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Will the President Need a Pardon When He Leaves Office?

Aired April 14, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, President Clinton says he won't seek a pardon after he leaves office.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have no interest in it. I wouldn't ask for it. I don't think it would be necessary.


MATALIN: But as Independent Counsel Robert Ray steps up his investigation, will the president need one?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the crossfire, Julian Epstein, chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, and former Deputy Independent Counsel Bob Bittman.

MATTHEW MILLER, GUEST CO-HOST: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Matt Miller, a syndicated columnist, sitting in for Bill Press.

Well, just when you thought it was safe to run out the clock on this presidential term, Bill Clinton's legal problems are in the news again. The president was asked yesterday at a convention of top newspaper editors whether he'd accept a potential pardon from Al Gore.

The issue came up after Independent Counsel Robert Ray, who took over Kenneth Starr's fun job, said that he was hiring more lawyers and couldn't rule out an indictment of the president after he leaves office. Did Clinton rule out a possible pardon? Well, that may depend on close textual analysis of the Clintonian language that opened this show.

The editors were also kind enough just how much of his presidential library would be devoted to his impeachment, evoking this from the plainly peeved president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CLINTON: I'm not ashamed of the fact that they impeached me. That was their decision, not mine. And it was wrong. I consider it one of the major chapters in my defeat of the revolution Mr. Gingrich led.


MILLER: So if Bill Clinton gets handcuffed the day he hands over the keys to the White House, would it be a triumph for the rule of law or a tribute to prosecutors with the worst judgment in human history? And is Clinton right to paint his legal endurance as part of a positive political legacy?

Only one woman has the courage to lead us back into these culture wars with a smile. Mary.

MATALIN: With a guffaw, you're absolutely right. And I was just thinking, Julian, Julian, Julian, we meet again, constantly forced together by this scandal-plagued administration.

Well, just because we haven't gotten enough of Elian Gonzalez this week, let me play for you before we get into this, because it is related, what the president had to say about the Elian Gonzalez case. And we'll launch from there.


CLINTON: I think the issue here for me is the rule of law. We have a system. The system has -- if you don't think it's right, then you should say, "Well, we ought to change the laws."


MATALIN: Change the laws. The rule of law. This is a somewhat selective application, right, because the correlative principle of the rule of law is that no person is above the law. Why would Robert Ray be held to a lesser duty in applying the rule of law than the president himself?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, CHIEF MINORITY COUNSEL, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, the adage is the same if you flip it on the other side. No person is below the rule of law as well.

I think as an intuitive matter, Senator Reid was correct. Most people have just had enough of this in this country and believe that this sorry soap opera has run its course.

As a legal matter, Mary, I don't think there is a fair-minded prosecutor in the country that would touch this with a 10-foot pole. Even Elliot Richardson, the former Republican attorney general, said that this thing legally was a bag of trash. He believed that the statements in question for which he would potentially prosecute the president could never meet the materiality threshold. There were no witnesses that confirmed any of the somewhat speculative theories.

Even Henry Hyde, a man who you respect, I respect -- I disagreed with him during the impeachment process -- said that he didn't believe that a prosecution would be warranted. And Ken Starr himself I don't think believed that prosecution would be warranted.

If this thing goes on, Mary, I think what it says...

MATALIN: Indictment is not a prosecution, OK? And then what Henry Hyde and what Harry Reid...

EPSTEIN: Indictment means you believe.

MATALIN: ... and what everybody was saying was this is not a political matter. It's going to drag us all under. And in truth, the president has paid a political price.

But the reason he was not impeached, or is not removed from office, so say the senators, Democratic senators, liberal senators, their whole excuse for not passing the articles of impeachment, removing him from office, was precisely because he would be subjected to the legal system post-office.

Let me share some of those with you. And I know you read them yourself today.

This is from Barbara Boxer. "He remains subject to the laws of the land just like any other citizen."

Herb Kohl: "The president can be criminally prosecuted, especially once he leaves office."

Kent Conrad, senator, another liberal senator: "These are matters best left to the criminal justice system."

That's what they said then, to not deal with it...

EPSTEIN: Yes. And none of those statements are -- but Mary, the difference is in none of those statements, none of those Democratic senators are saying the president should be prosecuted.

And look, there isn't a single case in the history of this country where you have a civil case that was settled and you have in question statements which were peripheral. On two occasions, the judge ruled that the statements in question weren't even relevant to the Paula Jones case. There isn't a single case that you or that Bob on this program could cite where anyone has ever been prosecuted in this country.

