Clinton on Trial

A Woman’s Touch

So where has the White House been hiding her? And why hasn’t the person responsible for hiding her been fired?

Since the start of Flytrap, the White House has sent out a parade of white men to plead the president’s case (and to counter the parade of white men on the other side). We’ve seen too much of Greg Craig, Chuck Ruff, David Kendall, Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart, Lanny Davis … And all this time they have kept their greatest weapon locked in some White House back office: a black woman named Cheryl Mills. In one hypnotizing hour this afternoon, Deputy White House Counsel Mills has ensured the president’s acquittal, discredited the House managers, rehabilitated Betty Currie, and perhaps launched a glorious political career of her own.

The second day of Clintonian defense begins with Special Counsel Craig outlining the case against perjury. Craig’s presentation can be described most charitably as “long.” For nearly three hours, he drags the Senate through a refutation of the first impeachment article. Democrats have been looking for fig leaves to explain their votes against conviction, and Craig does provide some. He repeats Ruff’s charge that the article is unconstitutionally vague. He blasts the managers for pushing perjury charges that were never even discussed in the Starr report, the Judiciary Committee, or the full House. (This also serves as a “prebuttal” to the managers’ germinating scheme to introduce “Jane Doe” testimony, which wasn’t discussed in the House or the Starr documents.) Craig derides the charge that Clinton perjured himself by admitting having relations with Monica Lewinsky “on occasion.” Craig notes that 28 incidents in 774 days are nothing if not “occasional,” and that Monica herself used that word to describe their encounters. And he cites legal experts to argue that he-said/she-said perjury is never prosecuted.

But Craig is laborious, grinding the Senate with tedious digressions and long videotaped excerpts of Judiciary Committee hearings. The nature of his argument forces him into convoluted phrases such as “never denied saying what he told them that he had said.” Such language is hard enough to follow in print. It’s impossible to follow in speech.

Then: Epiphany. Mills’ assignment is to defend the obstruction of justice charge, specifically the concealment of gifts and the tampering with witness Betty Currie. First, the substance: If Craig gave Democrats a few fig leaves, Mills grows a whole tree. She dissects the House case point by point. Monica gave 10 different versions of her conversation with Clinton over what she should do with the gifts. Mills savages the managers for choosing the account least favorable to Clinton. Then she notes that even this version does not allege that Clinton ordered or suggested that Monica hide the gifts. She points out that Monica herself expressed a desire to dump the gifts before she talked to Clinton, another fact prosecutors have overlooked.

She continues Ruff’s assault on the notorious Currie phone call. Not only was the call made 90 minutes after Monica says Currie collected the gifts, it was made from Arlington, Va., where Currie lives. Currie testified that she picked up the gifts on her way home from work at the White House. If she was at work, how could she call from Arlington? She reiterates the critical question of why Clinton would give Monica gifts on the same day he asked her to conceal them. “He wouldn’t. No one would.”

The arguments are impressive enough, but they are coupled with an utterly mesmerizing presentation. Mills has a stupendous voice: rich, warm, a little breathy. It is the first female voice we’ve heard, and it’s about time.

Though I’m sure she and the White House won’t admit it, the fundamental purpose of Mills’ presentation is to make senators identify her with the case’s star black woman, Betty Currie. Mills becomes Betty Currie, and it is devastatingly effective.

Currie testified five times that Monica, not the president, initiated the gift pickup. Mills reads all five excerpts, then blasts the managers for disregarding her testimony. “[They] are not playing fair by Ms. Currie. … Why is Ms. Currie’s testimony distorted and ignored by the House managers? They owe you, they owe the president, they owe the constitution, and they owe Ms. Currie an accurate presentation of the facts.”

“Of course, she’s loyal,” Mills says a few minutes later, “but it is, may I say, an insult to Betty Currie to suggest that loyalty breeds dishonesty. … She is loyal, and she is honest.”

Who needs witnesses? By the time Mills finishes, I feel that Currie is in the room and that she’s a wronged woman. Senators watch her, mesmerized.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. The trial has, it must be said, run smoothly so far, and senators have certainly spent plenty of time congratulating themselves for procedural comity. Come Monday, however, chaos will engulf the august chamber. John Czwartacki, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s spokesman, briefs reporters today on what will happen next week. It is so byzantine that it deserves to be documented in its full glory.

Monday, Democrats or the White House will introduce a motion to dismiss, which will be debated by house managers and defense lawyers for two hours. Then Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., will introduce a motion to open Senate deliberations to the public. The Senate will enter closed session to debate the Harkin-Wellstone motion. This will last up to 16 hours. Then the Senate will return to open session and vote on the motion. If it fails, as expected, they will return to closed session, where they will debate the motion to dismiss. This, too, will last up to 16 hours. Then, returning to open session, both sides will introduce motions for witnesses. This will be followed by six hours of open debate by managers and defense lawyers, which will in turn be followed by another closed session where senators will debate the witness motions for another 16 hours. Then the Senate will resume open session and vote on the three motions. If the witnesses are approved, depositions will be taken. Any time a lawyer for a witness objects to a deposition question, the Senate will reconvene to vote on whether to sustain the objection. And, Czwartacki says, Lott expects the trial to end by mid-February.

Photograph of Cheryl Mills on the Table of Contents from Senate TV/Reuters.