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  • Direct Access: Robert G. Kaiser

    Thursday, January 7, 1999

    Washington Post Senior Correspondent Robert G. Kaiser was online LIVE this morning to discuss the impeachment trial in the Senate and to answer questions from readers. Kaiser has covered both the White House and Senate and is a former managing editor of The Post.

    Here is a transcript of this morning's Q&A:

    Chicago, Ill.: Say during the trial the president's lawyers want to call a witness. If the witness is willing to appear, can they just call him or her? If the witness is hostile, do they have to ask the full Senate for a subpoena? (I'm wondering how any House-Senate deal on witnesses can be enforced against the president.)

    Robert G. Kaiser: First, good morning to all, and thank you for participating in our discussion.

    This question from Chicago actually introduces one of the big practical questions that the Senate still faces. The Senate does not appear eager to allow this impeachment to proceed just like a court case. It wants controls, limits. But so far it hasn't agreed on what they might be.
    A reluctant witness would, I assume, be subject to a subpoena by the Senate. Traditionally, congressional subpoenas do require a majority vote of the full body. But I don't think there is any precedent for the situation the questioner describes.

    Fort Worth, Tex.: Do you think Congress needs to propose a constitutional amendment on impeachment to deal with this type of President? (A president with no honor, morals, shame or pride)

    Robert G. Kaiser: No.

    South Korea: How this impeachment process influence the next president election in USA? And what kinds of actions both party should take in regarding next president election?

    Robert G. Kaiser: This question can't be answered now. How the trial ends, and how the country reacts to it, will surely affect the answer. But there is a big political component to this proceeding. Sen. Lott, the Republican leader, is obviously concerned about protecting the Republican majority in the Senate, which will be at risk in 2000. Democrats in Washington seem hopeful that the unpopularity of impeachment in the country will damage Republicans politically. We'll just have to wait to see what happens.

    Bethesda, Md.: Do you think the media is responsible for escalating the political fragmentation far enough, so in order to generate the news?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I think the politicians bear most of the responsibility for aggravating the political divisions in Washington. I have written in the past about the interesting fact that partisan divisions are out of fashion in the United States everywhere except in Washington. In state capitals around the country Republicans and Democrats appear to be working well together most of the time. But not here in the capital! There is a bitter, partisan division now. It has a long history. The media reflect it, may well amplify it in some circumstances, but can't, I think, be blamed for it. Of course, it is my ox you are trying to gore!

    Chicago, Ill.: Since Ken Starr granted Monica Lewinsky immunity from anything she testified to related to the investigation of President Clinton, could she – if called to testify in Clinton's impeachment trial – simply refuse to talk if she chose? I'd think she couldn't be charged with contempt, right?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect that Mr. Starr does not have the power to immunize Ms. Lewinsky from a charge of contempt of the Senate. The immunity he granted involved federal prosecution; I suspect contempt of the Senate falls outside that. But I am far from sure!

    Alexandria, Va.: When is Congress going to stop this madness? When are they going to listen to what the American people want? We are tired of this witch hunt, little boys wanting one up on their buddies. I am tired of the wasted time and money. Make Clinton pay for the expenses of the investigation, that is how to hurt these power-hungry people, in their pocket book.

    Robert G. Kaiser: Here's an example of the public opinion I was referring to in my answer to the question from Korea. I am unable to answer this reader's question, but his/her opinion is pretty clear!

    Washington, D.C.: Do you think, as has been suggested, that this trial will tear the country apart? Surely these proceedings – should they go on for weeks – will have a profound effect on the nation's mood.

    Robert G. Kaiser: Tear the country apart? I guess I doubt it. I always remember the observation of a Soviet official I knew in Moscow in the early 1970s, a man who happened to be on the campus of Princeton University during student rebellions in 1968. This Russian recalled that he looked out his window at rampaging Princeton undergraduates and said, my God, the revolution has begun in America! But then, nothing happened. The Russian said he learned a lot from that episode about the essential solidity of American society.

    But the mood of the country certainly is at risk here. So is the mood of Washington.

