Thursday, January 14, 1999 Washington Post Senior Correspondent Robert G. Kaiser was online live Thursday to discuss the impeachment trial in the Senate. Kaiser has covered both the White House and Senate and is a former managing editor of The Washington Post. Bob answered your questions – and described the scene in The Post newsroom.
Our first question was from Indianapolis.
Indianapolis, Ind.: I'm disgusted with everyone and everything regarding Clinton's impeachment. Is it possible that, after this whole mess is over and done with, there may be amendments to the Constitution, spelling out in more detail what is considered "impeachable offenses"? Or is what I am asking even constitutionally possible?
Kaiser: Let me first respond to my colleagues at washingtonpost.com by saying that a visitor to The Post's newsroom at this moment would not think anything dramatic is going on in the world. Television sets around the room are on, but the volume of many has been turned all the way down. Of course the reporters covering the proceedings are watching carefully, some from the Senate press gallery, some on television, but most people here are doing their usual jobs.
On this first question, I can say that it would be constitutionally possible to amend the constitution to add language that would spell out more explicitly what constitutes an impeachable offense. But as this debate has shown us already, our elected representatives can come to radically different conclusions about this issue. Personally I doubt that they could agree on a change to the constitution.
State College, Pa.: Can the Senate convict the President, and then not remove him from office? As I understand it, there is a provision in the Constitution that would allow them to deny him his pension in these conditions.
Kaiser: As I understand it, there is ambiguity on this point. The Constitution is not in front of me, but my memory is that it refers to removal from office as a possible but not inevitable consequence of conviction. I'll ask someone to find us the exact wording. It's also my recollection that every official ever convicted of impeachment has been removed from office. Some members of Congress have suggested in recent weeks that there might be conviction without removal. I don't think the Senate will get to that point, but I could be wrong!
Bethesda, Md.: A week ago I asked the question, "Do you think the media is responsible for this escalation?" Your response was that they were not totally responsible. However Prof. Sabato said online last week that he thinks that it is typical of the climate of the media today. Do you think the media is more aggressive today, than say 20 years ago?
Kaiser: Definitely. I can't remember my answer from last time, but at the risk of being repetitive, let me say that this thing called "the media" is a source of great discouragement to me personally. No one at The Post ever joined "the media." We all joined a great newspaper that has always marched to its own drummer. Nevertheless, you and many others now see as as just part of that monster, "the media." I see no solution to this, but it is painful for us. We are responsible for what appears in The Post, of course, but not for the rest of it!
Anderson, Ind.: What do you think are the likely longer-term implications of relations between the House and the Senate as a result of the trial and the accumulation of comments from each side directed at the other house?
Kaiser: This is a good question. I think a lot depends on how this trial goes. Will the House members overplay their hand, or behave themselves impeccably? Will they try to pressure the Senate, or accept what the Senators decide without protest? And so on. I see a possibility for improving relations between the two houses, and also a possibility for making them awful. Stay tuned.
Richmond, Va.: Do you think Republicans have made any headway in reducing "fairness" and "partisanship" as issues? It certainly seems to me that Republican Senators appearing on talk shows give more of an impression of impartiality than the bulk of the Democrats who have spoken.
Kaiser: "Partisanship" in my experience exists first of all in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see themselves as statesmen, Republicans as partisans. Republicans feel the opposite, just as strongly. I think your question may reveal something about your own politics! But I could be wrong about that.
Last Friday's bi-partisan caucus of all Senators was a fascinating event. Afterwards, senators in both parties said they were thrilled to have taken part in such a non-partisan event. I sense that many senators would like to preserve that atmosphere as the trial proceeds. I am not certain they will be able to do so.
Lancaster, Calif.: To preclude indictments, can the president be pardoned for the crimes relating to the two impeachment counts once he's out of office even if he's not convicted by the Senate?
Kaiser: Yes, the president can be pardoned -- by himself, or by any successor -- and thus avoid prosecution for any federal crime, regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Charleston, W.Va.: I've been going to the Washington Post "Clinton Accused" site daily since January 1998 (And my computer wallpaper is a great photo I got there, I think, of Monica and Linda together, smiling!) What are the visit numbers on the Post's Clinton site? Is there anything else like it? (The N.Y. Times has something less thorough, is my impression.)
Kaiser: We have had millions of hits on the Clinton Accused section during the last year. I'm sorry I don't have exact numbers at my fingertips, but they are, as Ed Sullivan used to say, Rrrreeaally Big. We're very proud of the growth of washingtonpost.com, which has become a global mass medium during the last year. And no, there is of course nothing like our report on the president's case available anywhere else!
Fairfax, Va.: Senator Byrd does not appear to fit neatly in anybody's camp right now. Does the White House fear him?
Kaiser: My sense is that the White House is currently quite confident that there won't be 67 votes for conviction at the end of this trial. My conversations with senators suggest that Republicans and Democrats agree with that assessment, as of now. Sen. Byrd, with his unique stature as protector of the Senate's traditions and prerogatives, is one of the members who could change this situation if he were to decide to vote for conviction.
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Is it fair to assume that this Senate trial is just a public exercise to justify a pre-determined outcome?
Kaiser: See my previous answer. My own sense is that the trial, once underway, can take on a life of its own. The outcome does appear clear today, but it may not tomorrow.
Ogden, Utah: As you know, this is a mix of a political trial and a legal one. It seems to me that in the end the political side of it will eventually win. Do you agree? If it turns out that way, won't it affect the sanctity of the office of the presidency? I think it will.
