andLewinsky. The prosecutors contended that this was proof of both perjury andobstruction, since Clinton had denied paying attention as Bennett made thatstatement and did nothing to correct him.

But, Ruff said, the affidavit from the clerk said nothing about thepresident looking "attentively." And the clerk was quoted in a legal newspaperas saying, "I have no idea if he was paying attention."

"You were misled," Ruff told the Senate.

As for the charge that Clinton deliberately lied to his aides aboutLewinsky to pass those lies on to Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, Ruff for thefirst time invoked this argument: Why would Clinton lie to aides likeBlumenthal, then immediately claim executive privilege to block them fromtestifying?

"For someone who wanted Mr. Blumenthal to serve as the managers would haveit, as his messenger of lies, that's strange behavior indeed," Ruff said.

For the prosecutors, such arguments amounted to nitpicking an overwhelmingcase -- "picking lint," according to Hyde.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, another prosecutor, told the senators thatif they believed even just one of the six counts of obstruction of justice,they must vote to remove Clinton.

And Graham sought to personalize Clinton's offenses, returning to hisoft-repeated assertion that the president orchestrated a smear campaign toundermine Lewinsky or anyone else in his way. Graham's assertion was somewhatbolstered by the affidavits from two journalists saying Blumenthal told themthat Lewinsky was a "stalker," despite Blumenthal's statements under oath thathe was not the source for any news report that repeated that description.

"It's the most disgusting part of the case," said Graham, his voice lowerednearly to a contemptuous whisper. "The White House is a bully pulpit, but itshould not be occupied by a bully."

To a man, House prosecutors were unflinching in their demands that Clintonbe convicted.

"I implore you to muster the courage of your convictions, to muster thecourage the founding fathers believed the Senate would always have in timeslike these," McCollum said. "William Jefferson Clinton has committed highcrimes and misdemeanors. Convict him and remove him."

The deliberations should begin this afternoon. Senate Democratic leader TomDaschle, of South Dakota, moved yesterday to limit each speech to 10 minutes,rather than the 15 minutes allotted by Senate rules.

Republicans appear to have enough votes to keep the debate in secret. Theyargued that closed-door deliberations would minimize grandstanding and couldallow the final votes to come by Thursday.

That would leave senators with one day to wrangle over a resolution tocensure Clinton before they depart for a one-week recess. But even censure waslosing steam, as both the House and Senate begin looking beyond the Lewinskywars that have consumed Washington for more than a year.

Though another prosecutor, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, railed against WhiteHouse smoke screens and challenged the Senate's "moral fortitude," he offeredan olive branch of sorts.

"I would ask everyone here today to make a commitment," Chabot said, "acommitment to every American that regardless of the trial's outcome, we willjoin together to turn the page on this unfortunate chapter that PresidentClinton has written into our nation's history."

Sun staff writers Karen Hosler and David Folkenflik contributed to thisarticle.

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