    Washington, D.C.: Why does this Congress, maybe even Democrats, hate Bill Clinton so much that they have thrown out the rules of politics that have served so many presidents and Congresses so well? What political or interpersonal crime has he committed against Republicans to receive such a wrath as impeachment? Even House Speaker Tom Foley, in regards to Reagan, who never had Clinton's polls, under Iran-Contra stated, "I don't want to hear any talk as impeachment." What is the rationale?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Obviously, there can be many answers to this question. My own theory, which I wrote in The Post a couple of weeks ago, is that we are seeing, in part, a continuation of the "culture wars" that have riven America since the 1960s. For some people, we know from polling and reporting, Bill Clinton symbolizes aspects of the '60s and '70s that they fervently dislike. At the same time, Clinton is embraced by many who think that, unlike many politicians, he is in their corner and understands their problems – black Americans and many women seem to fall into this category. At the same time, partisan divisions in Congress, especially in the House, have been deepening for 15 or 20 years.

    Washington, D.C.: I hear from friends in Europe by e-mail these days, and they see the U.S. as a bizarre country, given the energy and money being spent on this Clinton mess. Is it possible that the so-called international community is having a good laugh at our expense? I think we look like fools.

    Robert G. Kaiser: The Post has published quite a few dispatches from overseas describing foreigners' amazement at this entire proceeding. But foreigners are often baffled by us. They were similarly confused by the Watergate affair a quarter-century ago.

    Detroit, Mich.: Can you explain exactly what the chief justice's role is and how it differs from what would take place in a legal court room environment? Thanks.

    Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good and important issue. The key difference, as I understand it, involves any rulings that Chief Justice Rehnquist may make during the trial. In an ordinary court, the judge's rulings are final. But here, a majority of senators will be able to overrule any ruling by Rehnquist with which a majority may disagree. This makes the judge a servant of the jury in an unusual way.

    McLean, Va.: The House Republicans said that their only function was to act as prosecutors. Isn't the objective of the prosecutor to be fair and consider exculpatory evidence? The House, when they refused to call up witnesses, basically said they did not want to hear any exculpatory evidence, especially in a case this important.

    Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think this is entirely fair comment. The Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee had a chance to invite witnesses to testify, and they chose to invite only scholars and experts, not any exculpatory witnesses for Clinton. My sense is that both sides in the House decided to stick to the facts and allegations that Kenneth Starr presented to them. This in itself was unprecedented. There has never before been a House impeachment vote based entirely on the findings of an outsider like Starr. But no one questioned the legal right of the House to proceed in this fashion.

    Washington, D.C.: Allow me a follow up to your comment about Europeans being puzzled about Watergate: Clinton's situation involving sex, lies and audiotape is surely different from Nixon's obstruction of justice and other crimes. Europeans tend to be much more sophisticated about sex than Americans, so this perplexes them no end. I wish I had a nickel for every European who has said to me "this is a matter between Clinton and his wife."

    Robert G. Kaiser: Richard Cohen has a good column in today's Post on exactly this point.

    Great Falls, Va.: Is the House impeachment valid, as the impeachment has crossed from the 105th to the 106th Congress without the House reaffirming the impeachment? The House reaffirmed the House "managers" for the impeachment, which would fall in line with the historical context that any legislation that can not be acted on in one congress must be reaffirmed in the next to be valid.

    Robert G. Kaiser: This is an interesting constitutional question that it appears both House and Senate have decided to ignore – which is within their rights, it appears. Some legal scholars have questioned the legality of a resolution of impeachment voted by one lame-duck Congress being presented to the next Congress without a second vote of the kind you suggest. But the Senate has, this morning, accepted the former House's articles of impeachment, and the courts have made it clear in the past that on a question of this kind, they will not challenge congressional decisions. Robert G. Kaiser will be online until 11 a.m. EST. Please continue to ask questions and offer comments during the next 30 minutes.

    Alexandria, Va.: Isn't [so that] according to Senate rules, the White House will have 30 days to prepare a defense after the charges are presented to the Senate? What is all this talk from the House prosecutors about a short trial that will last 2-3 weeks?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Precedent would give 30 days for preparation, as I understand it, but the White House and the Senate both seem interested in negotiating specific arrangements for this trial that may well depart from precedent. You will be able to follow these negotiations on, I'm sure.

    Robert G. Kaiser: A number of the questions sent in this morning aren't really questions at all, but expressions of the strong feelings that this case has generated in the United States. For the benefit of foreign readers of, I'm going to post a few of them now, just to give a flavor of the emotions we are experiencing here.

