Decision In Paula Jones Case Leaves Starr Determined, Congress
By Dan Carney, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, April 4) -- The fallout from the dismissal of the Paula Jones sexual harassment
suit against President Clinton demonstrated two things: how much Congress
thinks the ground has shifted under Kenneth W. Starr's feet, and how little
he thinks it has.
The independent counsel's investigation into sexual allegations involving
President Clinton and former White House aides has its origins in the Jones
case, which was thrown out April 1 by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber
Wright. Starr is probing whether Clinton perjured himself in depositions
in the Jones case or pressured others to lie under oath.
With the Jones case's dismissal, some legal experts have suggested Starr
would have a harder time both legally and politically making his charges
On Capitol Hill, Democrats and some Republicans took the opportunity
to signal to the independent counsel that the onus is now on him to deliver
strong impeachment evidence or nothing at all.
With the dismissal of the case that had served as a foundation for Starr's
recent inquiries, and with voters apparently ready to move on, few members
were in a mood to take the offensive.
"The political atmospherics have changed in the president's favor,"
said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., adding that Congress should put Starr's
probe on its back burner and keep it there, unless Starr can present an
"open-and-shut case" against the president.
Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., joined the chorus. When Starr
finishes his inquiry, Gingrich told ABC News, "we'll know that Clinton
has been exonerated, or we'll know that there is a huge mass of material.
I don't think there will be any in-between."
There is, however, little indication that Starr is taking his cues from
Capitol Hill. The day after the ruling, he struck an almost defiant tone,
saying he would not be affected by political considerations.
"Facts and law, that's what we deal with. We don't deal in politics,"
he said. "We work in the realm of facts and law, and not public relations."
Starr is in an odd position: trying in an apolitical fashion to gather
evidence that could lead to an impeachment proceeding against the president
-- an action that is, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in "Federalist Paper
no. 65," an inherently political act.
Congress, too, is in an odd position. The Founding Fathers chose it, and
not the judiciary, to fill the role of accusing and trying presidents.
Yet as Starr's investigation has unfolded, members have been relegated
to the roles of spectators and commentators.
Some of the GOP reaction to the ruling indicates that lawmakers are
increasingly uncomfortable with that position.
The charges Starr is investigating -- whether the president obstructed
justrice, intimidated witnesses and suborned perjury -- in some instances
may relate to testimony in the Jones case.
These legal questions may come into play if Starr indicts someone such
as Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern who allegedly had
an affair with the president, or Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan. But if
Starr's target is Clinton himself, the import of the Jones ruling may not
lie in the evidence produced; Congress can consider whatever it wants in
an impeachment proceeding. Rather, it could be in how members of Congress,
and by extension the public, react. If the public takes the ruling as an
indication it is time to put Clinton's problems aside and move on to other
things, it will be hard for Congress to do much with whatever Starr may
send up, political experts say. (Wright's ruling, p. 904)
This is a point Democrats were quick to stress after the decision.
"Mr. Starr for a period of time will continue with his investigation
but will soon realize he doesn't have political support," said Sen. Robert
G. Torricelli, D-N.J.
"I do think [the Jones ruling] will have a bearing," said Sen. Mary
L. Landrieu, D-La. "The public has been very skeptical of Starr's, quote,
objectivity, quote. Having this case thrown out this way is going to add
fuel to that fire, and I think rightfully so."
Given the difficult audience Starr could face on Capitol Hill, he may
choose to refocus his efforts in the near future on crimes alleged to have
been committed by people other than the president. That would allow him
to compile more evidence against Clinton while lowering the volume of
about a possible impeachment inquiry.
In this regard, the dismissal of the Jones case may actually help Starr
in that he will not have to worry about bumping up against Jones' lawyers.
The absence of the case will also reduce the opportunities for the Clinton
White House to complain of cooperation between the two camps, or of a conspiracy
of forces working against the president.
But even if he focuses his attention elsewhere, Starr will not be immune
from politics. Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, has suggested that
the public would not react positively to Starr's four-year probe leading
to the indictment of a 24-year-old former intern. Starr's other options
might be to renew his efforts against Clinton friend Webster L. Hubbell,
a former associate attorney general who served time for tax evasion and
mail fraud. The possibility of further indictments may cause him to be
more cooperative with Starr.
Starr is clearly more comfortable with legal issues than political ones.
Meeting with reporters April 2, he invoked the "Just the facts, ma'am,"
style of police detective Joe Friday from the old television show "Dragnet."
Friday operated in a television world where right and wrong were as
discernable as black and white. Unfortunately for Starr, that is not the
current political world he lives in.
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.