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Legal Conundrums Dominate Closure of Impeachment Trial

By Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

In the five months since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report triggered the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, the facts have been endlessly rehashed, the gaps in the evidence stitched together and picked apart, the Constitution's framers invoked to endorse both prosecution and defense.

Yet the essential riddle presented by the charges against Clinton remains: the House managers offer the Senate a perjury case that is at its most convincing when it is also most trivial, and an obstruction case that portrays the president in a disturbing light but that is ultimately founded on dueling accounts and disputed inferences.

So it went Monday in the closing hours of the case, as both sides presented their final arguments in one the strangest legal proceedings in the annals of American law, a trial by video snippets that was all argument and no evidence unfiltered by one side or another.

With the trial straggling to a seemingly foregone conclusion of acquittal, the managers have as their strongest argument that Clinton committed perjury on the most picayune topics. However serious it may be to contemplate that a president lied under oath to a federal grand jury, removing him from office seems to many senators a grossly disproportionate response to lies about precisely where Clinton touched Monica S. Lewinsky or what month their dalliance began.

In other instances, the evidence on the perjury charge hardly seems to offer conclusive proof for example, whether Clinton was paying attention when his lawyer recited false information at the Paula Jones deposition and whether he came up with his strained understanding of the definition of "sexual relations" on the spot at the deposition or only concocted it after the fact.

All of that may have contributed to the House managers' decision to downplay the perjury charges during the Senate trial and concentrate on the more alarming but still flawed case that Clinton obstructed justice in trying to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky.

The obstruction case presents a scenario that is deeply troubling but at the same time contested and highly circumstantial. For example, the allegation that Clinton obstructed justice by arranging for the return of gifts that he gave to Lewinsky and that were subpoenaed in the Jones lawsuit requires senators to decide between Lewinsky and presidential secretary Betty Currie about who initiated the gift retrieval and to infer, even if they credit Lewinsky's detailed story over Currie's hazy recollection, that Clinton orchestrated it.

Consequently, the obstruction charge presents a somewhat shaky platform on which to erect the case that senators should oust a popularly elected and still hugely popular president. In making their cases, neither prosecution nor defense was dealt a particularly attractive hand.