TOPICS > Politics

The Coming Impeachment Trial

January 6, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And where do matters stand as we speak, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Gridlock would be a nice word to describe what’s going on. It would, in a way, be a soft word. There has been no progress whatsoever to come to any kind of bipartisan arrangement about the nature, shape, duration of this proceeding, so it will start with no agreement about its nature or lack –

JIM LEHRER: You’re reporting bears that same fruit?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Absolutely. It’s sort of existential. They’re going off on this journey tomorrow; they don’t know how they’re going to get there, they don’t know what the rules are, they don’t where they’re going, they’re like Jack Kerouac going off on the road somewhere – if you can imagine Trent Lott in a leather jacket – they’re going to get there – the Republicans held a meeting today, two meetings actually –

JIM LEHRER: And there’s another one still going on.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re going to be talking through the night probably and the mood of the meeting was uncertainty. The two main issues were witnesses, should they call them, two, should they proceed in a bipartisan manner, and people got up to say their case and they didn’t really come to a conclusion, and the heart of the matter is they don’t know what the political expedient course is. They all have their own consciences. But should they go ahead? The polls say don’t go ahead, the polls are terrible for the Republicans – if they go ahead – on the other hand, the calls from the districts are running strongly in favor of a full trial – two Northern senators I spoke to, the calls are five to one in favor of a full trial –

JIM LEHRER: These are Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s surprising.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now, the Democrats, all 45 are opposed to calling witnesses, correct?

TOM OLIPHANT: At this point, yes. Though one of the cards that they hold is that once the dam breaks on witnesses, then comes the flood, and don’t forget the White House in this process, which is going to vigorously defend the president on the law and on the facts, and in a way that congers up for many of these senate Republicans a kind of proceeding that they’re not really sure they want to go through. Part of the problem, I think, Jim, is that everyone is talking – speaking in tongues, in a way, using words that are really symbols of something else.

JIM LEHRER: Go through it.

TOM OLIPHANT: Witnesses is a metaphor for length – how long are we going to go –

JIM LEHRER: And for Monica Lewinsky and sex, right?

TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly. Short. Short implies lack of confidence in the House impeachment articles. On the Republican side you’ll hear things like full trial, full trial. Well, the airing of all of this maybe will finally change public opinion, and finally simple case – as you just heard from a couple of congressmen – relatively simple – that’s a way of saying we want to read some of this grand jury evidence at the trial and not rely on witnesses quite to the extent they would have you believe, so it’s a question of people speaking in tongues, rather in language that the people can understand – as a result, I think the picture the public is going to get beginning tomorrow is of confusion.

JIM LEHRER: You agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, that’s absolutely what’s out there. I mean, the idea that the public will be happy with a two-week trial but not a four-week trial or a six-week trial is bizarre, and the other – the Republican psychology is also bizarre; they know the majority of them know that witnesses would be bad for them. Clinton would probably end up looking stronger. You know, you’ve got Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, you have no witnesses that are angry at Clinton. They’re generally on his side, so his case would probably look stronger. Several senators have voiced that. Most seem to agree with that view, and yet they’re still going down that course.


DAVID BROOKS: I’m not sure. I think in part it is the sense that every time they try to pull back the grassroots, the famous base hits them, and that’s what happened over the weekend. They tried to pull back a quick and easy get out and just the massive calls came in.

JIM LEHRER: Now, is Trent Lott still in a position to make this decision when it all comes down to it, or is he now caught in this pull back and forth himself?

DAVID BROOKS: He’s caught in the nebulae. The standard critique of Trent Lott over the last year was that he doesn’t listen to other people, that he has no aides; he’s just dealing with himself. Today he spent all day listening and so there’s this nebulous cloud of advice, and he’s got to make some form out of it. It’s like Genesis.

TOM OLIPHANT: Maybe another way of looking at – of saying that same point is that in the sense he’s become right now the majority follower instead of leader, and by that I mean he is not willing to get ahead of a majority of the Republicans in the senate Republican caucus.

DAVID BROOKS: And it’s a shifting majority – when he proposed that shortcut deal last weekend, I think his staff believed they didn’t have 51 votes –

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Let’s recap that. That meant – the so-called Gorton -Lieberman plan, which became the Daschle-Lott -and then became the Gorton-Lieberman plan again.

DAVID BROOKS: We were calling it the Lott plan – it suddenly became the Gorton plan –

JIM LEHRER: But that was to have a quick vote and establish whether or not if, in fact, these – the president committed these crimes, do they rise to a high crime and misdemeanor, and if there weren’t 2/3 vote for that, forget it, and pass a censure motion and get it over with.