So the point is, the president isn't below the law. Republicans want to continue talking about this because they can't talk about the best economic record, the lowest poverty...

MATALIN: Oh, please. Oh, please...

EPSTEIN: ... unemployment, the lowest crime rate...

MATALIN: ... No Republican wants to talk about it. We're frankly sick of it. There's no one -- maybe no one was prosecuted like that. But there's never been a president which has subjected the country to the scandals that this one has.

MILLER: Well, isn't it -- and let's bring Bob into this. I mean, isn't it, based on the kind of stuff Julian was saying, there's a whole gallery of ex-high-level prosecutors you could line up who would say that in the exercise of their discretion, they wouldn't bring a case, they wouldn't have brought the impeachment, let alone a case post-presidency for Bill Clinton.

Doesn't this prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that if Robert Ray is thinking about this now that somehow special prosecutors get into this deep tunnel where they essentially lose their sanity?

BOB BITTMAN, FORMER DEPUTY INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Well, it really isn't a deep tunnel. Remember, you have -- what Julian left out is that you have a federal judge who looked at all these facts. That is Chief Judge Wright in Arkansas, who had made a very favorable ruling, many favorable rulings to the president.

She looked at all the facts. And she found this is an easy case. The president of the United States raised his hand at a deposition in which I was present, the judge, and he lied. He gave false, misleading, and evasive answers for the purpose of obstructing justice. And...

MILLER: He lied about an affair, right?

BITTMAN: ... Yeah, he lied about an affair. He lied about his relationship with...

MILLER: The woman he was having an affair with.

BITTMAN: ... a potential witness in that case.

MILLER: The woman he was having an affair with.

BITTMAN: That's correct.

EPSTEIN: Bob, don't you agree that that legal standard that the judge uses in that, which is just civil contempt, is far different from any criminal, doesn't really have any relevance criminally?

BITTMAN: Oh, I don't agree that it doesn't have any relevance. It's clearly a lower standard...

EPSTEIN: It's an entirely different standard.

BITTMAN: ... It's a lower standard.

EPSTEIN: You don't have to meet the materiality. You don't have to meet any of the things that a prosecutor would given -- if you're trying to attempt to prosecute the case criminally.

MILLER: So it's a different question that way. But listening to you, you want Clinton indicted, don't you?

BITTMAN: I think he should be held up the rule of law like many of the Democratic senators that Mary referred to earlier.

MILLER: Well, that's not quite an answer...

BITTMAN: That...


MILLER: ... You were chasing this guy for a number of years. You must inside want him to I guess pay a price that he hasn't paid thus far. Is that...

BITTMAN: No, no, no, no, no. I have no animus towards the president. We set out to look at the facts and find the facts. And that's what we did.

The facts unfortunately were that the president of the United States lied under oath...

MILLER: About an affair...

BITTMAN: ... both in his deposition and the grand jury, and he obstructed justice. And he got other people to lie about it.

If people want to throw up their hands and say, "We've had enough of this," then they're falling into the trap that Clinton said all along. That is delay, delay, delay, so people just get sick about it.

MILLER: Or they're allowing for prosecutorial discretion, which a gallery of famous prosecutors said they would have exercised. Can I ask one last question before we -- do you want to...

MATALIN: Please. You're clearly obsessed with vindicating a man who lies under oath...


MATALIN: ... obstructs justice, tampers with witnesses...

BITTMAN: Thank you, Mary.

EPSTEIN: None of which were ever proved, Mary. And even a Republican Senate, a Republican controlled Senate...

MATALIN: Not true.

EPSTEIN: ... couldn't even get 50 votes, couldn't even get a majority in the Senate.

MATALIN: That was not -- that's a political situation...

MILLER: Let me ask because...

MATALIN: ... not a legal situation.

MILLER: ... there's one question that I always wanted to ask you guys, ask one of the prosecutors, which is did you ever consider in that first deposition when Clinton lied about whether he'd been involved with Monica, Monica had given her affidavit under oath before that so that if Clinton -- right -- if Clinton that first day had said, "You know what, now that you've asked me, I'll come clean," which is what Bob Bittman and Ken Starr would have wanted him to do, that would have been his duty.

If he'd come clean then, he would have immediately exposed Monica to perjury charges. And so in essence, Clinton was done in by his own chivalry. Isn't that right?


