TOPICS > Politics

Historic Impeachment Trial

January 5, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: On Thursday, the Senate will officially open the impeachment trial of President Clinton, when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist swears in the 100 senators as jurors. Still unresolved, however is the format and the duration of the trial, itself, the first such senate impeachment trial in 130 years. Some perspective on all this now from four former senators with nearly 80 years of senate service among them – two Republicans, John Danforth of Missouri and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire; and two Democrats, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Bennett Johnston of Louisiana. Welcome all four. Senator Danforth, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is struggling to find a consensus here on how to proceed. Why is it so hard?

SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: There are at least two views of what an impeachment trial should be. One view is that you get right into the facts, call witnesses, get into all the nitty gritty. A second view of how to conduct it is to get to the big question, get to the big question first, try to resolve it, and really deal with something that I think is very important for the American people to consider and for the Senate of the United States to consider as it was expressed in the House of Representatives, do these charges rise to the level of an impeachable offense, or in the senate do they warrant removal? For the American people, how seriously do we take the charges made against the president, namely the two articles of impeachment, perjury and obstruction of justice? If true, is perjury sufficiently serious to warrant removal from office, or is it something less than that? If true, is obstruction of justice something that warrants removal of office, or is it something less than that? Those are issues that could be debated very, very quickly without calling witnesses, and I believe that they should be debated, and they should be dealt with before witnesses are called.

MARGARET WARNER: Senators. Johnston, help us understand this institution of the senate. Why is it – I mean, explain to our viewers why it’s so hard to even agree on the process here, before we even get to the substance.

SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: Well, there’s nothing that involves the future of senators as much as the politics of impeachment. I don’t recall any event that’s happened in the last quarter century in which one party’s gone up as much and down as much in as short a period of time as the House of Representatives did in the public view like 13 points virtually overnight. So this is a very important political thing. On the other hand, you’ve got senators who have constituencies – the Republican constituency tends to be very virulently anti-Clinton-a very large part of it. And then there’s another part of the senator’s mind that is captured by the view of how serious are these offenses. I think it is very much in the self-interest of Republicans to get this trial over with as quickly as possible. The outcome that is not a conviction is absolutely known to everyone in this town, and I think it’s committing political hara-kiri if they do the same thing the House does, so I’ve got to believe that at the end of the day they’re going to do what is politically smart and what I happen to believe is in the best interest of the country, that is, a quick resolution of this matter.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with his assessment of just the internal pressures, conflicting pressures within the Republican – the Republican senators that Senator Lott has to deal with?

SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well, I think Bennett is quite right, and I think Jack Danforth has really captioned this whole issue very well. It seems to me, however, that – and I’ve talked to a number of former colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are friends, that the politics certainly is important. But I must say that the constitutional mandate is important to many of them, and I don’t think we can underestimate that.

It seems to me that there are three groups up there in various sizes: One group that feels there ought to be a trial, ought to call witnesses, and ought to go to a verdict – you know – guilty or not guilty, which Bennett is probably correct would be damaging to Republicans, if we look at what currently is going on; the second group that feels, as Jack Danforth has captioned this whole argument, we should find out at the threshold whether or not if all the things that are alleged about the president’s conduct are true, do they rise to the level of an impeachable offense, or since they don’t involve presidential conduct, do they not, and they, of course, would rather have a truncated trial. The third group is trying to find a middle ground, which is what the Gorton-Lieberman proposal, which you reported on last evening, is trying to do. My understanding, as of this afternoon, is that there is no agreement and the reason there is no agreement comes back to what Bennett said – there are all sorts of political currents here, and there are – and I think we have to give people credit for the fact that there are some who are seriously troubled by the whole constitutional issue who believe firmly that the House of Representatives, having impeached, is entitled to do a full trial. They’re a minority, but they are a very influential minority.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see the pressures here, Senators Bumpers?

SEN. DALE BUMPERS: Well, I think the pressures are very intense on Senator Lott. He’s trying desperately, and I might say with what I consider some statesmanship, to do – to meet what I would consider to be a non-negotiable demand by the American people. They issued the demand in the November 3rd election, and the continuing polls show that they want this expedited and done with. So the Republicans have considerable amount of political – politics at stake in this thing. And I would just make this point: Number 1, the colossal report that cost close to $50 million, the Starr Report, has told the American people, members of Congress, everything they could possibly know about Bill Clinton from the day he came onto the face of the Earth. And secondly, there are 45 Democrats who are prepared to say, along the lines that Senator Rudman was talking about, that they do not believe that these offenses reach an impeachable level, and bear in mind when people say, well, we have to defend the Constitution, we have to do this in a constitutional way, the Constitution says the Senate has almost carte blanche on how to handle this; they can handle it almost any way they want to and meet the constitutional guidelines because there are very few guidelines. There’s a side of me as a Democrat that would like to see this go on for another year and a half because I think we might very well take the Congress back big time two years from now. But that would be – you know – I’m being facetious about that – but that would be devastating to the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Danforth, that raises another issue or concern that Senator Lott has talked about. He not only wants to get an agreement within – among the Republicans, but he wants it to be – he keeps saying – non-partisan and have it appear non-partisan. One, do you agree that’s important, and two, do you think it’s possible?

SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I think it’s very important. I do think it’s possible. If you look at the underlying issue, which is not Bill Clinton, it’s not Monica Lewinsky, it has to do with the basic standards of this country and the standard to which we hold this president or any president, then it’s important that we speak with one voice, that this not be the Republicans on one side and the Democrats on another. So I think that the discussions that Senator Lott and Senator Daschle have had, Senator Lieberman and Senator Gorton, this is very constructive because people are starting to work across party lines. In my view, it would be a very bad thing for our country if we came out of all of this and said, in effect, well, it’s okay to commit perjury before a grand jury; it’s not all that bad, or it’s okay to obstruct justice. So I think eventually in a bipartisan way we are going to have to find a way to re-establish what I thought were assumed values in our country. We’re a long way from that right now. In fact, the situation right now is that people who talk about – you know, this is terrible, what the president’s done – are pretty much trashed. They’re – you know, it’s said that they’re trying to overturn elections or, that they’re part of a lynch mob or whatever, sex obsessed, and so on. I think that that’s just wrong. I think it’s denigrating to people who have raised very real concerns, and I think all of us on a bipartisan basis – just as Americans – have to wrestle with the issue of what standards do we hold the president to and what standards do we apply to ourselves.

SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: Jack, let me ask you, you’re not saying that this needs to go through a full trial and go to a verdict.


SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: Don’t you think, for example, if the four of us would sit down and have the still responsibility, we could work out what would amount to a very strong censure, a very strong statement of the Senate, and have the matter done with quickly so that the country can get on to other business?

SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Yes, I do, and I think that the Senate can do that, and that’s why I think to set up in quick order a vote on what are the standards for removal from office would be a very good thing to do. I assume that there are not going to be 67 votes. I – my own vote would be for removal. I think that what the president has done is so far below what our standards have to be as a country that he just shouldn’t stay in office. But I think really it would be a terrible result to say, okay, we’re not going to remove him from office, we’re not going to pass some sort of censure resolution, we’re just going to let matters stand, because that would be a real message to our children.

SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: You know, I believe what Senators Gorton and Lieberman had in mind, both being former attorneys general of their states, was what you would do in the law would be a motion for summary judgment in which you essentially say let’s admit all the facts and they’re all true – we have no argument about the facts – do they, in fact, meet the requirement to say it’s a crime? There are many up there who feel in good conscience that he ought to be severely censured, but if there’s prosecution, it should be done after he leaves office, that what he did was not as president but as Bill Clinton, a very careless and reckless individual who did things that no individual ought to do. So you have this terrific debate going on up there between those who think you ought to go to a trial no matter what the result. I would agree with Bennett and with Dale I think that it would be bad for the country and frankly bad for my party to go through a full trial with witnesses, ending in acquittal, and the American people saying, what have you been doing for the last three, four, five weeks? That is a very important political issue; however, I have to say this finally, Margaret, I have a lot of respect for people that take a firm constitutional view not for partisan reasons, who believe it deeply, like Jack Danforth, and believe this is an impeachable offense. That is not an unreasonable argument.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Senator Bumpers, that in the Senate of today, which you just left, that a non-partisan, bipartisan approach is possible here?

SEN. DALE BUMPERS: I’ll say this: if the Republicans would like to sort of rejuvenate themselves on this issue, the decibel level of partisanship in the United States Congress is unquestionably at the highest level in the history of this country. Partisanship has always been around. But, as I say, it’s deafening today, and the American people sense it; they know it. Bennett and Jack and Warren, all of us know it, that it is almost at an unconscionable level. So I’m saying that if the Republicans would sort of rejuvenate themselves and give the American people a sort of a fresh view of Congress, they’ll deal with this very quickly on a bipartisan basis. The outcome is known. We don’t need a trial. I don’t mind the three or four day expedited trial they’re talking about; that’s fine, but the outcome is foregone on this, and to prolong it is unconscionable and a violation of the trust of the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Senator Johnston, you said, well, the four of us could sit around and come up with a reasonable solution, but Senator Lott’s having trouble doing that. I mean, what would be your advice to him? I know you’re not in the advice-giving business but –

SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: Well, yes, I am. I would –

SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: But not to Trent Lott.

SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: Even to Trent Lott. I would say get it over with quickly; you need a very strong censure. I mean, I would guess that attitudes of the four of us on the president’s conduct is very similar. I mean, we deplore it, and use all the adjectives you want to. But he’s not going to be convicted; that’s clear. So, therefore, you go to that which you can get as fast as possible, because if you end up with one of these long trials, then the acrimony increases, the time increases, and you reach the wrong result.

MARGARET WARNER: But what can he do about the Senators that Senator Danforth and Senator Rudman said in the Republican Party want the other option?

SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: Well, you got to urge; you got to coax; you got to lead and –

SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: In the final analysis, Margaret, it’s like every other issue that we all saw under both Republican and Democratic majority leaders at some point, that Trent Lott has to find out where that consensus is and he will have to dictate the result with Tom Daschle’s agreement. It seems to me that the Gorton-Lieberman proposal or some form of it will eventually evolve, and they may start a trial, recess that trial, go into essentially a caucus of the entire Senate and decide on what they’re going to do, but in the final analysis I would find it almost incomprehensible that three weeks from tonight we would be sitting here talking about today’s witness at the Senate trial. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.

SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: But you do have to have at least one vote which demonstrates where Senators are on the issue.


SEN. BENNETT JOHNSTON: So that Republicans can say I wanted to convict, I wanted a full trial, but look at the votes, there they are; they’ve been cast –


SEN. DALE BUMPERS: There’s a smoke screen out there that if they dismiss the impeachment charge, then, you know, maybe the president will renege on what he promised on a censure. Those things can be worked out. That’s an absolute smoke screen.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen. I’m sorry we have to leave it there, but if we are back in two weeks talking about the witness, you’ll all be here.

SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Let’s hope not.