Senate trial: `No basis to impeach - or to convict'

President Clinton's chief counsel opens his defence by attacking the prosecution case on every level
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PROTESTING THE innocence of President Clinton on all of the charges against him, the chief counsel of the White House, Charles Ruff, opened the President's defence against impeachment yesterday, insisting that "he must not be removed from office". The House prosecutors, he said, had laid "a witches' brew of charges" made of "sealing wax and spiders' webs" and "built shifting sandcastles of speculation" that were politically motivated and lacked legal substance.

"William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been preferred again him. He did not commit perjury. He did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office," Mr Ruff began, quietly but firmly. There was no basis for the House to impeach, he said of last year's impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, "and there is no basis for the Senate to convict".

Mr Ruff, an owlish figure who uses a wheelchair following an illness in his youth, delivered his two-hour presentation sitting alone, appearing small and isolated, in the well of the Senate Chamber. But for him, as for the six other members of the White House legal team, only the second presidential impeachment trial in history is the lawsuit of a lifetime. It is a fight to keep the President in office and the case - if lost - brooks no appeal.

Mr Ruff attacked the prosecutor's case on every level: from the minutiae of the accusations to the high principles involved, from the prosecution's use of the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, to the basic presumption behind the prosecution case: that Mr Clinton was intent on defeating the lawsuit brought by Ms Jones, by fair means or foul.

On the contrary, Mr Ruff argued, Mr Clinton's reasons for lying about his involvement with Ms Lewinsky were entirely personal: he wanted to avoid admitting "the very worst thing that a father and husband could admit". When Mr Clinton finally had no alternative but to admit an affair or perjure himself before the grand jury, he read to the jury his prepared statement acknowledging "an inappropriate intimate relationship with Ms Lewinsky" which left no doubt, Mr Ruff said, that there was sexual conduct.

For most of his statement, Mr Ruff looked as easily relaxed as the House of Representatives "managers" had the previous week when they argued the case for the prosecution. A former trial prosecutor in Washington, he affected an almost informal manner at times. But he also looked deadly serious.

In what Democrats hailed as a "bombshell" and Republicans dismissed as one questionable detail, Mr Ruff sought to discredit the prosecution case. His prime aim was to cast doubt on the veracity of Ms Lewinsky - the witness described repeatedly by the prosecutors as "very credible".

Drawing on mobile telephone records, he tried to establish that Mr Clinton could not have solicited the concealment of the presents he had given Ms Lewinsky because the call taken by his secretary, Betty Currie, came only after she had collected the gifts. Similarly, Mr Clinton's Sunday morning conversation with his secretary was not a "coaching session" in lying to the judge in the Paula Jones case because Mrs Currie had not, and would not, be called as a witness. Even if there was a tacit understanding between Mr Clinton and Ms Lewinsky that she should lie in he sworn affidavit, was "silence" sufficient reason to remove a president?

Further, Mr Ruff questioned whether even if "the darkest side" of the prosecution's case was true (that Mr Clinton had lied under oath and obstructed the course of justice), the offences warranted the removal of a highly competent and successful president. The impeachment and removal of a president, he argued, was not - as the prosecution had maintained - equivalent to the impeachment of a judge.

The standards for the two were, and should remain, different, because judges were appointed for life.

Taking advantage of the coincidence that Mr Clinton's defence opened in the afternoon preceding the President's State of the Union address, Mr Ruff said that the Constitution had never demanded perfection in its presidents.

But within hours, Americans would have the answer to the question that was the President's to answer: "How stands the Union? It is strong, vibrant and free."