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The Senate Acquits President Clinton

President Clinton speaks in the Rose Garden President Clinton speaks in the White House Rose Garden Friday after he was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial. (Reuters)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A1

    The United States Senate acquitted William Jefferson Clinton yesterday on charges that he committed perjury and obstruction of justice to hide sexual indiscretions with a onetime White House intern, permitting the 42nd president to complete the remaining 708 days of his term.

    After a tumultuous year of scandal that tested the Constitution and tried the nation's patience, neither of the two articles of impeachment brought by the House garnered a simple majority, much less the two-thirds necessary to convict Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors. Article I alleging perjury was defeated on a 45 to 55 vote at 12:21 p.m. Just 18 minutes later, Article II charging obstruction failed on a 50 to 50 tie. Five Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in supporting full acquittal.

    "It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said William Jefferson Clinton be, and he hereby is, acquitted of the charges in the said articles," declared Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the presiding officer, marking the conclusion of the first impeachment trial of a president in 131 years.

    Clinton emerged from the Oval Office two hours later to tell the nation that he was "profoundly sorry" for his actions and the "great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people." Taking care not to give any hint of vindication, he offered a subdued plea to all Americans "to rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together."

    "This can be and this must be a time of reconciliation and renewal for America," he said in his four-sentence Rose Garden statement on an unseasonably warm winter day.

    The Senate's decision to spare Clinton gives him the opportunity to try to repair his battered presidency and find a way to mitigate the legacy of the Monica S. Lewinsky saga that will mark him in the history books as only the second president impeached by the House of Representatives.

    That distinction almost certainly will remain the only official sanction imposed by Congress. Soon after yesterday's acquittal votes, a bipartisan majority tried and failed to force the Senate to pass a nonbinding resolution censuring Clinton for "shameful, reckless and indefensible" conduct. Although the Senate voted 56 to 43 to consider censure, it fell short of the two-thirds required to suspend the rules.

    Instead, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her allies collected 38 signatures on the resolution, including those of nine Republicans, and filed it as a statement in the Congressional Record. While not ruling out another attempt to force a formal reprimand after returning from a week-long recess, key Senate Democrats made clear that the censure movement was effectively dead.

    Yet they did not want their not-guilty votes to be viewed as exoneration for their president. In language that sometimes rivaled Republican rhetoric in its harsh tones, Democratic senators excoriated Clinton for skirting close to the line of illegal behavior and betraying the trust of his high office.

    Even Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who spearheaded the Democratic effort that ultimately rescued Clinton's presidency, described in anguished terms yesterday the "sense of betrayal" he experienced because of the president.

    "As deeply disappointed as I am with the process, it pales in comparison to the disappointment I feel toward this president," Daschle said in one of the final speeches senators heard in about 20 hours of closed-door deliberations, according to a text released later. "Maybe it is because I had such high expectations. Maybe it is because he holds so many dreams and aspirations that I hold about our country. Maybe it is because he is my friend. I have never been, nor ever expect to be, so bitterly disappointed again."

    The constitutional crisis ended 13 months to the day after Linda R. Tripp started it by telling independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office that she had secret tapes of her friend, Lewinsky, suggesting that Clinton wanted her to lie under oath in the Paula Jones case about their affair.

    That phone call led to an unprecedented investigation and a virtual carnival of unseemliness in which tawdry sexual escapades and the deceptions they inspired ultimately set in motion the impeachment formalities. In the end, the 13 House Republican "managers" who relentlessly pressed the case not only failed to force Clinton from power but could not even persuade all of their party brethren to endorse their cause.

    With Democrats united in opposition, five moderate Republicans from the Northeast voted against both counts: Sens. James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), John H. Chafee (R.I.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Susan Collins (Maine). Another five Republicans voted against the perjury count but for conviction on obstruction: Sens. Slade Gorton (Wash.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and John W. Warner (Va.).

