Clinton Impeachment Trial Opens
- By Larry Margasak
- Jan. 15 1999 00:00
WASHINGTON -- Opening their case in the first presidential impeachment trial since 1868, House prosecutors told senators Thursday that President Bill Clinton "had not owned up'' to "egregious and criminal'' acts and should be removed from office.
"We are here today because President William Jefferson Clinton decided to put himself above the law - not once, not twice but repeatedly,'' Representative James Sensenbrenner said in making the opening argument for the 13 Republican prosecutors who seek to oust Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Arguing before a silent jury of 100 senators, Sensenbrenner said a conviction of Clinton - requiring two-thirds of the senators - would send a message to all future presidents and public servants that lying under oath will not be tolerated.
"He has not owned up to the false testimony, the stonewalling and legal hairsplitting and obstructing the courts from finding the truth,'' Sensenbrenner argued from the Senate lectern, in front of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
"For these actions he must be held accountable to the only constitutional means the country has available: the difficult and painful process of impeachment,'' Sensenbrenner said.
The president was away from the trial, traveling across the Potomac to Alexandria, Va., for a crime-prevention event before departing for a trip to New York.
The White House said Thursday the House case is based on political revenge, not law, and that Clinton would not testify as some House prosecutors have suggested he should.
"I don't think the founders intended a party that is in the majority in the Congress could remove a president at their whim based on partisan political differences,'' press secretary Joe Lockhart said.
But House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, the lead prosecutor, said the House had impeached Clinton simply because he had violated his oath to tell the truth and uphold the laws of the nation.
"You are seated in this historic chamber not to embark on some great legislative debate ... but to listen to the evidence as those who must sit in judgment,'' Hyde said in an introduction of the House prosecution team. "We, the managers of the House are here to set forth the evidence.''
Hyde said his team would show how "egregious and criminal'' Clinton's conduct was in concealing his affair with Monica Lewinsky and that Clinton had violated his oath to tell the truth in court.
"In many ways the case you will consider is about those two words - 'I do,''' Hyde said.
One week after the 100 senators were sworn in as jurors, Rehnquist banged the proceeding back to order. "The Senate will convene as a court of impeachment,'' he intoned.
The Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, the Senate chaplain, offered a brief prayer that the senators would engage in "nonpartisan patriotism.'' The prosecutors then were given the floor to make their case that Clinton had obstructed justice and committed perjury before a grand jury - and that both offenses were high crimes and misdemeanors requiring his removal from office.
Before they opened their case, House managers filed a brief saying they needed trial witnesses to prove the president should be removed from office. They argued Clinton's defense defied "evidence as well as common sense.''
"To the extent that President Clinton's trial memorandum raises issues of credibility, those issues are best resolved by live testimony subject to cross examination,'' the prosecutors said. Senators won't decide whether to allow witnesses until after both sides make their opening arguments at the trial.
Rejecting Clinton's argument that he did not lie in his testimony before a federal grand jury investigating his relationship with Lewinsky, the House managers said, "President Clinton discounts substantial evidence as well as common sense when he maintains he testified truthfully.''
The House case will continue Friday and Saturday. Clinton's lawyers will follow next week with their defense contending he is not guilty of perjury or obstruction of justice and that the charges, even if proved, do not rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors'' warranting removal from office.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have decided the trial will proceed as scheduled Tuesday, even though Clinton will be delivering his State of the Union speech in the House chamber that night. The president's attorneys are expected to begin presenting his defense that day.
In a preview of the White House arguments, a trial brief submitted Wednesday by the president's lawyers asked, "If the Senate removes this president for a wrongful relationship he hoped to keep private, for what will the House ask the Senate to remove the next president, and the next?''