Clinton's Address Fails To Defuse Ticking Time Bomb Of Starr Report
By Karen Foerstel, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, Aug. 22, 1998) -- President Clinton said he hoped his late-night mea culpa on Aug. 17 would put the Monica Lewinsky case behind him. But members of Congress, who will make the final determination, were not satisfied with what they heard.
The only certain result of Clinton's nationally televised speech was verification of what most Americans already assumed to be true -- that he had had a sexual affair with the former White House intern and then lied about it.
A larger question remained: Was the president's explanation of his previous denials good enough to prevent Congress from initiating impeachment proceedings against him for perjury or obstruction of justice?
With members of his own Democratic Party expressing disappointment that the president lied about the case for seven months, it appears he still has some serious explaining to do before the Congress is willing to absolve him of a breach of trust.
In the coming weeks, according to a legal source with knowledge of the White House strategy, Clinton will privately explain to sympathetic members of Congress why he felt it was necessary issue a false denial when the Lewinsky matter first came to light last January. And responsibility for his defense strategy, which until now has been controlled by his lawyers, will be assumed by political advisers who have experience in dealing with Congress.
Under the Constitution, "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" are grounds for impeachment. That vague definition leaves wide latitude for lawmakers to insert their personal judgments into the impeachment process.
The subjective nature of the process was perhaps summed up best by Gerald R. Ford, R-Mich. (1949-73), when as House minority leader he led an effort in 1970 to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history," Ford said.
And along with their moral judgments, lawmakers also have to consider the long-term implications of the standard they may set for future presidential -- as well as congressional -- behavior.
Just hours before Clinton made his historic television address, Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, admitted that impeachable offenses are in the eye of the beholder.
"It's not just law. It's politics. It's political as well once it hits the House," Hatch said. "And you have to combine those two and say -- and this ought to be the prevailing question -- what is in the best interest of our country, of our nation, of our people?"
Although some reports have predicted that Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr will hand a report over to Congress in September, there are indications that Starr may subpoena Clinton for another interview, which would cause a further delay.
Still, most lawmakers said they expect to receive Starr's report before the Nov. 3 elections. That does not leave them much time to soul-search and decide for themselves what offenses they think warrant impeachment.
Because the case Starr is compiling against Clinton apparently revolves around his efforts to conceal his sexual philandering, many members of Congress are reluctant to throw Clinton out of the White House for personal matters -- even if he lied about them.
Others, however, feel it would be in the "best interest" of the country to kick out a president who cheated on his wife, publicly lied about it and may have encouraged others to lie as well.
Rep. George W. Gekas, R-Pa., fourth-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, which would oversee an impeachment process, said he feels sexual misconduct alone is not grounds for impeachment. But lying about it could be.
"If it's just sex, that's not on any higher ground than getting drunk in the Oval Office," Gekas said. "But now Clinton's apologists are saying lying about sex isn't impeachable. I can't get past that. . . . If perjury is clear-cut, we have a basis into an inquiry of impeachment."
Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers must stick to the Constitution, no matter how they may feel about Clinton's personal conduct.
"It's high crimes and misdemeanors [that are impeachable]. It's not misbehavior," said Scott. "I haven't seen anything that suggests there are impeachable offenses. Perjury is a crime with a legal definition. It's lying under oath about a material fact. Clinton's statement [in the Paula Jones case] was made about an immaterial fact in a case that was thrown out on summary judgment."
Most House members are publicly refusing to speculate on impeachment until they see the detailed allegations that Starr's report is expected to contain, but the range of potential charges is well-known.
Clinton has been accused of having a sexual affair with Lewinsky and lying about it during his deposition in the sexual harassment suit filed against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones earlier this year. That suit has since been thrown out of court.
Starr is also probing whether Clinton obstructed justice by conspiring with others to cover up the affair.
In his speech, Clinton admitted he had an affair with Lewinsky and that he "misled" the public about it. But he insisted that his deposition in the Jones suit was "legally accurate."
During that deposition, Clinton denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky as defined by the lawyers in the case. That narrow definition, however, apparently did not cover the kind of sexual activity Clinton admitted to having engaged in with Lewinsky.
Clinton said he did not ask anyone else to lie or to destroy evidence.
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Many lawmakers expressed disappointment at what they called a lack of contrition in Clinton's four-minute televised speech. He never used the words "I'm sorry," and he spent much of the time attacking Starr and his four-year investigation.
Many Democrats, even those sympathetic to Clinton, found it hard to accept his defiant attitude.
"It wasn't his finest hour," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas. "It would have been much better had he not gone on the attack, if he had been more sincerely contrite. He was more mad at Starr than sorry for what he had done."
