Impeachment trial: Fight moves to TV as Senate takes a break

Participants deliver their premature verdicts on television while the legal teams take stock
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The Independent Online
ADJOURNED UNTIL tomorrow for the Martin Luther King Day holiday, the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton raged and rumbled outside the Senate Chamber yesterday as senators, representatives, lawyers, go- betweens and advocates for both sides took to the airwaves to press their case.

This pursuit of a trial based in the closeted procedures of an earlier century by other means - the late-20th century phone-ins and talkshows - left last week's gentlemanly proceedings in the Senate lagging far behind the Congressional mood.

Chief among those arguing President Clinton's case was the retired senator, George Mitchell, who has recently turned his Northern Ireland negotiating skills towards the only slightly less thorny task of mediating between the White House and the Senate.

On NBC's Meet the Press,seen as the flagship of talkshows, Mr Mitchell insisted that to remove Mr Clinton from office would be out of proportion to the offences he was accused of: "Removing him from office is like using a nuclear weapon. What he did was wrong, seriously wrong, but it does not warrant removal from office."

Mr Mitchell revived the notion of a vote of censure against Mr Clinton, an idea that has fallen into obscurity since a trial became inevitable, but could still be considered.

In confronting the possibility of removal and juxtaposing a censure motion, Mr Mitchell was clearly following the brief of a White House said to be concerned about the strength of the House prosecutors' case, which concluded on Saturday.

The White House special counsel, Gregory Craig, who is a member of Mr Clinton's legal team, has briefly addressed reporters at the end of each day's proceedings. But the White House had indicated before yesterday that it would otherwise wait its turn to present its case. White House lawyers are due to start presenting the President's case tomorrow.

Anticipating the start of a White House fightback, 19 senators - almost one-fifth of the trial "jury" - gave television interviews yesterday, many of them Republicans, despite an appeal from the leader of the Republican majority, Trent Lott, for them to hold back. Senators are pledged to silence during the proceedings in the chamber, but several have given regular briefings on their positions.

On Saturday, senators heard closing arguments from the House prosecutors, who said not only that Mr Clinton was guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice, but that these offences were serious enough to require removal from office.

Apart from the central issue of the President's offences, several points of procedure are still in dispute, including the question of calling witnesses. Republicans say they should; Democrats and the White House say they would cause an unnecessary delay. Democrats have been infuriated by Republican moves to draft a witness list and make preparations to call key witnesses before a vote has been taken on whether witnesses should be called.

Two further disputes could split the Senate. The first is whether the Senate should call the President as a witness and whether it even has the right to. Opinion polls have found that Mr Clinton is the witness thepublic would most like to hear - even more than Ms Lewinsky. The other controversy is whether the Senate's deliberations should be held in public or in private as stipulated in the rules formulated for the last impeachment trial in 1868. Democrats favour public discussion, Republicans do not.

Key Prosecution Points

Clinton is guilty of perjury in his grand jury testimony of 17 August 1998 on multiple counts: his description of his relationship with Lewinsky; his denial he "coached" his secretary in what to tell the grand jury; his denial that he instigated the removal of the gifts he had given Lewinsky, and various memory "lapses".

Clinton is guilty of obstruction of justice in orchestrating a "scheme" to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky from the judge in the sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones.

All citizens are equal before the law, presidents included. Perjury and obstructing justice are serious crimes.

Lying about sex is not "different".

Perjury and obstruction of justice "do rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours".

As president, Clinton is chief law officer. He cannot flout the law he pledged to uphold; he cannot be held to a lower standard without discrediting the system.