Impeachment: Historic trial of Clinton starts today

As his wife pays the price of one of his affairs, the President faces the consequences of another
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WITH HIS impeachment trial only hours away, President Bill Clinton broke his public silence on the matter yesterday to say he trusted the Senate to do "the right thing" and would continue to concentrate on his job as President.

Demonstrating yet again his famed capacity to "compartmentalise", Mr Clinton told reporters: "The important thing for me is to try to spend as little time thinking about that as possible ... I trust the right thing will be done and I think that meanwhile I need to work on the business of the people."

Mr Clinton's agreement to respond to reporters' questions at the start of a White House meeting with trade union leaders was seen as a small concession by the White House after an explosion of correspondents' anger the previous day about the President's unavailability in the run-up to the Senate trial.

Even as Mr Clinton was speaking, the White House lawyers who are spearheading his defence and the 13 "managers" from the House of Representatives who are co- ordinating the "prosecution" were completing final preparations for the trial. Proceedings in what will be only the second presidential impeachment trial, and the first this century, start in earnest at 1pm today, with opening statements from both sides.

The President's lawyers yesterday followed up Monday's delivery of their 13-page defence brief with the dispatch to the Senate of a 130-page summary of their arguments. Chief among them is that the charges against the President - perjury before a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation and obstruction of justice in the (now settled) civil suit brought by Paula Jones - are unjustified. An accompanying argument is that even if the charges were proved, they are not serious enough to warrant removing an elected President.

"The Articles of Impeachment ..." yesterday's White House summary said, "fall far short of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they placed in the hands of Congress the power to ... remove a President from office."

The document also said that the White House lawyers would have "an urgent need" to seek additional evidence if the prosecutors tried to introduce material beyond what had already been published in the report by Kenneth Starr and its accompanying documents.

The White House is adamantly opposed to any extension of the trial to cover other relationships that the President may have had with employees. It also objects to the Senate calling "live" witnesses. Many Republican senators, however, say they want to be able to question some of the key players, including Ms Lewinsky.

With this in mind House "prosecutors" yesterday made their first approach to Ms Lewinsky through her lawyers.The decision on whether to call any witnesses, has been postponed until after opening statements have been heard.

The "prosecutors" also sent to the Senate their own brief rebutting the White House arguments, as well as transcripts and supporting evidence, including the tapes of Ms Lewinsky's "confessions" made secretly by Linda Tripp.

In another detail that revealed how comprehensively Mr Clinton's lawyers are trying to minimise the risks from the trial, the White House conceded that Mr Clinton might have "misremembered' the date of his first sexual encounter with Ms Lewinsky.

She insisted in her testimony that it was in November 1995; Mr Clinton said that it was not until the following February. Prosecutors noted that the later date meant that Mr Clinton did not have to admit to a relationship with a trainee. By the next year, she was a paid White House employee.

The White House said yesterday that if Mr Clinton was mistaken, it was not because he had tried to mislead the grand jury, but because he had "misremembered" the timing.