    Robert G. Kaiser: First example:

    Milton, Mass.: If Clinton is not removed from office we will do a great injustice to truth, integrity and morality. There is a great deal of talk about not leaving our children and grandchildren a country burdened with debt. I am more concerned about leaving them a country the demands truth, integrity and morality of its citizens. [EDITED FOR SPACE]

    Robert G. Kaiser: Second example:

    Cartersville, Ga.: Do you think that our president is a true sociopath? He publicly deplores the "politics of personal destruction" while his minion, James Carville, goes around making threats to "go to war" with anyone who opposes the president. He and his supporters have tried to publicly destroy the women who were courageous enough to expose him. He holds himself blameless for his problems, while, in fact, they are all his own doings.

    Robert G. Kaiser: Third example:

    Centreville, Va.: Do you believe that the Republican Party is just way, way out of control and no longer even cares what the cost is to get rid of Clinton as long as it gets done, or is there really some belief by the GOP that they will ultimately reap the reward for their actions? What about all the dissension within the Republican Party? Aren't they falling apart in front of everyone's eyes?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Fourth example:

    Los Angeles, Calif.: I keep waiting for some sanity to take hold. Are we really considering impeaching a president, for the first time in history, for such a flimsy reason? Since the Senate is free to change the rules at any time, isn't the excuse the Republicans give, of "following the Constitution" just a cover for their instinctive desire to go for the jugular and smear this president they hate.

    Detroit, Mich.: I find it difficult to believe the poll results that are being referred to so often.
    When I participate in the informal polls run by USA Today and others they all favor removal. I have personally asked 40 to 50 people from all stations of life and not a single one supported Clinton. What is going on?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I've heard from a number of Post readers that sentiments like these are common. I understand the frustration. But the "informal polls" to which the questioner refers are not scientific surveys, because everyone who responds to them has done so voluntarily. That is, they have the energy, or the determination, or the emotion, to pick up the phone and call and 800 number, or send a postcard or an e-mail, to register their opinions. But most Americans don't have that kind of interest or determination. Polls based on truly random samples of the entire population question a more representative collection of people. After years of working with them, I am persuaded that these mathematical samples really work. Look at election results: they very rarely depart from pre-election poll findings.

    Augusta, Maine: Given the overtly partisan tenor of the proceedings to date, plus the chief justice's own well-documented conservative Republican involvements, on what basis can the American people, much less the president, possibly anticipate any sort of fair or just Senate outcome?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Shouldn't we give the Senate the chance to persuade us it can do this fairly? I think so.

    Clariton, Pa.: Do you think it is likely that the White House will seek to call witnesses such as Richard Mellon Scaife, Lucianne Goldberg and others like Starr's law partners with a view to making the case for collusion and entrapment by Starr?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I doubt it. A defense based on alleged entrapment doesn't seem likely to prevail in the Senate. Did Clinton lie under oath? Did he obstruct justice? I think those are the questions the Senate will have to answer.

    Washington, D.C.: As an experienced newsman, how do you explain the cheering crowds that greet Clinton when he appears in public? Is this just another example of America's love of the underdog?

    Robert G. Kaiser: This is a fascinating question. The Post has reported numerous instances of crowds giving the president a rousing reception since the House voted to impeach him – even here in Washington, inside the Beltway. Is this love of the underdog? Or an expression of exasperation with the news media and the Republicans pursuing Clinton? Or what? Without talking to the people doing the cheering, I wouldn't venture an answer. Anybody out there been part of such a cheering crowd? If so, do you have any theories?

    Washington D.C.: Do Post reporters think this story will still be huge in several months? Or is it just about over? How are the adrenaline levels over there?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Adrenaline levels here are relatively low. Curiously, those of us involved in this story from the beginning (last January 20 was the real beginning for us) have, I think, been ready for a wide variety of outcomes at every step. We still are. The Senate could still find a way to complete a trial in a matter of weeks. Or it could lose control of the process, allowing it to go on for months. We'll just have to wait and see.

    Miami, Fla.: Is there an appeal process if the president is convicted?

    Robert G. Kaiser: There is not. The Supreme Court has refused to get involved in impeachment in any way, on the grounds that the Constitution establishes it as a procedure fully within the purview of Congress.