    For such a momentous occasion, though, the verdict was anticlimactic. The trial began five weeks earlier with no suggestion that conviction was a realistic possibility. And what little suspense there was faded with disclosures about individual senators' intentions earlier this week. By the time the roll was called, the split verdicts by Thompson and Warner were the only mild surprises.

    Indeed, the day's actions were so preordained that Senate staff members drafted a script in advance outlining what everyone would say at each stage, including the failed censure consideration. Aides included language for Rehnquist to read to announce acquittal; the proper words for the president's ouster were left out. The only unanticipated moment was the bomb scare that forced police to clear the chamber shortly after the voting was completed.

    The historic roll calls began shortly after noon, when the Senate reopened its doors after a final two hours of secret deliberations. "Senators, how say you?" Rehnquist asked after each article was read aloud by the clerk. "Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not guilty?"

    With the galleries packed to capacity, a tense silence fell over the chamber as the senators' names were read in alphabetical order by legislative clerk David J. Tinsley and bill clerk Kathleen Alvarez. One by one, each senator stood at his or her desk and called out "guilty" or "not guilty," some in a resolute baritone, others in a soft whisper.

    Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) emphatically cried out, "Not guilty," while Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) could not even be heard from the gallery pronouncing Clinton's guilt. Specter, who had said he did not want to be counted supporting acquittal even though he opposed conviction, was the only to deviate. "Not proven, therefore not guilty," he said.

    More than a dozen senators, mostly Democrats, kept their own tally of the votes on long Senate scorecards, as did several of the House managers, who sat grim-faced at their table. The White House lawyers remained stoic at the defense table as the verdicts were announced.

    The tension finally broke as the trial ended and the dry chief justice issued some words of farewell praising senators on both sides of the aisle for the quality of their deliberations, even as he noted with deadpan wit his introduction to the sometimes chaotic nature of a legislative body.

    "I underwent the sort of culture shock that naturally occurs when one moves from the very structured [atmosphere] of the Supreme Court to what I shall call, for want of a better phrase, the more free-form environment of the Senate," Rehnquist said, sparking a wave of laughter that finally seemed to release the senators from the solemnity of the day. Thanking the chief justice for his service, the senators gave him a "golden gavel," which has been awarded to 70 senators in the past three decades for presiding at least 100 hours.

    With the trial adjourned sine die at 12:43 p.m., Rehnquist was escorted out by a phalanx of senators. The House managers were to be next, but lead prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), had already left through the back of the chamber and had to be summoned back to march down the center aisle and across the Capitol. White House lawyers were left to slip out the back.

    Congratulating themselves and their leaders for averting the bitter partisanship that consumed the House during its impeachment debate, all 100 senators gave a standing ovation to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Daschle, who met halfway across the aisle to shake hands.

    "We did it," Daschle said he told Lott. "We sure did," Lott replied.

    As certified copies of the judgments were being delivered to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, both Senate leaders told reporters that Clinton should not interpret the outcome as vindication. "I believe it would be a mistake to read this as any kind of exoneration," Daschle said. "It wasn't. In fact, I think this whole process to a certain extent has been a level of punishment that was commensurate with the failures of the president to act appropriately."

    Lott said the decisions were driven by party-line voting by Democrats. "I think people felt that clearly the president's conduct was deplorable, indefensible, dishonorable and all of that, but they did not want the Senate to fall into a real partisan bickering situation," he said.

    Clearly disappointed, the managers preached conciliation after the Senate votes and some, including Hyde, cautioned Starr against pursuing new criminal charges against Clinton. "I think it's time for him to finish any report and move on," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). "I don't think our country needs to be under the continued cloud of investigation after the trial is concluded in the Senate."

    "The president," added Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), "has been cleansed."

    House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) also indicated a desire to move on, issuing a statement highlighting the party's renewed focus on legislation even as he said Republicans "can be proud that they stood by the principles that have made this nation strong: a respect for the rule of law and an abiding faith in the strength of our Constitution."

    Still, for the managers came the inescapable realization that the defeat will indelibly mark their careers perhaps as much as Clinton's. "To me, there's nothing I'm going to do politically that's going to change the first line in my political obituary," Graham said. "There's a definite taste of regret in that regard."

