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Analysis:
An Unsparing Condemnation of Clinton

Impeachment Hearings

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  • By Ruth Marcus
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 12, 1998; Page A14

    The three articles of impeachment approved yesterday by the House Judiciary Committee constitute an unsparing condemnation of President Clinton, accusing him of committing multiple acts of perjury and casting his alleged obstruction of justice in the broadest possible terms.

    Indeed, the two articles finding that Clinton committed perjury one concerning his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony and another relating to his earlier deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit appear to go well beyond the precise statements identified as untruthful by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in his 453-page impeachment referral sent to Congress in September.

    Likewise, the obstruction of justice count not only adopts every allegation made by Starr including such aggressive approaches as describing Clinton's lies to his staff as acts of obstruction because he knew they were likely to repeat those untruths in grand jury testimony but adds a new twist.

    It sweeps within Clinton's alleged obstruction that he "corruptly allowed his attorney to make false and misleading statements to a federal judge," a reference to Clinton's silence when his lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, stated during the Jones deposition that Lewinsky had attested "there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form."

    The grand jury perjury article provides perhaps the sharpest contrast with Starr's approach and the greatest peril for the president.

    Starr confined his accusation that Clinton lied to the grand jury to three matters. He said the president lied when he denied touching intimate parts of Lewinsky's body,; when he said he believed oral sex was not covered by the definition of sexual activity used by the Jones lawyers; and when he said that his intimate relationship with Lewinsky did not begin until 1996 when, according to Lewinsky, it actually started in November 1995, when she was still a White House intern.

    In contrast, Article I in the impeachment case against Clinton is couched in language that is far loftier, vaguer and broader.

    It encompasses not only the testimony highlighted by Starr, but specifies other statements as well, including the accusation that Clinton lied when he said he was not paying attention during the Jones deposition as Bennett described an affidavit Lewinsky had prepared for that lawsuit.

    The article also builds on the obstruction case against Clinton by accusing him of lying to the grand jury when he denied obstructing justice in the Jones case or, as the article describes it, Clinton's "corrupt efforts to influence the testimony of witnesses and to impede the discovery of evidence in that civil rights action."

    In addition, as the committee presentation Thursday by Republican counsel David P. Schippers and some statements by members yesterday made clear, other parts of Clinton's testimony that are not explicitly described in the text of the article are also eligible for inclusion in the broad perjury charges.

    For example, Schippers pointed to Clinton's acknowledgment before the grand jury that he had "occasional conversations" with Lewinsky, some of which included "sexual banter." Noting sarcastically that the two had "at least 55 phone conversations," 17 of which included phone sex, Schippers said if that "is banter, then Buckingham Palace is a cabin."

    Similarly, Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) pointed to a line not cited by Schippers, in which Clinton tells the grand jurors that, in the Jones deposition, "I was doing my best to be truthful." That, Hutchinson said, "is a false and perjurious statement."

    The broad nature of the wording in the grand jury perjury article consumed a significant part of the committee debate yesterday. In the end, it generated an amendment that some Democrats asserted made the situation even worse. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) added the words "one or more" to the language, meaning that members could vote in favor of the article if they found that Clinton committed any one of the alleged acts of perjury.

    Democrats complained that it was a fundamental violation of due process to accuse Clinton of perjury without specifying precisely what false statements he made, with Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) somewhat hyperbolically likening the article to accusing someone of commiting murder without identifying the deceased.

    The reason the majority wanted to remain so vague, Democrats said, was that they were to embarrassed to be specific. "They cannot be specific because if they are specific they are trivial," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) "Where the president touched her after he acknowledged having sex, whether it started in November or February. . ."

    Democrats pointed to the articles of impeachment adopted against two judges accused of perjury, and noted that they were far more detailed in exactly what statements were deemed untruthful.

    Republicans retorted that Clinton, and members of the House bound to vote on impeachment next week, were amply informed of the case in Schippers's presentation and other material. And if Democrats saw a Republican attempt to elevate the impeachment case from its sordid facts, Republicans smelled what Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) termed a "very clever ruse" to try to narrow the case against Clinton and box in Republicans in the event of a Senate trial.

    Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said the articles had been modeled on those drafted in the Nixon impeachment, adding, "This is not an indictment. This is not a criminal proceeding. This is impeachment, as we're reminded ceaselessly by everybody else." But if Nixon was the model, Republicans and Democrats deftly switched sides from what had been their positions 24 years ago.

    During that debate, Republicans insisted that the president was entitled to a more detailed bill of particulars against him, and although Democrats initially resisted the committee staff quickly drew up a separate document that detailed the supporting evidence with more specificity than the impeachment articles.

    Indeed, Washington lawyer John Labovitz, a staffer on the impeachment inquiry in 1974, said he was having flashbacks to 1974 yesterday as he listened to the committee debate. Although Labovitz believes the allegations against Clinton do not come close to justifying his impeachment, he said yesterday that he tended to side with the Republicans on the specificity debate.

    "The Republicans have the better of that argument because it is simply not required to impeach that there be articles at all," he said, noting that in the 1868 proceedings against President Andrew Johnson the House voted impeachment first and adopted articles later.

    But William & Mary law school professor Michael Gerhardt, an expert on impeachment, said the current proceedings were "a deviation from the Watergate precedent," in which specifics were added. "The more specific an article is, the more vulnerable it is to disagreement," he said. "The less specific it is, the more likely it is to attract votes in both the House and the Senate. When people like the chairman say, 'Well, you've got his [Schippers's] report,' I think the Democrats do have a legitimate concern. . . .. It makes it much harder for the president not just to defend himself here but in the Senate, because you don't know where the bullets are coming from."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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