Tuesday, December 15, 1998
Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which voted last week to send four articles of impeachment to the House floor for debate Thursday. Hutchinson, from President Clinton's home state of Arkansas, voted in favor of all four articles of impeachment and opposed the censure resolution. He answered questions about his service on the committee. The discussion transcript follows.
Washington, D.C.: Although people differ on the severity of Clinton's adultery (by calling it private), isn't the bigger issue that the chief law enforcement officer of the United States raised his hand, swore to tell the truth ... and then blatantly lied under oath?
Asa Hutchinson: The answer is yes, that's the issue. When the evidence shows perjury, you just cannot give the president a pass when ordinary citizens are held accountable. The second question is whether that is an impeachable offense, and since it goes against the integrity of our government, I believe it is a high crime.
Pensacola, Fla.: In your opinion, how far will the impeachment process have to go before President Clinton seriously considers resigning or do you think he would ever consider what's best for the country rather than what's best for Bill Clinton?
Asa Hutchinson: I wouldn't try to give the president advice, but I'm not sure he should resign without a resolution of whether he violated the law or not. Right now, he insists that he did not commit perjury, and forever the issue would be unresolved if he resigned without either an admission or a trial. That's a decision he has to make, but our job in Congress is simply to follow the Constitution and, if necessary, a trial in the Senate, where he will be acquitted or convicted, but it will bring a proper conclusion to the matter.
Cincinnati, Ohio: How can we citizens get across to our representatives that we elected them to be informed about this issue and for them to vote based on the law and not a public opinion poll. Also, how do you feel the impeachment vote will go if the polls turn against the president?
Asa Hutchinson: It's very difficult for any member of Congress to vote against popular opinion, but our highest duty is to our oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Obviously, we would like public opinion to coincide with our vote, but we have to do what we believe is right. As to the Senate, no one can tell until the facts are presented through a trial, and whether that changes public opinion or the attitude of the Senate.
Long Beach, Calif.: Will the Senate ignore the actions of the House and vote for censure of the President? If so, isn't that illegal?
Asa Hutchinson: Some people argue that the Senate has more discretion than the House. My reading of the Constitution is that upon impeachment by the House, the Senate shall conduct a trial. Now, they could have an abbreviated trial and move to some alternative such as censure, but that gets a little bit into a gray area, and I think all of that will be debated at length in the Senate. My advice is to stick with the Constitution.
Summit, N.J.: Any truth to the rumor that Newt Gingrich is working behind the scenes on a censure resolution so that his last political gasp is that of a statesman and not a bombthrower?
Asa Hutchinson: I haven't heard that rumor, and I doubt it. I think the censure idea is not moving in the House.
Takoma Park, Md.: How would you briefly summarize the key arguments given by the Congress for and against the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton?
Asa Hutchinson: Arguments for: He committed perjury in a civil case, and in the grand jury. The purpose was not to hide private conduct, but to defeat a federal civil rights case filed against him. This was combined with an effort to tamper with other witnesses' testimony and to procure false statements. This is the obstruction of justice charge. Finally, he continued the pattern of deceit by lying to the U.S. Congress, and this is Article IV. These actions constitute impeachable offenses because they impact against the integrity of our government the judicial system.
Hot Springs, Ark.: I agree with your decision to impeach-stand firm. A lot of folks are recommending censure, I think without knowing what that is. Can you explain what that involves?
Asa Hutchinson: There are two forms of the censure debate. One is that there simply be a resolution of disapproval that would carry no penalty. The second one would include a financial penalty such as a fine. The latter would arguably be unconstitutional as a bill of attainder most scholars agree. The former would be so insignificant as a consequence to be unacceptable to most folks who take perjury seriously. Finally, the Constitution does not provide for censure. Any time there is presidential misconduct, the sole action appropriate would be impeachment, and there is no mention of censure.
Marion, Ohio: If the case against Clinton is so cut and dried, why don't more Democrats support it?
Asa Hutchinson: I think the Democrats are actually looking at the facts, but are coming to a different conclusion. I assume they're sincere when they say they do not believe this conduct is not impeachable, even though it is reprehensible. And so it's a difference of viewpoint as to whether perjury and obstruction of justice, regardless of what it's about, is so serious as to require impeachment proceedings. I do think there's a chance for more Democratic support as this process moves forward.