    Hyde was not yet ready to concede his legacy, though. "I hope to slay many more dragons which will supersede the events of impeachment," said the 24-year veteran lawmaker.

    At the White House, everyone from the president on down did their best to maintain what press secretary Joe Lockhart has declared a "gloat-free zone." While several of the lawyers went to a long lunch, White House officials insisted there was no cause for glee given the damage inflicted on so many. "We can be relieved it's over, but there's really nothing to celebrate," Lockhart said. "There's no great high or low from a day like today, except relief that it's over."

    Unlike Clinton, who did not watch the proceedings and instead received the news by telephone from Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, some of the other principal players were glued to their television sets. Lewinsky watched live coverage in New York. Paula Jones expressed discouragement.

    "I'm not happy, you know, for sure," she told Fox News. "I just expected it because he gets away with everything."

    Beyond the Beltway, much of the country wanted him to, with opinion polls showing that the public overwhelmingly believed Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice yet did not want him removed for office for it. Just a handful of protesters held a lonely vigil outside the Capitol yesterday with signs such as "Jail to the Chief."

    In the year since the story about the president and the intern first broke, the nation has been exposed to a sex scandal that dwarfed any before it, as the most excruciatingly intimate details poured forth through news accounts and the explicit report that Starr sent Congress in September alleging 11 impeachable offenses by the president. Clinton became the first president ever to testify in his own defense before a grand jury. The Supreme Court wiped away attempts to shield White House aides and Secret Service officers from testifying. And the House of Representatives, on a largely party-line vote, impeached a president for the first time since Andrew Johnson in 1868.

    Tripp, in her first extended interviews, defended her role yesterday, saying she went to Starr only because criminal behavior was involved. "Did I want this behavior exposed?" she said on NBC. "Absolutely. I was outraged. And I'm not sure whether fear . . . motivated me more, or outrage, anger at the callous abuse of this girl."

    The trial Tripp instigated lasted five weeks and gave the country its first look at Lewinsky talking about her relationship with Clinton and their actions to hide it from public disclosure, although her debut was limited to videotaped cameo appearances out of senatorial fear of live testimony.

    The trial cast the 13 managers from the House in the unlikely role of prosecutors, arguing that Clinton lied under oath when he denied touching Lewinsky in a sexual way and that he obstructed justice by encouraging her to deny their affair, helping her to hide subpoenaed gifts, having friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. find her a job and coaching secretary Betty Currie to lie to protect his secret.

    Unlike the House debate over impeachment, which was punctuated by fierce partisanship on both sides, the White House offered the Senate a comprehensive and sustained defense of the president's actions based on the facts, rather than relying so heavily on constitutional or political appeals. By poking holes in the evidence assembled largely by Starr, defense attorneys led by Charles F.C. Ruff, Gregory B. Craig and David E. Kendall raised doubts among senators who otherwise might have been open to conviction.

    Among them was Collins, the Maine moderate who announced her decision yesterday morning. While she said the president's grand jury testimony was "replete with lies, half-truths and evasions," it was not necessarily perjury. As for obstruction, she said the House managers proved their case and added that if she were a juror in a criminal trial she "might very well vote to convict."

    But, she added, a president should be removed only when his misconduct "so injures the fabric of democracy that the Senate is left with no option but to oust the offender from the office the people have entrusted to him."

    One of the few Democrats considered a possible defector when the trial began offered a similar explanation of his votes for acquittal. Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), the only Democrat who voted against a motion to dismiss the case after opening arguments, said the perjury charge relied too much on "frivolous" allegations, although on obstruction, "the president came perilously close to committing an impeachable offense."

    The Clinton case, he added, was the first close call on presidential impeachment in the nation's history, falling between the weak case against Johnson and the powerful case against Richard M. Nixon, who resigned rather than face certain impeachment.

    "This one," said Feingold, "is a hard case and senators may see it either way."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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