TOPICS > Politics

The President’s Defense

January 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESMAN: The senate will convene as a court –

KWAME HOLMAN: House Republican managers spent three days last week building their case against President Clinton. Today, White House lawyers began the task of trying to tear it down.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: The Chair recognizes Mr. Counsel Ruff to begin the presentation of the case for the president.

KWAME HOLMAN: White House Counsel Charles Ruff was the first member of President Clinton’s legal team to speak. He opened the president’s defense with an unequivocal statement.

CHARLES RUFF: William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been proffered against him. He did not commit perjury, he did not obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office.

KWAME HOLMAN: White House Counsel Ruff then quickly laid out for the sitting senators the series of events that led to the investigation of President Clinton, events Ruff called into question even as he described them.

CHARLES RUFF: On May 6, 1994, Paula Jones sued President Clinton in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. She claimed that then-Governor Clinton had made, in 1991, some unwelcome overture to her in an Arkansas hotel room, and that she suffered adverse employment consequences and was subsequently defamed. After the Supreme Court decided in May, 1997, that civil litigation against the president could go forward while he was in office, the case was remanded to the district court, and over the fall and the winter of 1997, the Jones lawyers deposed numerous witnesses, and inevitably, despite the strict protective order entered by Judge Wright and a continuing exhortation to counsel not to discuss any aspect of the case with the press, information flowed from those depositions into the public forum clearly with only one purpose: To embarrass the president.

Then on December 5, 1997, the Jones lawyers placed on their witness list the name of Monica Lewinsky, and on December 19th, she was served with a subpoena for a deposition to be scheduled in January. The Jones lawyers deposed the president on January 17, 1998. They began the deposition by proffering to him a multi- paragraph definition of the term “sexual relations” that they intended to use in questioning him. And there followed an extended debate among counsel and the court concerning the propriety and the clarity of that definition. Mr. Bennett objected to its use, arguing that it was unclear, that it would encompass conduct wholly irrelevant to the case, and that it was unfair to require the president to apply a definition that he had never seen before to each question he was asked. Indeed, Mr. Bennett urged the lawyers for Ms. Jones to ask the president specific questions about his conduct, but they declined to do so. Four days later, the independent counsel’s investigation became a public matter.

And on January 29th, responding to a request by the independent counsel to bar further inquiry relating to Ms. Lewinsky, Judge Wright ruled that evidence relating to her relationship with the president would be excluded from the trial, and she reaffirmed this ruling on March 9, stating that the evidence was not “essential to the core issues in this case of whether plaintiff herself was the victim of sexual harassment, hostile work environment, or intentional infliction –intentional infliction of emotional distress.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Ruff introduced Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp into a series of events.

CHARLES RUFF: In mid-January, 1998, Linda Tripp had brought to the independent counsel information that she had been gathering surreptitiously for months about Ms. Lewinsky’s relationship with the president, and her involvement in the Jones case, and thus began the penultimate chapter. As you will see, Ms. Tripp’s relationship with Ms. Lewinsky and her role in these matters is more than merely a backdrop to the succeeding events. Independent counsel met with Ms. Tripp, informally granted her immunity from federal prosecution, promised to assist her in securing immunity from state prosecution, where she had been illegally taping the telephone calls with Ms. Lewinsky.

On the 16th, Ms. Tripp invited Ms. Lewinsky to have lunch with her in the Pentagon City Mall, and there, she was greeted by a corps of F.B.I. agents and independent counsel lawyers, and taken to a hotel room, where she spent the next several hours. Ms. Tripp was in the room next door for much of that time. When she left that evening, she went home to meet with the Jones lawyers– with whom we know she has been in contact for many months– in order to brief them about her knowledge of the relationship between Ms. Lewinsky and the president, so that they in turn could question the president the next morning. As the independent counsel himself has acknowledged, Ms. Tripp was able to play this oddly multi-faceted role because, although as part of her immunity agreement, the O.I.C. could have prevented her from talking about Ms. Lewinsky, they inexplicably chose not to.And so we are here.

But before moving on, let me pause on an important procedural point. Although the senate has asked that the parties address the issue of witnesses, only after these presentations have been completed, the managers spent much of their time last week explaining to you why, if only witnesses could be called, you would be able to resolve all of the supposed conflicts in the evidence.