BITTMAN: Well, no. He was done in by his own conspiracy. He had conversations with Monica Lewinsky when Monica Lewinsky was drafting her affidavit. There was a conspiracy for both of them to lie because unless both of them lied it would have fallen apart.

MILLER: That's right. A fancy way of saying people who have affairs talk about covering it up.

MATALIN: Matt...

BITTMAN: The fact is, Paula Jones was entitled to a fair trial, was entitled to learn relevant evidence that the judge had determined to be relevant evidence. And she did not get her day in court because the president of the United States lied.

EPSTEIN: You know, with respect to Bob, try those cases in a criminal court, and the same thing will happen that happened in the Willey case...

BITTMAN: That may happen.

EPSTEIN: ... The same thing will happen in the Julia Hiatt Steele case. Look, this has been now, what, five or six years, $60 million. Whitewater was an empty bag. It certainly appears to be Travelgate was, Filegate was.

The two criminal cases that came out of this so-called impeachment matter both lost. I think that, you know, at some point, enough becomes enough. Now Ray may be trying to do this because he is attempting...

MATALIN: You're making a political point. No...

EPSTEIN: ... to do this because he is attempting to...

MATALIN: ... Robert Ray is a Democrat...

EPSTEIN: ... Legally, Mary, Mary, the point is, legally...

MATALIN: ... Robert Ray is a Democrat. He's trying to uphold the law. He's trying to do his duty. Can I just as an aside say that remember the president's chivalry started with trying to accuse Monica of being a stalker. OK, there is nothing chivalrous about this. And you're acting as delusional as the president. EPSTEIN: Mary, I'm not making, I'm not making, I'm not making -- look, Mary, I'm not making a political point. I also made a legal point. Neither you or Bob can cite a single precedent where a case given this fact situation ever in this country's history has ever been prosecuted.

MATALIN: Matt, Matt...

EPSTEIN: That's why all the prosecutors, the Republican prosecutors, Mary, that came before the Judiciary Committee, said that no fair-minded prosecutor would ever attempt to prosecute this case. This is another -- if this goes forward, this is another case of prosecutorial excess that the country thinks and knows intuitively is out of bounds, and that legally won't survive. The case would lose.

MATALIN: We have a justice system. If the president has broken the law, he should be indicted for it and then let him go to a jury of his peers to say whether or not he's prosecuted...

EPSTEIN: Mary...

MATALIN: ... I want to talk about this delusion of this as all nothing, it's all a vast right-wing conspiracy because you're echoing what the president had to say to the editors yesterday.

EPSTEIN: That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying legally there's no precedent for it. This would be a loser in court.

MATALIN: Let just -- it's all part of the president's attempt to, as Matt said in the opening, make his endurance, his endurance through the most scandal-ridden administration in the history of this country...

EPSTEIN: I suppose Henry Hyde is part of that.

MATALIN: ... part of the political positive...

EPSTEIN: ... Henry Hyde is part of that conspiracy too?

MATALIN: ... Henry Hyde did not want to tie down the Congress any more. And (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

EPSTEIN: No, Henry Hyde said there shouldn't be a prosecution.

MATALIN: ... Listen to what the president said yesterday that starting with what he believes was the onset of all of this vast right-wing conspiracy.


CLINTON: I would like just once to see someone acknowledge the fact that this Whitewater thing was a lie and a fraud from the beginning, and that most people with any responsibility over it have known it for years.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MATALIN: This is what I mean about rewriting history. For the record, there were a record 15 convictions in connection with Whitewater, including a sitting governor and the president's two business friends. Because the president was in a position to obstruct justice, lose files, delay, who knows what was in the e-mail, all of that, he was able, has been so far, able to get off. But don't say there was nothing there...

EPSTEIN: Mary, you're going to blame the president because people that he knew...

MATALIN: ... 15 convictions.

EPSTEIN: ... happened to be convicted? The fact is that this independent counsel...


EPSTEIN: ... this independent counsel spent untold resources trying to find wrongdoing in Whitewater, wasn't able to. Tried to find wrongdoing in the Travelgate, wasn't able to. Tried to find wrongdoing in the Filegate, wasn't able to. Lost the two cases that came out of this thing.

I mean, this thing has been a wild goose chase...

MATALIN: Obviously, you guys have been -- you're both attributing motives. You're attributing a motive to Bob that he wants the president to be indicted...

