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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly
Investigating The President

Transcript: CNN interview with Gingrich on Starr report

September 10, 1998

CNN'S FRANK SESNO: We are, in fact, joined by the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Speaker, thanks for spending a couple of minutes with us.

SPEAKER GINGRICH: Thank you.

SESNO: You took to the floor of the House in an extraordinary action earlier today and you appealed for a sense of decorum -- don't bring this, the presidential issues, into forceful a fashion, essentially, is what you were saying to the floor of the House. Why?

GINGRICH: Well, let me say, first of all, I didn't appeal as speaker; I announced that we would enforce decorum.

And the reason is, in a free society, if you're going to bring 435 strong egos into a room to make very difficult decisions, you must have rules of civility. And if you're going to relate in our constitutional system to the office of president, there has to be a certain level of dignity.

And as I pointed out, during the Watergate proceedings, Richard Nixon was never personally attacked on the floor of the House, as a person.

You can raise questions about the office. You can raise questions about the need for an investigation. But you can't use -- except in an actual debate on impeachment -- you cannot use in a normal debate, a normal one-minute, a normal special order anything which is personal or derogatory about the person of the president.

SESNO: Is it that sensitive? Is it this hyperactive, or hyperkinetic, right now that this kind of order must go forth from you.

GINGRICH: I think it's -- we're entering with a report by Judge Starr a period that is so solemn and serious for the entire country that the House has to be reminded that in the age of television -- we've never handled any issue this significant in the age of a televised house.

And so when we went down that road 20 years ago with C-SPAN -- and all of you now pick up the coverage -- we really face an obligation to be the House that the American people can be proud of, to deal with a very difficult, contentious issue in a serious and sober and fact-based manner, and to do so with respect.

And I think this is one of the most difficult things any member of the House will deal with in their entire career.

SESNO: Some have suggested that there may be some political motivation to this order as well -- that Republicans not get too far out there so as to risk a backlash from the public, to be piling on too much too soon.

GINGRICH: No. What I said today as speaker applies to Republicans and Democrats. And it applies because I believe it is important that the tone of the House be something that high school students can watch in their civics class and say this is what democracy should be.

You carry this worldwide. I've seen your program all over the world. I want people all over the world to watch the United States House with a sense of honor and dignity, and say that's what freedom should be like.

And I think members, when you get to something -- particularly something which has as much personal, salacious and tawdry detail as this does -- I want members to be very cautious and prudent in how they decide they're going to talk about it.

SESNO: What exactly is the timeframe for this report, this referral now to be released to the public? We've heard some of the members talking about this. But what can you tell us at this moment?

GINGRICH: We've had a series of bipartisan meetings with the Democratic leadership -- John Conjures of the Judiciary Committee; Martin Frost of the Rules Committee; Dick Gephardt, their leader -- working with Henry Hyde, Gerry Solomon, Dick Armey and myself.

And I believe that later on today the Rules Committee will meet. I think that Chairman Hyde and I hope Mr. Conyers will go and testify. The Rules Committee will report out, and we will take to the floor tomorrow and vote tomorrow.

As you've been reporting, this report comes basically in three -- three ways.

It is a referral of about 445 pages. It is an appendices of about 2,000 pages, and it is 17 boxes of additional material -- 17 for the Republicans, 17 for the Democrats.

The cover letter from Judge Starr indicated that there is confidential and personal information in the accompanying material. What we will propose and hopefully the House will adopt tomorrow is that the appendices and the boxes should go to the Judiciary Committee and that Henry Hyde and John Conyers on a bipartisan basis will review them.

If there is some person innocently named who has nothing to do with anything that's involved, but their life could be destroyed by this, that shouldn't be released. Everything else should come out of it on a bipartisan basis, with Congressman Conyers and Congressman Hyde working together.

The 445-page referral we intend to make available in the THOMAS system and (ph) the Internet some time late tomorrow afternoon.

SESNO: So late tomorrow afternoon will be the first time the public gets a look at this?

GINGRICH: Anyone in the country, anyone in the world who is on the Internet will be able to access it...

SESNO: Late tomorrow...

GINGRICH: I think some time tomorrow. Realistically, between -- my guess is between 2:00 and 4:00 tomorrow.

SESNO: And that 445 pages put out in its entirety?

GINGRICH: None of us know what's in it. And we talked about this at great length because we were troubled by it.

But our assumption was that every member of the House had the right to read the entire referral. Well, if you're going to give 435 members of the House the referral, you all are good enough. You'll eventually get it all anyway, but first, it will come out in bits and pieces.

And if we deleted a half page somewhere, that would become the thing everyone demanded to see.

So we decided that it wasn't our job to edit judge Starr.

He had issued a referral. It's 445 pages long. We're going to make that referral available to the American people.

SESNO: Mr. Speaker, there are those who have said, of course -- as Judge Starr has conducted his investigation -- this was fundamentally a legal process. But now that it's been handed to you, to the Congress of the United States, it's fundamentally a political process, that in the end impeachment is a political decision.

