Clinton Trial: Day One: January 14, 1999. The day a President went on trial

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The Independent Online
WITH A snowstorm bearing down on Washington and the United States Capitol shrouded in a thickening gloom, the 100 senators and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court assembled in the Senate chamber yesterday to try the 42nd President of the United States.

Impeached by the House of Representatives last month for lying under oath and obstructing the judicial system he had sworn, as President, to uphold, Bill Clinton is now before the court of last appeal.

"He shook his finger at each American and said, `I want you to listen to me,' and proceeded to tell a straight-faced lie," said James Sensenbrenner, the Republican Congressman who laid out the accusations against the President.

Mr Clinton lied repeatedly, deceiving the courts, his staff, the Congress and the American people, he said, in a powerful and articulate denunciation of the President.

Proceedings in only the second presidential impeachment trial opened at 1.04pm local time. The senate chaplain began with a quiet prayer to help senators through "this difficult time", and called for a spirit of non-partisan patriotism. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, resplendent in his gold-striped gown, announced that sometimes he would have to stand to stretch his back, and hoped that no one would take this amiss. Then he invited the prosecution - the team of 13 "managers" appointed by the House of Representatives - to state their case.

Henry Hyde, the leader of the trial managers, began with a solemn disquisition. "We are here to set forth the evidence in support of two articles of impeachment against President William Jefferson Clinton," he reminded the senators, in case any of them had forgotten. The issue was, ultimately, the President's oath, he underlined.

"The case you will consider in the coming days centres on these two words, `I do'," he said. He quoted Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, about the trial and execution of Sir Thomas More for failing to take Henry VIII's Oath of Supremacy, and he quoted from Shakespeare.

The Senate was now the guardian of the oath, he said. "Depending on what you decide, it will either be strengthened in its power to achieve justice or it will go the way of so much of our moral infrastructure and become a mere convention, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," he argued.

Mr Sensenbrenner, a bull-faced conservative from the suburbs of Milwaukee, opened the prosecution's case. Like all the "prosecutors", he is a lawyer by profession, and his contributions to the House judiciary committee discussions were among the least sympathetic towards the President.

Yesterday, entrusted with leading the prosecution, he gave no quarter. "President William Jefferson Clinton decided to put himself above the law, not once, not twice, but multiple times," he said.

"The evidence will clearly show that President Clinton's false testimony to the grand jury was not a single or isolated instance which could be excused as a mistake, but rather a comprehensive and calculated plan.

"The primacy of law over the rule of individuals is what distinguishes the United States from most other countries," he said, echoing Mr Hyde, who praised the "unique brilliance" of the American system of government.

Telling the familiar tale of Mr Clinton's liaisons with Monica Lewinsky, Mr Sensenbrenner said that this was a private affair, for which the President had expressed his regret. But this was not to be about the President's personal life.

"He has not owned up to the false testimony, the stonewalling and the legal hair- splitting and obstructing the courts from finding the truth," Mr Sensenbrenner said. "In doing so, he has turned his affair into a public wrong.

"For these actions he must be held accountable to the only constitutional means the country has available: the difficult and painful process of impeachment."

Mr Sensenbrenner was followed by a number of other trial managers who outlined different aspects of the case against the President, but provided no new information of the affair.

Behind the scenes, there was much discussion about whether the two figures at the centre of the past year's drama might eventually be called to testify and Republican leaders said last night that they believed that the President should indeed appear.

But the question remained whether the President himself would be convinced that he should plead his case, and whether the Senate jury would demand the right to question the big-haired brunette who has caused the President and the country so much grief, Monica Lewinsky herself?

An appearance by the President was still such a novel idea that it was approached with almost respectful expectation, although the chairman of the prosecutors, Mr Hyde, said that no decision had been taken about whether to call him.

The White House cast doubt on whether Mr Clinton would agree to appear, saying that he had already testified. The suggestion just illustrates,the White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "that this is really about politics".

The prosecutors were reported to have tried to arrange a preparatory meeting with Ms Lewinsky, but been turned down by her lawyers. Regarded as a key witness by the House prosecutors, Ms Lewinsky, it is clear, will not testify willingly against her one-time paramour.

Mr Clinton, meanwhile, busied himself - as he had done throughout the congressional proceedings against him - with his presidential duties, making a White House appearance in the morning and travelling to New York later in the day to meet the Rev Jesse Jackson.

Mr Clinton had made his first and so far only statement on the trial the previous day when he told reporters: "I trust that the right thing will be done, and I think in the meanwhile I need to work on the business of the people."

And from the other side of the world came words of warning to the US's enemies from the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, who was in Tokyo. Suggesting that the Iraqi leader, President Saddam Hussein, might have gambled on US weakness in advance of the trial, Mr Cohen said: "If so, that was a classic case of miscalculation on his part."

`President Clinton put himself above the law - not once, not twice but repeatedly... `He has not owned up to the false testimony... and obstructing the courts...'

- James Sensenbrenner

Opening prosecution statement

`Events and words that may seem innocent in a vacuum may well take on sinister, or even criminal connotation in the context of the whole plot.'

- Ed Bryant

Representative, Tennessee

`The about those two words, `I do,' pronounced at two presidential inaugurations by a person whose spoken words have

singular importance to our nation.'

- Henry Hyde

Chairman, House Judiciary Committee