DAVID BROOKS: It was a stack the deck vote. There was no way they could win that. And the idea – one of the premises was that Republican staffers thought they were in a weak position. They couldn’t even have 51 votes to get a trial going. They’ve since found out the moderates are actually more anti-Clinton than they thought, so they do have that. They’re a little stronger –

TOM OLIPHANT: However, despite all of that back and forth, this dance ritual, there will be a motion on the Senate floor very quickly to either have a dismissal, or to argue that the facts, even if true in the articles, do not reach an impeachable offense level, a vote on that motion, and if you see one more than thirty-three senators vote aye, then that means there are not the votes on the Senate floor to remove the president from office, which then raises the question, why are we going to go through this ritual?

JIM LEHRER: Well, now the argument, the Republican argument for going ahead with the trial even though the result is known and there will be no conviction is what?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they think – well, there is some small minority who always think that just around the corner the public is going to wake up and they’re going to see what this guy’s really like. There’s a small minority who still believe that. But I think some of them are just duty bound. The Constitution says it. They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what to do. The Constitution is the momentum, so let’s just – the Constitution – and they think – they feel for the institution, I think, in their best face.

TOM OLIPHANT: It may be Democrats, by the way, who will agree with them on that constitutional point, but that still leaves the question why are you – after you’ve already established that more than a third of the senate does not believe the articles presented by the House are genuinely impeachable offenses, why are you having an evidence trial when the conclusion based on the evidence is not the point?

DAVID BROOKS: Let’s not overstate their rationalism – rationale of what’s going on here – it’s a head-heart problem. In their head they know it’s a lost cause; in their heart they still don’t like the guy.

JIM LEHRER: Now the House managers, we just heard – Margaret just interviewed two of them – Tom Daschle, the Senate Minority Leader, essentially said butt out, today, he said, we didn’t interfere in your process, why are you interfering in ours, does it matter what the House managers say?

TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely it does, and in a sense what Daschle has said to them doesn’t make any sense on its face. Their job is to present the case on behalf of the House. How they – the decisions that they want – want to make about how to pursue the case – their witnesses, motions to make and everything, that’s entirely their role as it exists under the rules that the Senate enacted for the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, all those years ago, so –

JIM LEHRER: It’s like telling –

TOM OLIPHANT: — they have a role.

JIM LEHRER: It’d be like telling the DA to butt out.

TOM OLIPHANT: Another thing for some of the managers like Bob Barr, who cast aspersions on the attention span of individual senators perhaps, but as to having a role, of course, they have a role.

DAVID BROOKS: The rivalry of the two bodies as such with Daschle as evidence of that – but the other bit of evidence – I mean, that’s one of the reasons the Senate may want to go on – those freshmen, those guys who in the House don’t know how to use a finger bowl – they may make a muck of this but we are the greatest deliberative body in the world.

JIM LEHRER: How do each of you feel about this question of can there be a trial with witnesses without having all of the sexual details on the Senate floor for Monica Lewinsky, et cetera?

DAVID BROOKS: The idea of Monica appearing is the one that terrifies Republicans, certainly, and probably all the senators the most, so I think they’d be loathe –

JIM LEHRER: Democrats too, does it not?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. That’s a card the Republicans have, don’t forget, and it’s a serious one. But on the other hand, depending on what the bill of particulars is for perjury, you might not have to have the issue presented in the way that sometimes we do at shorthand.

JIM LEHRER: I interrupted you.

DAVID BROOKS: I was essentially going to make that point, that they could stick to those – to those witnesses – not to say those are necessarily good group witnesses –

JIM LEHRER: But – it – do the sexual – your reading of the case – I mean – do the sexual details have to be there?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, there has to be a bill of particulars on perjury. I think the articles are a bit deficient as currently drafted. For example, one of them is that the president lied about the nature and details of his relationship with Lewinsky. Well, they need to identify the statements he made in his grand jury testimony that they allege are perjurious, and then we would see what – what kind of evidence it would take to show that he lied under oath intentionally.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s up to the White House. You know, they floated their own trial balloon, which was they were going to fight this thing tooth and nail. If they do that, and start sort of legal hairsplitting. That could cause a reaction among the –

TOM OLIPHANT: Less danger of that, I think, because in many respects the natural witnesses for the prosecution and the natural witnesses for the defense.

JIM LEHRER: As we sit here now, does your gut tell you we’re in for a long siege, a long trial?

DAVID BROOKS: There’s nothing that can kill this thing.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.