White House plays trump cards for the President

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IN ITS last-ditch effort to save the President from impeachment, the White House yesterday fielded its top lawyer and a team of five former prosecutors to argue that the evidence against Bill Clinton was insufficient to support a conviction for perjury, let alone impeachment.

But the chief White House counsel, Charles Ruff, conceded that his client had "betrayed the American people" and implied terms for a compromise that would include a congressional vote of censure and an undertaking by Mr Clinton not to pardon himself or accept a presidential pardon from his successor.

Earlier, the chairman of the judiciary committee had agreed to allow a vote on whether Mr Clinton should be censured as well as the expected votes on a series of impeachment articles. The charges - two counts of perjury, one of obstruction of justice and one of abuse of power - were due to be released late yesterday and the committee is likely to vote by the weekend.

The star of the day, however, was undoubtedly Mr Ruff, who impressed even the most hard-line Republicans on the committee with his low-key demeanour and command of the evidence. Mr Clinton's behaviour in the Monica Lewinsky affair, Mr Ruff said in his preamble, was "morally reprehensible"; the President had "betrayed the trust placed in him not only by his loved ones but by the American people".

Mr Ruff also came the closest of anyone on the President's side to admitting that when Mr Clinton denied having sexual relations with Ms Lewinsky, he was well aware that there was a difference between his own understanding of that term (intercourse and nothing else) and the more general interpretation that the American public would infer. Even so, he insisted, the President had done nothing to warrant impeachment. "We have to decide," he concluded in television trial drama style, "what is best for our nation."

Among the five prosecutors was another trump card: William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts and the first senior Republican to testify to the judiciary committee in Mr Clinton's favour. Mr Weld's appearance was crucial to the White House strategy of trying to sway so-called "moderate" Republicans. While the committee is polarised along party lines and a vote for impeachment is taken for granted, the division in the full House of Representatives is more fluid, with up to 40 Republicans regarded as moderates in search of a reason not to vote for impeachment.

Mr Ruff also set out the terms of a compromise, a five-point plan comprising a vote of censure, plus a written report on Mr Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky affair, a written admission of wrongdoing by the President, a fine, and a decision to leave open the possibility of prosecution once Mr Clinton leaves office. The plan was designed to satisfy Republican calls for the President to be punished, without subjecting him to a Senate trial "in order to preserve the dignity of the country".

While there was praise yesterday for the White House team, a majority on the committee still rejected the argument that Mr Clinton had come close to perjuring himself but had not actually done so.

The hardliner Lindsey Graham said that as a lawyer he disputed the view that there was insufficient evidence for a perjury conviction. And others complained that Mr Clinton was "playing word games in his deposition [in the sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones]".