February 17, 1999
JIM LEHRER: The first impeachment story has to do with a possible contempt-of-court citation against President Clinton. Phil Ponce has that.
PHIL PONCE: U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who oversaw the Paula Jones lawsuit, indicated yesterday she may hold President Clinton in contempt of court. At issue: The president's misleading testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. We get more on this story from "Washington Post" reporter Peter Baker, who joins us from the "Post's" news room. Welcome, Peter.
PETER BAKER, Washington Post: Thank you.
PHIL PONCE: Peter, without dwelling too much on the past, peter, remind us where this all came if.
PETER BAKER: Well, of course, this all starts back with the January, 1998 deposition that the president gave in the Paula Jones case. Among other things, he was asked about whether he had sexual relations with a variety of other women, because the Jones lawyers were trying to prove a pattern of misconduct. One of the women, of course, was Monica Lewinsky. He denied having sex with her, he denied having any specific recollection of being alone with her, he denied a variety of things with regard to her. And a lot of those answers turned out to be not entirely true, as he later admitted in his grand jury appearance.
PHIL PONCE: Because later in the grand jury he admitted that there was "an inappropriate relationship," and he went on to talk about that in his public statement he made later that night after his grand jury testimony.
PETER BAKER: Exactly. Exactly.
PHIL PONCE: And so where did this contempt possibility come up? Who brought it up?
PETER BAKER: Well, the judge herself brought it up, Susan Webber Wright, who oversaw the Paula Jones case from the beginning to the end, and who actually attended the deposition here in Washington in person, she brought it up in a telephone conference call yesterday with lawyers from all the various parties, including the Jones' lawyers and the president's lawyers. And she brought it up entirely on her own, which is why I think everybody's taking it seriously because nobody asked her to take a look at it. She first raised it in a footnote back in September but she didn't want to do anything, act on the subject while the impeachment trial was still going on. Yesterday she told the lawyers, "well, the trial is over, now it's time to look at this issue of whether he committed contempt."
PHIL PONCE: And, Peter, did it come as a surprise to the parties she raised this on her own?
PETER BAKER: It did. I think everybody knew it was a possibility but yesterday's conference call was not about this subject, it was about a dispute about attorney fees, who among Paula Jones's various attorneys were going to get how much money. And she so sort of brought it up on her own, taking everybody by surprise.
PHIL PONCE: Peter, you mentioned that last January she personally came to Washington to oversee the deposition. Is there evidence or have people indicated that the judge is personally offended at the president's testimony at the deposition?
PETER BAKER: I think there's some speculation to that effect. It's hard to say for sure what's in her head, but she was there for the deposition, she was in the closed room for six hours while they were going, and I think that some lawyers involved believe that she was offended to discover later that the president was not being completely truthful in her presence. You know, he defends his answers, we should say, as being literally true, if not necessarily -- if somewhat misleading in his mind. She apparently may be finding that a little bit offensive and not just offensive but possibly worthy of, you know, a court sanction.
PHIL PONCE: And when we talk about the court sanction, of finding somebody in contempt, what does that mean to find someone in contempt?
PETER BAKER: Well, to be contempt means basically that you as a litigant, a defendant, a party in a lawsuit, or a court case of some court, you haven't played by the rules. Everybody has certain, you know, responsibilities to the judicial system. And one of the responsibilities is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This doesn't necessarily mean that she believes he committed perjury, perjury is a very specific criminal statute that has specific requirements. It means she may believe, though, that by being misleading that he has not fulfilled his obligation as a litigant to help the court find the truth and justice in his case.
PHIL PONCE: So, Peter, she would not have to specifically find that he flat out lied and committed perjury in order to find him in contempt of court?
PETER BAKER: She has a fairly broad discretion, according to legal experts, to define what she considered to be contempt of court. If you look at the definition in legal dictionaries, it says to impede the discovery of evidence. Well, the Democrats in congress, when they were floating their censure proposal, even they said that while the president didn't obstruct justice or commit perjury, they agreed that he impeded the discovery of evidence through misleading testimony. So it's a much different standard. She can decide that it just wasn't -- he did not live up to his obligation to be candid.
PHIL PONCE: And, Peter, is it legally -- it evidently in the judge's mind must be legally conceivable that a sitting president can be subject to a contempt citation?
PETER BAKER: I think that's true and I think that the basis for that belief on the part of a number of lawyers is if you remember correctly when Paula Jones first brought her case, the president tried to say, "I don't want to answer this until I'm out of office; this is too much of a distraction; a president should be immune from civil lawsuits." Well, they went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decided in a now famous decision nine to zero that a president is subject to a civil lawsuit. Well, the theory goes, if you're subject to a civil lawsuit, you're subject, then, to the processes that go along with a civil lawsuit, like contempt.
PHIL PONCE: So, what are the options the judge has? What kind of penalties or what kinds of sanctions can she impose on the president?
PETER BAKER: Well, theoretically, contempt, of course, can bring jail time. She did that in the case of Susan McDougal, of course, who was in the Whitewater case a potential witness against the president. In this case, nobody thinks she's likely to do that. There would be constitutional issues no doubt with the idea of trying to jail a sitting president but she could impose a fine; she could also order him to reimburse the Jones lawyers for certain of their expenses, perhaps involving the preparation for the deposition itself. That could run in the order of tens of thousands of dollars, conceivably.
PHIL PONCE: So, how is the White House reacting to this?
PETER BAKER: Well, they're trying to keep a very muted reaction, they're not saying anything publicly, they're referring questions to the lawyer who's not commenting publicly but privately I think they're a little dispirited. I think that this is something they didn't want to have to deal with. They were very relieved to have the trial over with on Saturday and now they know they have to, you know, maybe start going through a little of this again. On the other hand, it is a little like the skirmishing in North Carolina after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, it's not exactly the war that they just won, it's definitely, you know, a much smaller issue by comparison.
PHIL PONCE: So at this point, what's the process? What's the next step?
PETER BAKER: Well, on Friday the president has an option of asking Judge Wright to recuse herself because she, in fact, had had contact with one of the trial managers in the impeachment trial; Congressman Asa Hutchinson, called her up, asked her to be a witness, she said no. She's told now the president and his lawyers, if they want her to recuse herself, they can ask for her to do that and she will step aside; that would send her to a different judge.
PHIL PONCE: Is there any indication the White house might want to ask her to step aside and have another judge handle the contempt issue?
PETER BAKER: Well, it would certainly be a logical course for them to the extent they know this judge already has a predisposition to look at the contempt issue; they know therefore that she's not sympathetic to their argument on this case, and so they may want to take their chances on a different judge. But that's a real calculated risk on their part and they may choose to go with the hand that they've got.
PHIL PONCE: So, Peter, what are the consequences if, in fact, the judge were to find the president in contempt? What flows from that?
PETER BAKER: Well, it's a little hard to say. I think, obviously, there's the fine and that kind of issue but it's possible that a finding of contempt, even though it might be a civil finding might be useful in jump starting Ken Starr if he, in fact, decides to try to seek a criminal indictment against the president either now or after office. It's also possible this might be sort of the censure, if you will, that congress ended up not passing. This is sort of a post-acquittal, yes, he didn't commit high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of his removal under this theory, but he didn't - you know, he wasn't completely innocent of wrongdoing.
PHIL PONCE: Peter Baker, thank you very much.
PETER BAKER: Thank you.