Tell me, then, how is it that the managers can be so certain of this strength of their case? They didn’t hear any of these witnesses. The only witness they called, the independent counsel himself, acknowledged that he had not even met any of the witnesses who testified before the grand jury. Yet they appeared before you to tell you that they are convinced of the president’s guilt, and that they are prepared to demand his removal from office.

Well, the managers would have you believe that the Judiciary Committee of the House were really nothing more than grand jurors serving as some routine screening device to sort out impeachment chaff from impeachment wheat. Thus, as they would have it, there was no need for anything more than a review of the cold record prepared by the independent counsel; no need for them to make judgments about credibility or conflicts. Indeed, they offered you a short lesson in grand jury practice, telling you that U.S. Attorneys do this thing all the time; that calling real live witnesses before a grand jury is the exception to the rule. Well, it has been a few years since I served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, so there may have been a change in the way prosecutors go about their business, but I don’t think so.

And so what lesson can be learned from the process followed by the House? I suggest that what you have before you is not the product of the Judiciary Committee’s well-considered, judicious assessment of their constitutional role. No, what you have before you is the product of nothing more than a rush to judgment. And so, how should you respond to the managers’ belated plea that more is needed to do justice? You should reject it. You have before you all that you need to reach this conclusion: There was no basis for the House to impeach, and there is now and never will be any basis for the senate to convict.

JIM LEHRER: Ruff had microphone problems during the first hour of his presentation, which is why he was holding it in his hand. During a short recess, the problem was fixed and Ruff resumed. He said the articles of impeachment are not constitutional and not supported by the evidence. Kwame Holman continues our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Charles Ruff began by reminding senators that courtroom prosecutors sometimes do not reveal all of the facts in a case, and he said this case falls into that category.

CHARLES RUFF: Last week, for example, you will recall that Mr. Manager Sensenbrenner told you that during my appearance before the Judiciary Committee, in his words,”Charles Ruff was asked directly ‘Did the president lie during his sworn grand jury testimony?’ And Mr. Ruff could have answered that question directly. He did not and his failure to do so speaks a thousand words.”

Now, just to be certain that the record is straight, let me read to you from the transcript of that Judiciary Committee hearing. Representative Sensenbrenner: “The oath that witnesses take require them to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And I seem to recall that there are a lot of people, myself included, when asked by the press what advice we would give to the president when he went into the grand jury in August was to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Mr. Ruff: “Indeed.”

Representative Sensenbrenner: “Did he tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when he was in the grand jury?”

Mr. Ruff: “He surely did.”

I’m certain that Mr. Sensenbrenner would not intentionally mislead the senate. But his error was one of inadvertence. But in any event, now the record is clear. Of considerably more importance than this momentary lapse are the many substantive flaws that we will point out to you in the coming days, sometimes pure errors of fact, sometimes errors of interpretation, sometimes unfounded speculation. My colleagues will deal with many of these flaws at greater length as they discuss the specific charges against the president, but I’ll give you a couple of examples as I reach the appropriate points in my overview today because I want you to have in mind throughout our presentation and, indeed, throughout the rest of these proceedings this one principle: Be wary. Be wary of a prosecutor who feels it is necessary to deceive the court.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ruff went on to give an overview of how the defense team will argue against each of two the articles of impeachment, beginning with the charge of perjury.

CHARLES RUFF: Perjury requires proof that a defendant knowingly made a false statement about a material fact. The defendant must have had a subjective intent to lie. Testimony that’s provided as a result of confusion or mistake or faulty memory or carelessness or misunderstanding is not perjury. The mere fact that the recollections of two witnesses may differ does not mean that one is committing perjury.

Common sense and the stringent requirements of the law dictate that law is required. And that is where you need to begin your focus as you look at the charge that the president perjured himself in the grand jury in August of last year. Any assessment of that testimony must begin with one immutable fact: He admitted that he had, in his words, inappropriate, intimate contact with Monica Lewinsky. No one who was present for that testimony has read the transcript, or watched the videotape could come away believing anything other than that the president and Ms. Lewinsky engaged in sexual conduct. Indeed, even the prosecutors, who surely cannot be accused of being reluctant to find presidential misconduct, contend not that the president lied about the nature of his relationship but only about the details.

Yet, the managers, in their eagerness to find misconduct where none had found it before, have searched every nook and cranny of the grand jury transcript and sent forward to you a shopping list of alleged misstatements, obviously in the hope that among them will you find one with which you disagree. But they hope in vain. The record simply will not support a finding that the president perjured himself before the grand jury.