Republicans say the criticism of Starr hurt the president more than it helped him.
"It was a little bit like a temper tantrum," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. "If he had said he was sorry, that would have won him some support, but now he's caused the whole thing to be triggered to another level."
Weldon, who sits on the special committee investigating whether Clinton permitted the transfer of sensitive missile technology to China, said his colleagues were angered by Clinton's speech -- and predicted that Starr and Republicans may now be even more motivated to go after the president.
"Clinton's arrogance was shining through, and it's being picked up by members I've talked to," Weldon said.
The Impeachment Process
House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., has refused to speculate on when or how the House will take action in the wake of Clinton's speech. Earlier this summer, he said the House probably would not have time to take much action on the matter before the elections.
Hyde said his committee would first conduct its own investigation into the report -- verifying or disproving Starr's findings -- before proceeding to public hearings. Such an investigation could take months, and would likely be conducted behind closed doors.
The impeachment process would kick off when Starr notified Congress he had completed his report. Hyde would then introduce a "referral resolution" granting access to the report exclusively to members of the Judiciary Committee. That resolution would have to be approved by the committee and passed by the full House.
Once the resolution was passed, Starr's report would be handed over to the committee and its investigation would begin.
After a preliminary investigation, the committee could throw the case out or vote on a "resolution of inquiry" stating that there was substantial and credible evidence for impeachment.
If that resolution was passed, hearings would likely begin. During the hearings, additional information -- possibly from other congressional probes looking into improper fund raising or other allegations -- could be dumped into the mix.
Once the hearings were concluded, the committee and then the full House would vote on "bills of impeachment." If the House passed the bills of impeachment by a simple majority vote, the matter would move to the Senate, where it would be tried as if in a court of law.
A select group of members from the House Judiciary Committee would be named to serve as the prosecutors in the case; the president would be represented by his own defense team, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court would preside over the trial, with members of the Senate acting as jury.
Only once in history has a president been impeached. Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868, but he was subsequently acquitted by the Senate, which failed by one vote to reach the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
If the Senate does not convict, the president can remain in office.
Richard M. Nixon resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974, days after the House Judiciary Committee voted out bills of impreachment but before the House took them up. (1974 Almanac, p. 867)
With the Clinton investigation, some members have talked of pursuing a lesser charge than impeachment, possibly a simple censure. (Censure, CQ Weekly, p. 565)
Regardless of whether Clinton goes on to face impeachment or other punishments, his admission of sexual wrongdoing has already begun to creep into political campaigns across the country.
Dozens of Republican candidates have issued statements calling for Clinton's resignation and linking their Democratic opponents to the White House.
"Our intention is to brand every single Democrat in the state with the scarlet 'C,'" said Trey Walker, executive director of the South Carolina state Republican Party. "What Bill Clinton has done . . . is, he has re-energized our base. . . . We will gratuitously use Clinton's face on all our literature."
Walker said in the hours after Clinton's speech that he was told two local Democratic officials were considering switching parties.
In races across the country, Republicans are also using Clinton's words against their Democratic candidates.
Matt Fong, who is challenging Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is expected to make Clinton's admission an issue in his campaign. Boxer was one of the more outspoken critics of former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. (1969-95), when he was charged with sexually harassing female staffers. Boxer at the time said Packwood should resign immediately.
"She's just a total hypocrite," said Sal Russo, a media consultant working with Fong's campaign. "This issue has shined the light on Boxer's pattern of putting partisanship first."
In the wake of Clinton's admission last week, Boxer was critical of him, but stopped short of calling for him to resign.
"I think he should have told us the truth seven months ago, and we could have put this behind us," said Boxer, whose daughter is married to one of Hillary Rodham Clinton's brothers.
"That relationship was wrong, clear, black-and-white, no-room-for-ambiguity wrong."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., issued one of the harshest responses to the speech."My trust in his credibility has been badly shattered," she said.
That damage was made obvious on Aug. 20 when Clinton announced that U.S. forces had attacked terrorist sites in Afghanistan and the Sudan. (Bombings, p. 2289)
The timing of the attack -- just three days after he admitted misleading the American public -- prompted suspicion from some lawmakers.
"The timing is so extraordinary that both friends and foes are going to conclude that it was done for the wrong motives," said Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind. "But even if it isn't, I believe people will use that as an excuse now to further put the United States' credibility and foreign leadership in question."
Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., said the president's lack of credibility was to blame for such questions. "When people begin to question their leaders, they begin to question those leaders' actions as well."
But most lawmakers were supportive. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., supported the attack and said he believed the "United States did exactly the right thing."
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