Kaiser: My reading suggests to me that the founders INTENDED impeachment to be a political process, which is why they put it in Congress, not in the courts. Of course it is politics tempered by legality; the senators all took an oath to reach impartial justice. But, arguably, the key issue in this case is whether the president's transgressions reach the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," itself a deliberately vague phrase that the founders chose to put in the constitution. There's no clearcut legal way to answer that question; any answer a senator gives to that question has to be political, in my opinion.
Kaiser: I can now offer a better answer on whether conviction would necessarily lead to removal from office, thanks to Mark Stencel, the political editor of washingtonpost.com, who looked up the constitutional language. Article 2, Section 4, says pretty clearly that an impeached official "shall be removed from office on...conviction" by the Senate. The language is less ambiguous than I thought. I no longer see much room for any other outcome.
As my two answers to this question demonstrate, I am not a Constitutional lawyer!
Alexandria, Va.: In your opinion, no matter what the outcome of the Senate trial, how will this event be characterized by historians 25 years from now?
Kaiser: I wrote a long article for the Outlook section just before Christmas on this very subject. Of course we don't know the answer, but my hunch is that the impeachment of Clinton will be seen in the context of American politics and sociology in the last 40 years of the 20th Century. That context has included a sharp rise in partisanship in Congress (though not in the rest of the country, interestingly), a decades-long culture war ignited by the events (and music, and lifestyle changes) of the 1960s, and other factors.
Washington, D.C.: It seems that polling results are playing an enormous role in the impeachment effort and the president's reaction to it. I'm not sure whether to be troubled or heartened by this development. What is the "proper" place, if any, for such information, particularly during national crises?
Kaiser: How would Lincoln have handled the Civil War if he had daily polls of American public opinion to work with? Fascinating subject. I don't think I know any firm answers. It's noteworthy that Republicans promoting conviction, led by the House managers who are in the Senate today, now argue that it's obvious they are NOT being motivated by partisan politics, since the polls show so clearly how unpopular their position is.
McLean, Va.: The House managers now want the president to come and testify. How can the Senate force the president to testify? My understanding is that he still has his Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination.
Kaiser: I don't think the Senate can compel the president to testify. There is no precedent to help us here. Andrew Johnson was not asked to appear at his impeachment trial, the only previous one of a president. The courts have made it clear they won't get involved in impeachment proceedings, so I don't see how the Senate could enforce a subpoena to Clinton.
Ft. Myer Heights, Va.:
Joe Klein wrote in a recent New Yorker that the nation's prosperity might be hurting Clinton more than it's helping. With little else to worry about, Washington can better concentrate on the politics of personal destruction. I see a similar trend that goes back to the last decade: As the Cold War started to end, it became easier to toss bipartisanship and go on the attack. Iraq notwithstanding, would we be here today if the Soviet Union was alive and well?
Kaiser: I hadn't thought about it previously, but you raise an intriguing thought. Would the House and Senate have been as willing to pursue the president if the cold war was still raging? I'm just not sure. The cold war was certainly going strong in 1974, when the impeachment of Nixon was an active issue. But you could argue that Clinton's transgressions don't measure up to Nixon's -- as a lot of his supporters have argued. Personally I avoid trying to second-guess history. Too risky.
washingtonpost.com: Following up on your answer to the polling question.... Does The Post's polling influence its news judgment? If the public doesn't care, why assign and write the stories?
Kaiser: I can't remember a case when anyone here argued for or against covering a particular subject because of what the polls said. As I said earlier, I think we march to our own drummer.
Portland, Ore.: I listened to Henry Hyde's introduction earlier today when he called on the Senate to act in a bipartisan spirit, and reminded them that their oaths as "jurors" required that they act without regard to party. However when he proceeded to introduce the House managers -- they were all Republicans. Does this not seem sort of hypocritical and pretentions? Obviously there is no compulsion for the House to act in a bipartisan fashion. Do you suppose this has any impact on the senators?
Kaiser: You're certainly right that the House impeachment proceedings were deeply partisan. A handful of Democrats voted for one or more articles of impeachment, but on Hyde's Judiciary Committee, the party-line division was absolute. For this reason alone, he couldn't have brought any pro-impeachment Democrats from the committee into the team of managers; there weren't any.
Mitchellville, Md.: Do you think the public's unwavering support of President Clinton since this debacle began demonstrates the invalidity of the Starr inquisition, the unfairness of the House impeachment process, the sophistry of the national media and the dedication of the far right to imposing its agenda on us?
Kaiser: Hmmm. I guess I think that the majority of voters who still support the president have decided, for a variety of reasons, that his transgressions are not grave enough to merit his removal from office, no matter what politicians and pundits in Washington may say about the matter. Our polls and interviews suggest to me that a lot of Americans just think the president got caught cheating on his wife, and lied about it -- something they consider predictable, even normal. Others are appalled at the president's behavior, but not prepared to punish him so severely. Others, I know from my own mail, truly are furious at the news media for making so much of the Monica Lewinsky story. And so on. There are lots of answers, because there are lots of independent-minded Americans out there.
Vacaville, Calif.: Since this situation has been occupying center stage for a year now, it might be argued that it a part of the fabric of the State of the Union. Do you think there will be any mention of it, even obliquely, in next week's State of the Union address? Or will it focus purely on moving on, getting the nation's business done?
Kaiser: It's going to be interesting to see how Clinton handles this State of the Union speech. I've covered or watched 25 or 30 of them over the years; I think this is going to be the strangest one yet.
washingtonpost.com: That will be our last question today. Thank you, Bob.
Please join us for our online discussion tomorrow with Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, author of "Sexual McCarthyism: Clinton, Starr, and the Emerging Constitutional Crisis." Friday, Jan. 15, at 1:30 p.m. EST.
More to say about the Senate trial right now? Tell us what you think in this afternoon's reader forum.
Thank you for joining us.