EPSTEIN: Mary, we're not talking motive. I'm talking about a record...

MATALIN: ... You're saying these independent counsels were trying to find bad...

EPSTEIN: ... of -- no.

MATALIN: ... Do you know what the president said when he reauthorized the independent counsel statute, was that it's also an institution for exoneration. How do you know they weren't going about their business in an effort to exonerate, not to find bad?

EPSTEIN: Well, interestingly enough, when the exoneration comes, unlike any other independent counsel where you've always had one final report, we now have four final reports, being dribbled out, guess when, during campaign season...

MATALIN: By a Democrat.

EPSTEIN: ... No, by Robert Ray, who is the...

MATALIN: Who is a Democrat.

EPSTEIN: ... who was also hired, and I don't believe this indicates that he is fair or unfair one way. He was also hired by Rudolph Giuliani...

MATALIN: But you're going to say it anyway. If you don't believe it then, why say it?

EPSTEIN: ... at one point. But the reason why I should say that is because of the fact that he was hired...

MATALIN: Yeah, we've got to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Look, you're doing great. You're a great advocate in still the most scandal-ridden administration in history. And we'll come back and we'll see what impact if any it's going to have on this year's political contest.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. In a vigorous defense of his scandal-plagued administration, President Clinton lashed out at Republican revolutionaries and irresponsible journalists for his turbulent tenure.

Did the vast right-wing conspiracy collude with the mainstream left-wing press to launch investigations the president called, quote, "a lie and a fraud from the beginning"?

We're joined by two who lived through it almost as closely as Bill Clinton himself, without all the fun. Chief Minority Counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, Julian Epstein, and former Deputy Independent Counsel Bob Bittman.


MILLER: Bob, if it turns out that Robert Ray does the right thing, decides that we've all been through enough and doesn't prosecute after Clinton leaves office, will you have a sense somehow lingering that Clinton got away with something?

BITTMAN: Well, you have to look at the facts and then what actually happened and has this president really paid for the crimes that he committed? And that's a judgment that someone else will have to make. I think the public ought to make that...


BITTMAN: ... history. I think we'll have to see because we still have yet to see what's going to happen with the president with regard to his Bar, his being an attorney in the state of Arkansas. That's been challenged. He has been found by a federal judge to have committed a serious contempt against the court. And if his law license gets taken away from him, some other things, you know...

MILLER: But if there's nothing more than what we've had to date, is it your view that a man who went through the most searing global humiliation presumably in history will have not paid sufficient price, who had his family shattered through this experience, won't have paid enough for lying about an affair under oath?

BITTMAN: I don't know. I mean, you know, part of the Department of Justice analysis as to whether or not someone has paid a price is acceptance of responsibility. And I think we've seen tonight by the president's statements and at other times that he has not accepted responsibility.

He has not admitted that he did anything wrong. It's everyone else who does something wrong. It's never President Clinton himself.

He's never admitted that he lied. He's never admitted that he obstructed justice. He's never admitted that he tried to get other people to lie.

EPSTEIN: Except for the umpteen million times when he said he thought that he made a mistake and...

MILLER: His mistake was having an affair...

EPSTEIN: ... was sorry that he gave misleading...

MILLER: ... His mistake was having an affair...

EPSTEIN: ... And Bob still refuses to point out a single case that's ever been prosecuted, which is the legal standard for independent counsels...

MATALIN: OK, Julian, Julian, you made that point...

EPSTEIN: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) attempt to prosecute test cases.

MATALIN: ... You made that point. Let's move on to Bob's point because the point he's making is why this story is on the front page of all the newspapers today. After saying I'm not -- he didn't say, "I won't accept a pardon," but the other comment he made which made everyone's hair stand on fire was this.


CLINTON: On the impeachment, let me tell you, I am proud of what we did there because I think we saved the constitution of the United States.


MATALIN: You were there. You're very political. That's Alice in Wonderland. Did you find this a proud day for Democrats?

EPSTEIN: No. I don't think that the misdeeds created a proud day for Democrats. But I think that we did defend the constitution, which was set up to use impeachment only when there were crimes against the state. This wasn't that.

I think the country widely believed that the impeachment process was a political process. That's why Republicans lost seats. That's why...

MATALIN: No, no.

EPSTEIN: ... if they continue with this Scandalpalooza, Mary...

MATALIN: That's wrong.

