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Clinton's Attorneys Prepare for Trial Despite Uncertainty

By Peter Baker
and Helen Dewar
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

President Clinton's defense team has decided to mount a more concentrated attack on the evidence against him during his Senate trial after concluding that it allowed Republicans to define the facts of the case during House proceedings that led to his impeachment last month.

The White House would prefer to avoid a trial altogether and is preparing to file a motion in the Senate seeking to have the case dismissed entirely. But Clinton advisers have resigned themselves to the likelihood of at least an abbreviated Senate trial and are assembling a defense to present with or without witnesses.

As the president's lawyers met again Monday to plot their approach, though, they remained hampered by uncertainty about the format and timing of the proceedings against Clinton. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., appears to be having increasing trouble mustering GOP support for a bipartisan plan that calls for a brief preliminary hearing next week followed by a test vote that would end the trial unless two-thirds of the Senate opts for a full proceeding.

Although most Democrats have embraced the idea, many Republicans are balking at cutting short the process. Lott, who has not endorsed the plan even as he has been gauging support for it, does not plan to introduce it if he cannot count on the backing of a majority of his fellow Republicans, according to colleagues.

The fluid situation has made planning difficult for all sides as the new Congress prepares to convene Wednesday. Senate Republicans scheduled meetings for the next two days to hammer out a procedure, leaving House prosecutors and White House lawyers to prepare for various contingencies, including the prospect of a trial starting Monday.

"The articles (of impeachment) are constitutionally deficient, legally defective and factually without foundation," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig. "We would welcome, we do not fear, a fair trial before a fair-minded jury."

The president's defense in the Senate, still a work in progress, will focus more directly on refuting the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice lodged against Clinton. During the House debate, Clinton's defenders argued that the allegations were not serious enough to justify his removal from office, even if true. But many Republican lawmakers concluded that Clinton was not contesting the factual case assembled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and instead was merely disputing its importance.

Without dropping their constitutional arguments, Clinton's advisers have resolved to more vigorously challenge the premise of the charges in the Senate, even at the risk of reigniting complaints that his defense relies on legalistic hair-splitting. When Starr first submitted his report to Congress in September, the president's aides picked at the prosecutor's case, only to spur bipartisan criticism about their narrowly focused points.

In examining the House case over the last two weeks, Clinton lawyers have identified what they consider the holes in each of the specific allegations cited to support the perjury and obstruction charges. In each of those instances, they plan to argue that innocent explanations undercut the assertion of corrupt motives by the president.