Clinton prepares to exploit State of the Union platform

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The Independent Online
THE SENATE trial of President Bill Clinton resumes today with White House lawyers due to embark on a detailed rebuttal of the two charges against him: perjury and obstruction of justice. But as politicians and historians agonised about the coincidence that will have the President metaphorically in the Senate dock only hours before he arrives at the Capitol to deliver the annual State of the Union address, another view was fast gaining ground. Tonight's highlight of the US political calendar also offers the President a unique chance to be a witness in his own defence, not just before Congress, but before the world.

For the second year running, President Clinton's State of the Union speech has become mired in the mess of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Last year, he faced an audience both shocked and mesmerised by the first revelations - then still denied, but considered, if true, unsurvivable. A year later, he is on trial for his presidency.

Formally, Mr Clinton and his lawyers steer quite different paths. He does his job and they do theirs. For Mr Clinton yesterday that meant a couple of hours joining Martin Luther King Day volunteers helping to repair a Washington old people's home, and several hours in the White House auditorium rehearsing his speech for tonight. For the lawyers, led by the White House chief counsel, Charles Ruff, it meant putting the finishing touches to what was said to be a new defence strategy.

Rather than taking the evidence of the independent prosecutor's report as read, they were said to be ready to challenge its accuracy. They will take issue with the evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice rather than argue, as they have hitherto, that the offences, even if proved, are not impeachable. The Senate can now expect a detailed reprise of who said and did what to whom and when, with all the now familiar statements and characters dissected for the Senate's delectation.

The new strategy seemed to reflect in part the strength of the House prosecutors' argument that perjury and obstruction of justice struck at the very foundation of the judicial system and did warrant removal from office. It also suggested, however, that the White House was reconciled to the calling of witnesses and was preparing the ground. The leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Tom Daschle, indicated as much when he acknowledged yesterday that witnesses might have to be called.

The White House had objected that witnesses would draw out the trial unnecessarily, but the ferocity of its opposition suggested it had other worries as well. One frequently cited was the risk that "live" witnesses under fierce cross-examination might harm the President's case.

While the Clinton camp has conducted its public fightthrough the White House legal team, there were ample signs that it was moblising every possible resource, however unconventional, in the President's defence. Last night, in a rare live television interview, the rock star Madonna was expected to digress briefly in support of Mr Clinton. Links have been alleged between Clinton associates and recent exposes of senior Republicans by the pornography publisher Larry Flynt.

And the publication in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association of a survey showing that a majority of college students agree with Mr Clinton that oral sex is not sex can hardly damage his case - even though it cost the journal's editor his job.