EPSTEIN: ... you're going to lose in the 2000 election. You've got to start talking about the fact that this has been the best economy we've had in...

MATALIN: Julian, if you want to go to politics, then look at the polls...

EPSTEIN: ... a generation, lowest crime, lowest unemployment.

MATALIN: ... The reason the Republicans lost was because...

EPSTEIN: Your question was a political question.

MATALIN: ... they didn't deliver, not because of impeachment. If you want to look at the polls today, those who voted for impeachment are ahead of those who voted against it. That's political fact. That's a political reality...

EPSTEIN: And a political fact in 1998 was that...

MATALIN: ... None of those impeachment voters are working today.

EPSTEIN: ... Republicans were changing parties in the droves when they saw how Republicans in the House of Representatives used the impeachment process in a highly political way that wasn't warranted given the constitutional standards.

MATALIN: You don't think the president is even slightly delusional or has grandeurs of delusion to say he was...


MATALIN: ... proud of that he saved the constitution. OK (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

EPSTEIN: I think the defense of the constitution, I think is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and I know you don't believe, I think this was one of the best and most productive presidents this country has ever seen. If there wasn't a 22nd Amendment, guess what, he would be elected again.

MILLER: And since we're tag-teaming, let me toss this to Bob also which is why shouldn't he view this as part of an extended effort to beat back the revolution that Newt Gingrich was supposed to usher in, and he at least survived and the best evidence of his victory in retreat, including the impeachment but also some policy stuff, is that the Republicans are coalescing around a man who sounds like George Bush, not like Newt Gingrich, who is long gone?

BITTMAN: If the president wants to say that he's proud of what he did when he lied under oath, both...

MILLER: When he lied about that affair. BITTMAN: ... Look, lying under oath is lying under oath. If you want to say that's OK, Matt, that's fine.

MILLER: Would you ever lie under oath to protect your kids?

BITTMAN: I absolutely would not.

MILLER: To protect your children?

BITTMAN: Look, a federal judge sitting next to me and I raise my right hand to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I'm going to do it...

MILLER: Even if it harms your children or your family...

BITTMAN: ... But if you want to excuse...

MILLER: ... I'm just asking.

BITTMAN: ... No, I'm not going to do that. I wouldn't -- first of all, how was he protecting his family by lying? How was he protecting the country by lying?

MILLER: How was he protecting his family by not disclosing an affair in a public proceeding?

EPSTEIN: This is not what the president is saying he's proud of. What the president is saying he's proud of was the defense that he and the House Democrats made in defending against the disproportionate and the overreaction to the misdeed. That's the point, Bob...

BITTMAN: But many federal judge...

EPSTEIN: ... And that's what the country believes.

BITTMAN: ... have been removed for lying under oath.

EPSTEIN: Never in this type of situation, Bob.


MILLER: We're going to have to leave it there...


MILLER: ... the arguments will continue. Thanks very much, Bob Bittman. Thanks to Julian Epstein for the able defenses of your position.

And Mary and I will be back in a minute with a fresh taste on this stale scandal.


MILLER: Mary, you know, going through dredging all this old stuff again and going through all those emotions, at least with me, just reminds me this episode was not about the death of outrage like Bill Bennett always argued that it was. But to me, it was about the death of discretion, about the death of discretion of the prosecutors.

Yes, Bill Clinton was obviously indiscreet. Monica Lewinsky was. But the whole political culture was so indiscreet that that's why we ended up with this mess. And we're looking at it again.

MATALIN: But this is such a chicken or an egg. Who put us in this indiscreet position? Who would have ever done in this environment -- I'm not saying it hasn't been done in the past -- but in this environment asked to be scrutinized and then do that kind of stuff?

But why this is in the news is not because Republicans are dredging it up, that vast right-wing conspiracy. It's because Al Gore was asked and answered wrongly again the issue of pardoning Clinton. He said that Clinton had long ago said that he wouldn't seek one.

Gore just makes this stuff up. This is your bigger problem. The Clinton legacy is not your problem for 2000. That's Gore is even more delusional than the president.

MILLER: And I agree, Clinton was dumb to get us into this. But it took a lot of other stuff. And if there was any justice in this world, Bill Clinton would be able to sue for a third term.


MILLER: From the left, I'm Matt Miller sitting in for Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And if he did, we'd all move to Canada. From the right, I'm Mary Matalin.

Have a wonderful weekend. And join us again next week for more CROSSFIRE.



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