Witness battle set to ignite in Senate

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The Independent Online
HOUSE OF Representatives' prosecutors explained yesterday how the mountain of evidence collected in the past year against President Bill Clinton proved he violated the law.

The prosecutors resumed presenting their case to 100 senators, serving as the president's jury, nearly a year after President Clinton first gave sworn testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

It was his testimony on 17 January in that case that led to the series of events culminating in the House last month passing two articles of impeachment against him, resulting in only the second Senate presidential trial in history.

A team of 13 House prosecutors opened their arguments on Thursday, saying that the President should be removed from office for committing perjury and obstructing justice in the Monica Lewinsky case.

A two-thirds vote of the Senate would be needed to remove him, something few believe is possible now.

But the prosecutors said they hoped their presentation and possible witnesses could change some senators' minds.

"We hope that they [the senators] are all keeping an open mind in this and don't look at this as Democrats and Republicans, but look at this as United States senators who are essentially supposed to be an impartial jury," said Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican and one of the House prosecutors, on the CNN television channel.

In their first day of arguments, Republican prosecutors repeatedly stressed the need for witnesses to prove their case, even though they called none when the House impeached Clinton.

"In most trials that happen all across the country, witnesses are allowed to be called and you're able to see the credibility of these witnesses in person," Representative Chabot said. "We hope the senators will allow us to call witnesses."

Most Democrats and the White House do not want witnesses called and they argue that the mountain of evidence passed on from the House should serve as the official record in the first presidential impeachment trial since President Andrew Johnson escaped conviction by one vote in 1868.

The White House said President Clinton was paying little attention to the opening arguments, and he was mostly getting briefed by his aides. Yesterday President Clinton attended a meeting on reforming the government before heading to New York to give a speech.

The House team planned to summarise the evidence gathered in the last year, mostly by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and then explain how the laws of perjury and obstruction of justice could be applied.

Senators, sentenced to silence upon "pain of imprisonment" during the trial, will hear up to 18 more hours of testimony from the House prosecutors and 24 hours from White House lawyers before they are given the opportunity to ask any questions.

After one day of arguments, some Democrats were angered by the prosecutors' continued insistence on the need to hear witnesses, including some who say President Clinton should be called, and a secret meeting between prosecutors and three Senate Republicans.

The White House said that the President had testified enough about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and related events and cast doubt on whether he would appear, if asked.

Prosecutors want to call at least a half-dozen witnesses, including Ms Lewinsky, President Clinton's secretary Betty Currie and his friend and confidant Vernon Jordan, as well as the White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

Republicans, meanwhile, appeared pleased with the first day of opening arguments, with Senator John Warner of Virginia predicting the trial would go a long way "toward restoring public confidence" in the impeachment process after a bitter partisan debate in the House. A full year of blanket news coverage of the scandal has done little to persuade Americans that Mr Clinton's attempts to cover up an embarrassing affair should cost him his job.

A new ABC News poll showed that only 33 per cent believed President Clinton should be removed from office if he lied about the affair under oath, compared with 55 per cent who held that position shortly after the scandal first broke one year ago. (Reuters)