Now, the managers begin by asking you to look at the prepared statement that the president offered at the very beginning of his grand jury appearance. Before the president actually began his testimony, his lawyer, Mr. Kendall, spoke to Mr. Starr and told him that at the first moment at which there was an inquiry concerning the detailed nature of the relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, he wished to make a prepared statement and he was permitted to do so. That statement acknowledged the existence of an intimate relationship, but it did not discuss the specific physical details in what I think we will all understand to have been an effort to preserve the dignity of the office.

Now, the House has charged that this statement was somehow a “premeditated effort to thwart the O.I.C.’S investigation.” That is errant nonsense. Even the independent counsel saw no such dark motive in this statement. Now, to conclude that the president lied to the grand jury about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, you must determine — forgive me — that he touched certain parts of her body but, for proof, you have only her oath against his oath. Those who have been criminal defense lawyers know that perjury prosecutions, as rare as they are, would never be pursued on the evidence available here. And those among you who do not bring that special experience, at least bring your common sense and are equally able to assess the weakness of the case that would rest on such a foundation.

Common sense also is enough to tell you that there cannot be any basis of charging a witness with perjury on the ground that you disbelieve his testimony about his own subjective belief in a definition of a term used in a civil deposition. Not only is there no evidence to support such a charge here, it is difficult to contemplate what evidence the managers might hope to rely on to meet that burden.

KWAME HOLMAN: Next, Ruff argued against the charge the president obstructed justice and tampered with witnesses.

CHARLES RUFF: I want to talk first about what’s come known as the “concealment of gifts” theory. The allegation that the president participated in some scheme to conceal certain gifts he had given to Ms. Lewinsky centers on two events allegedly occurring on December 28, 1297:

First a conversation between the president and Ms. Lewinsky in the White House in which the two discussed the gifts, at least briefly, that he had given to Ms. Lewinsky; and,

(b), Miss Currie’s picking up a box of gifts from Ms. Lewinsky and storing them under her bed. The managers, as was true of the majority report and the independent counsel role before that build their theory in this case not on any pillars of obstruction but on shifting sand castles of speculation. Monica Lewinsky met with the president on December 28, 18997, sometime shortly before 8:00 A.M. — to exchange Christmas presents.

According to Ms. Lewinsky, they briefly discussed the subject of gifts she had received from the president in connection with her receipt some days earlier of the subpoena in the Jones case. And this was the first and only time, she says, in which the subject was ever discussed. Now, the managers quote one version of Ms. Lewinsky’s description of that December 28th conversation as follows: “At some point I said to him, well, you know, should I, maybe I should put the gifts away outside my house somewhere or give to someone, maybe Betty. And he sort of said — I think he responded ‘I don’t know’ or ‘let me think about that’ and left that topic.”

But the senate should know that, in fact, Ms. Lewinsky has discussed this very exchange on at least ten different occasions and that the very most she alleges in any of them is that the president said “I don’t know,” or “let me think about it” when she raised the issue of the gifts. Indeed, in many of her versions she said, among other things, there really was no response, that the president did not respond, that she didn’t have a clear image in her mind what to do next. She also testified that Miss Currie’s name did not come up because the president really didn’t say anything. And, most importantly, in not a single one of her multiple versions of this event did she say that the president ever initiated any discussion about the gifts, nor did he ever suggest to her that she conceal it.

The next point I want to discuss with you is the statements that the president made to Betty Currie on the day after his Jones deposition, January 18th of last year. There’s no dispute in the record, no conflict in testimony, that the president did meet with his secretary, Betty Currie, on the day after the Jones deposition. And they discussed Monica Lewinsky. The managers cast this conversation, this recitation, this series of statements and questions put by the president to Ms. Currie in the most sinister light possible and allege that the president attempted to influence the testimony of a witness– “witness,” by pressuring Ms. Currie to agree with an inaccurate version of the facts surrounding his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

First Ms. Currie’s status as a witness: In the only proceeding the president knew about at that moment, the Jones case, Ms. Currie was neither an actual nor a prospective witness. As to the only proceeding to which she ultimately became a witness, no one would suggest, manners or no one else would suggest the president knew that the independent counsel was conducting an investigation into his activities. In the entire history of the Jones case, Ms. Currie’s name had not appeared on any of the witness lists.

Nor was there any reason to suspect Ms. Currie would play any role in the Jones case. Discovery was down to its final days. Nor did the president ever pressure Ms. Currie to alter her recollection. Despite the prosecutor’s best efforts to coax Ms. Currie into saying she was pressured to agree with the president, Ms. Currie adamantly denied it. Let me quote just briefly a few lines of her grand jury testimony.