GINGRICH: I think that's a misuse of an 18th century word. We mean by "political" elections, campaigns, et cetera. They would have meant judgmental.

The reasons that they did not put impeachment in the Supreme Court is that it's not legal in the sense of defining did you violate a law. It's about judgment. Are you undermining the Constitution? Are you crippling the office you hold? Have you engaged in actions unworthy of that office?

It's a matter of judgment.

The judgment has to be rendered by 435 elected officials, called representatives.

Then, if they do judge that you have in fact dishonored your office at a level which requires your replacement, that goes to the Senate where 100 elected officials called senators have to render judgment by two-thirds vote (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

But I think it's wrong to use the term political. This is a constitutional act involving the judgment of members about what their duty to the Constitution is.

SESNO: Should the president spare the nation all of this and resign?

GINGRICH: I think only the president can answer that. He knows in his heart what the facts are. He knows -- and I think it should be clear to him that in the end in this process the facts will all be apparent to every American.

So he has to decide whether or not he best serves the country and what the facts will turn out to be.

If he's truly innocent, if he honestly in his heart believes he hasn't done anything which makes the office untenable, then he would not be doing his duty to leave. His duty would (ph) be (ph) to stay.

If, on the other hand, he believes in his heart that when all of us know everything -- and we will in the end; it will happen; it's the way the system works -- then I think as a patriot he should serve the country. But only he knows what the total truth is about these allegations.

SESNO: Do you believe in your heart that this president can still be an effective leader, commander in chief?

GINGRICH: This president can be an effective president of the United States because we are all going to work to make sure the president of the United States is effective.

The United States leads the world. Senator Lott and I have had long conversations about this. We are deeply committed to sustaining the capacity of our constitutional government through this entire process.

SESNO: You are being very careful, you are trying to be very fair because this is a substantial, a huge historical moment.

In that vein, in the interest of fairness, should the president and his attorneys not have a chance to see this report before it's sent out, dumped out to the public and the world?

GINGRICH: We talked about that at length yesterday. That has never been done before. It was not done during Watergate. It was not done during Iran-Contra. It was not done during October Surprise. And our conclusion was that, under the law, the counsel reports to the Congress. We will make available to Mr. Kendall, the president's attorney, the opportunity to provide to the Congress, and we'll put on the same THOMAS system right next to the Starr report, whatever answers he wants to give.

But we thought -- you know, our members would never have tolerated the idea that the president and his counsel got a document they didn't see. And so we felt this was the only fair way to do it.

We have a report from the independent counsel. That report has been awaited for a long time. The American people deserve to see that report. And we will, hopefully by late tomorrow, make it available to every people in the country.

SESNO: Do you view impeachment hearings now as inevitable?

GINGRICH: I think that until you have read the report and until you have looked at the attached documents -- you know, Chairman Hyde and John Conyers and the members of the judiciary Committee are going to have to make that, render that decision.

I think -- and I've said this all along; I say it today because we are still 24 hours away from seeing the report -- no one should leap to any judgment until you have read the report. And since I haven't read the report, I can't give you an answer of any substance.

SESNO: But doesn't it defy credibility that it could come this far and not have some kind of public hearing? I mean, is it -- do you consider...

GINGRICH: Frank, this may be why I'm a historian. Nothing defies credibility to historians. I mean, could the report show up and people look at it and go, well, that doesn't make any sense? Yes, it's possible. I don't think it's likely.

SESNO: You don't think it's likely?

GINGRICH: Could the report show up and people say, boy, you have to do something? It's possible.

SESNO: So you think impeachment hearings are likely.

GINGRICH: But I know you have to fill the time on television.

SESNO: No, no, no. It's a question as to what the American people may...

GINGRICH: Frank, my point is -- and my point is the correct judgment on Thursday is to wait until Friday to read the report. Any effort to speculate, I think, undermines the -- let me say it differently. Facts should lead judgment, not hypothesis. We don't have the facts today.

Tomorrow, we will begin to have facts. We will then be in a better place by next week, because it will take us several days to digest this.

We will then be in a better place by next week to decide if those facts lead us further.

We hope that in two weeks or so the committee will release almost all of the remaining information. Then we will have more facts. Then we will know whether or not we need to go further.

And I just think every American -- I know this is opposite of our instant age -- but every American is better served and America is better served if we slow down, take a deep breath, and allow the facts to lead us rather than rushing ahead of the facts, on either side of the issue.

SESNO: If I could just conclude with one important question -- at this time, is there a crisis, or even a vacuum, of leadership, of government in this country?

GINGRICH: No, the American system is working. The American system is deliberately designed to be astonishingly stable. And the founding fathers balanced power in this system remarkably well. And we will all work together to make sure that America works.

SESNO: OK. Speaker Newt Gingrich, I really appreciate your time. I know you have to get back to Congress and to Capitol Hill. Appreciate it.

GINGRICH: Thank you.

END



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Thursday September 10, 1998

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