World

CLINTON FACESA TRIAL

The President will fight the charges to the bitter end

January 11 1999
World

CLINTON FACESA TRIAL

The President will fight the charges to the bitter end

January 11 1999

CLINTON FACESA TRIAL

World

The President will fight the charges to the bitter end

William Rehnquist, part-time historian and full-time chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, knows a thing or two about impeachment. In fact, he wrote the book on the subject, a 1992 tome entitled Grand Inquests that has quickly become the most sought-after volume in Washington. In it, Rehnquist warned of the dangers of making it too easy for Congress to impeach a president, turning it into a “sword of Damocles—designed not to fall but to hang” over the man in the White House. And he cautioned that impeachment can quickly turn bitter, becoming “an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, when customary restraints must be cast off in order that evil may not triumph.” Rehnquist’s assessment, reached in the far-off days when George and Barbara Bush were the dignified custodians of the White House, and written six years after he was named chief justice, is suddenly cutting-edge relevant in the tawdry age of Bill Clinton. The House of Representatives’ narrow vote to impeach Clinton she days before Christmas did feel apocalyptic—with Republicans and Democrats alike warning darkly of the danger to the Republic if the other side won. And Rehnquist’s interest in impeachment has gone from the academic to the intensely practical. Late this week—most likely shortly before 1 p.m. on Thursday—the chief justice will travel the few hundred metres from the Supreme Court building to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill and be sworn in as the presiding officer in the impeachment trial that will pass ultimate judgment on Clinton. Not in almost 131 years—since the Senate trial of President Andrew Johnson that Rehnquist analyzed in Grand Inquests—has Washington seen the like.

little about the process is certain—aside from the fact that it will begin this week. The Senate of the 106th Congress convenes on Wednesday, and the two articles of impeachment adopted by the House are to be officially presented to it the same day. According to the archaic wording of the rules established for Johnson’s trial in 1868, Clinton’s ordeal will start “at 1 o’clock afternoon of the day... following such presentation.” That, however, will be a formality: Republicans and Democrats were still working behind the scenes last week to decide just when the 100 senators will actually begin to weigh the evidence, and battling over the rules of engagement That fight started as soon as the House approved its articles of impeachment—charging the President with committing perjury and obstruction of justice as he vainly

tried to conceal his sexual encounters with young Monica Lewinsky. The rancour in the House set the stage. The Senate prides itself on being a more stately body than the tempest-tossed House, where the people’s passions supposedly burn most fiercely. In an episode that has passed into American political folklore, George Washington once explained over breakfast with Thomas Jefferson the purpose of having an upper chamber in Congress. ‘We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” the father of his country allegedly said. The story is probably apocryphal—but senators still take it to heart.

So they vowed not to repeat the unseemly spectacle that gripped the House as it wrestled with impeachment. Several immediately seized on what looked like a way out: formally censuring Clinton instead of putting him on trial. Former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter gave the censure bandwagon a hearty push with a joint statement in which they declared that a full-blown Senate trial would only be destructive. “By rehashing the lurid evidence of President Clinton’s misconduct, we will only exacerbate

the jagged divisions that are tearing at our national fabric,” they wrote. Clinton’s sky-high job-approval ratings—72 per cent in one post-impeachment poll—also fuelled the idea of finally ending the Lewinsky affair with an official rebuke.

But by last week, it was clear that there would be no avoiding the impeachment tar baby. As fed up as Americans tell pollsters they are with the scandal, senators acknowledged that they cannot get around their constitutional duty to put the President on trial. But there was no agreement on just how far they must go. The rules make it clear that a trial must begin—but they give the Senate ways to jump off the train if they feel it is going nowhere fast. A majority of 51 senators may at any point vote to adjourn the trial, either letting Clinton off entirely or setting the stage for a formal censure. If all 45 Democrats supported such a move, it would take just six of the 55 Republicans to approve it.

Republicans, though, are unlikely to let that happen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, their leader in the Senate, said there must be a trial, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also a Republican, who will chair the key rules committee of the new Senate, said last week that it must go all the way to a vote. “I think we owe it to the House of Representatives to dispose of the articles of impeachment, up or down,” he said. If Clinton

is acquitted in such a vote, McConnell added, “then at that point it seems to me you sit down and you negotiate the censure alternative.”

In fact, almost no one believes that Clinton will be convicted. That would take a two-thirds majority of senators—67 in all. A dozen Democrats would have to side with all the Republicans and declare their President guilty. Under the 1868 rules, each senator will have to stand by his or her desk as the chief justice asks: “Senator, how say you? Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not guilty?” With conviction unlikely, some White House strategists were advising the President to hang tough—go through with a trial in order to secure an acquittal and exoneration. The day before he was impeached, the President publicly appealed to the House to censure him, but that was aimed at avoiding impeachment. Now that he has suffered that indignity, goes the thinking, it makes more sense for him to dig in and fight for victory in the Senate. He could then spend the remaining two years of his term arguing his impeachment was just a vindictive partisan judgment that should not stand as the verdict of history.

Still, the middle course of censure holds attractions for both moderate Republicans sensitive to the public’s distaste for prolonging the affair, and Democrats who want to register their disapproval of Clinton’s behaviour without removing him from office. Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah suggested polling senators soon after the trial opens. If it becomes clear that there are not 67 votes for conviction, he said, “we’re going to have to do the next best thing, which is to point out to the American people how really bad his actions were.” Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York also argued for ending the matter by rebuking the President: ‘We’ll have a trial and there will be censure, and then, God willing, there’ll be closure.”

Easy to say; hard to do. If Clinton is acquitted by the Senate, he will have no incentive to agree to any condemnation by Congress. Likewise, if he believes he can win a trial, he will be unlikely to sign on to a censure deal—leaving the Senate to pass only a toothless resolution with no penalties. Working out any deal between the Senate and the White House will be difficult. Republicans insist that the President must admit that he lied under oath in order to settle the matter, something his lawyers say he will not do. The impeachment article charging him with committing perjury before the grand jury investigating the Lewinsky affair rests largely on his denials that he had “sexual relations” with her near the Oval Office. Clinton’s lawyers continue to insist that their client may have been evasive—but he did not lie.

All that means that a trial may take as little as a few days, or as long as several weeks. Lott and the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, were negotiating a solution last week that involved having the Senate getting down to serious business on Monday, Jan. 11. It would hear legal arguments from both sides that week and then hold a vote on whether to proceed to a full trial with witnesses. If at least two-thirds of senators voted not to go ahead, the trial would end there, and the Senate would try to agree on a censure of the President instead. That would end the whole episode quickly— possibly before Jan. 19, when Clinton is scheduled to deliver his annual state of the union address to Congress.

That proposal, however, upsets conservative Republicans who say it amounts to a behind-the-scenes deal to get Clinton off the hook. And it angered the 13 Republican congressmen appointed by the House as so-called managers to prosecute the case against the President They favour calling at least some witnesses—likely including such key figures as Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, and Lewinsky herself. Another potentially contentious point: whether the managers can introduce evidence that was not part of the articles of impeachment. Tom DeLay, the Republican whip in the House and one of the fiercest impeachment hawks, advised senators to spend time examining evidence that has not been released to the public—evidence that, according to some reports, includes allegations that Clinton forced himself sexually on at least one other woman. If they do, DeLay predicted, 67 votes to convict Clinton may appear “out of thin air.”

DeLay’s suggestion, though, would lead to the kind of political mudwrestling that the senators promised to avoid. They may not agree on just how to judge Clinton, but they did pledge to do it with dignity. That, at least, would be a first during the entire year-long scandal. □