Question: “Now, back again to the four statements that you testified the president made to you that were presented as statements. Did you feel pressured when he told you those statements?”

Answer: “None whatsoever.”

Question: “What was your impression that he wanted you to say because he would end each of the statements with ‘right,’ with a question?”

Answer: “I do not remember that he wanted to me to say right. He would say ‘right,’ and I could have said wrong.”

Question: “But he could end each of those questions with a ‘right,’ and you could either say whether it was true or not true?”

Answer: “Correct.”

Question: “Did you feel any pressure to agree with your boss?”

Answer: “None whatsoever.”

And now we come to the last of the obstruction charges. The managers ask you to find that the President of the United States employed his friend, Vernon Jordan, to get Monica Lewinsky a job in New York to influence her testimony or perhaps in a somewhat forlorn effort to escape the reach of the federal rules of civil procedure — actually to hide her from the Jones lawyers in the eight million people that live in that city. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion. And so the managers who constructed out of sealing wax and string and spider’s webs a theory that would lend to a series of otherwise innocuous and indeed exculpatory events a dark and sinister cast the undisputed record establishes the following:

One, Ms. Lewinsky’s New York job search began on her own initiative; two, the search began long before her involvement in the Jones case; three, the search had no connection to the Jones case; four, Vernon Jordan agreed to help her not at the direction of the president but at the request of Ms. Currie, Mr. Jordan’s long-time friend; and, five, the idea to solicit Mr. Jordan’s assistance, again, came not from the president but from Ms. Tripp.

As I thought about this particular aspect of it, I have to say I was sort of reminded of “Diego” in “Des DeMona’s Handkerchief,” but we’ll pass on. Both Ms. Lewinsky and Mr. Jordan have repeatedly testified that there was never an agreement, a suggestion, an implication that Ms. Lewinsky would be rewarded with a job for her silence or her false testimony. As Mr. Jordan succinctly put it, “unequivocally, indubitable, no.”

Now, it appears to me that the managers are suggesting, again with not a great deal of subtlety, that Vernon Jordan, one of this country’s great lawyers and great citizens was prepared to perjure himself to save the president. So let’s just imagine a manager’s examination of Mr. Jordan in this chamber that would let you make your own judgment about his truthfulness.

Question: “Mr. Jordan, isn’t it a fact that you met with Ms. Lewinsky on December 11th to help get her a job?”

Answer: “Yes.”

Question: “And isn’t it a fact that before and after you met with her you made you calls to potential employers in New York?”


“And isn’t it true that the reason for all this activity on December 11th was that Judge Wright had on that very day issued an order authorizing the Jones lawyers to depose certain women like Ms. Lewinsky?”


Question: “What do you mean no? Isn’t it true that the judge had issued her order before you met with Ms. Lewinsky and before you made the calls?”

Answer: “I had no knowledge of any such order.”

Now, I want to stop here for just a second so you know where Mr. Jordan was when that happened. By the way, I was with Mr. Jordan testifying again. I was actually on a plane for Amsterdam by the time the judge issued her order. So he testified in the grand jury. I left on United Flight 946 at 5:55 from Dulles Airport and landed, I understand, the next morning. He gets on his plane at 5:55 in the afternoon and an hour or so later, the lawyers are informed that the judge had issued her order. Now, do you think — does any of you think that you need to look Mr. Jordan in the eye and hear his tone of voice to understand that the prosecutors have got it wrong?

KWAME HOLMAN: In asking the senate to acquit the president on all charges, Ruff included a personal note.

CHARLES RUFF: I’m never certain how to respond when an advocate on the other side of a case calls up images of patriots over the centuries who have sacrificed themselves to preserve our democracy. I have no personal experience with war. I’ve only visited Normandy as a tourist. But I do know this: my father was on Omaha Beach 55 years ago — and I know how he would feel if he were here today. He didn’t fight – no one fought for one side of this case or the other; he fought, as all those did, for our country and our Constitution. And as long as each of us, manager, president’s counsel, senator does his or her constitutional duty, those who fought for their country will be proud.

KWAME HOLMAN: Immediately after today’s session, a number of Democratic senators said Ruff made a strong presentation that reinforced that there is no need to call witnesses in the trial. Even some Republican House managers said Ruff did an excellent job, but that their version of events is more believable.