Memphis, Tenn.: In the unlikely event President Clinton admits to committing perjury, should he still be impeached, or should he be permitted to remain president?
Asa Hutchinson: There are different viewpoints on this, and his admission of perjury may sway certain members of Congress against impeachment. My view, however, is that just because someone confesses to wrongdoing does not remove the legal consequences even though we are more understanding and sympathetic and forgiving. I'm a former federal prosecutor, and a lot of folks have genuinely confessed and repented, but they still suffered a penalty.
Pangburn, Ark.: Bob Dole said that if the president signed the censure, it would not be a bill of attainder. You disagree with him?
Asa Hutchinson: I hope to be in Pangburn one of these days soon.
I'm still studying Bob Dole's idea, but one problem is that the president would have to agree to signing the joint resolution, and he has not admitted perjury to this point. Secondly, it's still a very gray area, because it is a legislative penalty that could still be considered a bill of attainder. I don't have all the answers on that and will continue to study the issue.
Colorado Springs, Colo.: Your colleague, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Ct.), is set to meet with the President tomorrow. How do you rate the likelihood of the President averting impeachment at the 11th hour by means of some kind of dramatic gesture or backroom deal?
Asa Hutchinson: Bill Clinton has certainly proved to be the miracle worker, and so nothing would surprise me as far as his Houdini-like abilities. This vote will be unpredictable until the very end, because many members will not share their vote as it is a vote of conscience.
Washington, D.C.: How come your committee could not produce specific evidence of perjury, yet you insist that perjury was committed?
Asa Hutchinson: Each member had to weigh the evidence on their own, and in my judgment there was specific proof of false statements under oath that were material and willfully provided by the president. This is perjury. And the evidence is clear from the president's own words -- it does not take much more when he says he was never alone with Monica Lewinsky, common sense tells you that is not true, based upon his later admissions. That's only one example.
Knoxville, Tenn.: Thanks for being a beacon of dignity and fairness in all this. You have helped me continue to believe in our system of government in the face of demeaning partisan tactics used by BOTH sides. What would you tell someone who believes your view (or anyone's) is partisan, that you disagree?
Asa Hutchinson: I'm not sure my words could persuade them, but I'd encourage them to listen to my reasoning and my heart, and hopefully they could see that it is a vote of conscience, and not a matter of party loyalty.
Columbus, Ohio: Everyone is focusing on the "moderate" Republican "swing votes". What about the Democrats in the House? Without naming names, are you personally aware of any Democrats that are leaning toward voting for impeachment?
Asa Hutchinson: I know of three that have committed to voting for impeachment, and I know that there are a number of undecideds -- I would expect anywhere from three to 10 to support it. But the pressure will be immense in the closing days.
Washington, D.C.: When you were a prosecutor, did you prosecute all cases of perjury that you could have? What about the notion of prosecutorial discretion that your ex-colleague, governor William Weld (R-Mass.), talked about?
Asa Hutchinson: I believe that there is a place for discretion in terms of whether impeachment should proceed. I do not believe our country would be well-served by setting a standard for the president that perjury is acceptable conduct. Considering all the options, I believe in setting the standard higher for the president is appropriate, and not lowering the bar. As prosecutor, I'm not aware of perjury cases I did not pursue, and in fact, each year, the Department of Justice prosecutes more perjury cases than kidnapping, on the average.
San Jose, Calif.: The Judiciary Committee has said that perjury is an impeachable offense. right? Also that the president used his office to spread falsehoods. That is an impeachable offense too. So, from now on, any president who lies on his 1040 form, or says "read my lips, no new taxes" can be impeached?
Asa Hutchinson: The premise of the question is not accurate. We only dealt with lying under oath, and we in fact deleted from Article IV a reference to lying to the American people as an element of that article. The false statements to Congress were under oath, as well as the other statements.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you Rep. Hutchinson for joining us online.
Asa Hutchinson: Thank you. These were terrific questions. If you want to talk about this further, come and join a discussion on my Web site.
That was the last question for Rep. Hutchinson. Please join us at 6 p.m. EST to hear Judicary Committee Member Zoe Lofgren, who will answer questions from the Democratic side of the aisle.
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