    Centreville, Va.: With all due respect, Mr. Kaiser, I was the prior Centreville person you posted as an example of a strong opinion. But it really was a question. What do YOU think? I have no clue, really about the Republican Party's true state.

    Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think "the Republican Party" has a single opinion, and I'm a poor reader of minds, Republican or Democratic.

    Herndon, Va.: Bob, thanks for taking all of these very good questions. I have learned a lot already just staying on line with you and your writers.

    It seems to me that any trial in the Senate would be partisan unless witnesses are called to testify. So, if the Dems want a bipartisan trial, why are they so set against witnesses?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not sure how witnesses per se make the proceeding less partisan. My interpretation of the Democratic position is that many, perhaps most Democratic senators take the position that President Clinton's transgressions to not reach the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," and therefore don't warrant impeachment. In other words, Democrats aren't so much disputing the facts that Kenneth Starr assembled as they are challenging Starr's (and now the House of Representatives') finding that these facts describe impeachable offenses by the president.

    Detroit, Mich.: Follow-up question regarding polling data:
    Given your response to my previous question, don't you think it more appropriate that the polling be focused on those most likely to participate in our government by voting?

    Robert G. Kaiser: The Washington Post's polls – and those by nearly all news organizations, I believe – do try to screen for likely voters, especially in pre-election polling. They do this by asking people if they voted in the last election, if they are registered, etc. The system isn't foolproof, naturally, but as I said before, the results look pretty good over time.

    Washington, D.C.: Long-term, do you believe these actions will make it easier to impeach a president in the future (or threaten one with impeachment to help control his/her actions similar to a prime minister and Parliament)? Or will everyone look over into the abyss and exclaim, "Never again"?

    Robert G. Kaiser: I think you've described two plausible possibilities. Personally I wouldn't try to predict whether one or the other will prove to be the case. Historians argue that the House vote to impeach President Andrew Johnson weakened presidential power in the U.S. for decades, even though he was acquitted in the Senate. That of course was a different case in a different America. It does seem likely that this episode will have enduring consequences, but I think it is too soon to try to guess what they will be.

    Geneva, Switzerland : Does the overwhelming support that Clinton gets suggest that the average American voter is politically naïve or that it is an indication of the moral decadence that sweeps the Western world?

    Robert G. Kaiser: Or does support for Clinton suggest that Americans separate personal morality from their political judgments? Or is it a sign of rising tolerance of personal idiosyncrasies in politicians? Or any one of a thousand other possibilities? Questions like this are what make journalism interesting!

    New York, N.Y.: What is all the fuss about partisanship? I thought that is what Democracy is precisely about. All this nonsense about public opinion polls baffle me! What if Congress followed public opinion polls during the civil rights era? Doesn't this have more far-reaching effects?

    Robert G. Kaiser: This is an interesting comment. It's my sense that polls have more influence on today's politicians than on previous generations of our leaders, partly because they have proven to be such effective political tools. I can't disagree that partisanship and democracy seem to go hand in hand.

    Washington, D.C.: Do you think that one of the "enduring consequences" you mention will be more "attack journalism" and gossip-mongering along the lines of the aptly named Matt Drudge? More witch-hunting, perhaps, and peering under and into beds?

    Robert G. Kaiser: An excellent question. I don't there there can be any doubt that the last year has changed journalism. The Net opens up vast new possibilities for Drudge-like dispensers of "news." The fact that this permits wide circulation of many unsubstantiated and/or utterly false reports means citizens will be buffeted by confusing allegations, probably forevermore. I do think the standards have been lowered for reporting on politicians' private lives, too. All the more reason, I think, for news organizations like ours to redouble our efforts to provide readers with carefully reported, revelatory news reports that they can depend on.

    Robert G. Kaiser: That's it for me this morning. Thanks to all for the stimulating questions, many of which we did not have time to answer. I hope you will all check back with The Post regularly in the days ahead. In my (no doubt biased) opinion, The Post has had the best coverage of this matter from day one. We are determined to continue to provide the best coverage throughout the trial. Many thanks to Robert G. Kaiser for his appearance today, and thanks to all of you around the world for your questions and comments. Please join us at 3 p.m. EST Friday when our guest will be Larry J. Sabato, University of Virginia Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs. Sabato, who is also the director of UVA's Department for Governmental Studies, will take questions about the Senate proceedings and impeachment in general.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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