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Deposition Update

February 2, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: An impeachment trial update now, as viewed by “Boston Globe” columnist Tom Oliphant and Bill Kristol, editor/publisher of “The Weekly Standard.” Let’s go through the developments, real and possibly imagined as we speak tonight. First, today the deposition of Vernon Jordan — has anything been said publicly about what Vernon may have said today?

TOM OLIPHANT: Not publicly, Jim, but the quasi leaks have begun. And it would appear at this hour that at its most electric moments Mr. Jordan’s testimony was perfunctory and the record that the senators got three weeks ago is still the record they’re going to have to wrestle with on the stretch of this case.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have anything to subtract or add to that?

BILL KRISTOL: No. No. I was struck that Henry Hyde late this afternoon was asked whether he expected the trial to be over by Friday, February 12, whether anybody had happened over the last two days that might cause it to be extended. And he said no, he thinks it will be over on the 12th or maybe even earlier, which suggests that the House managers have not gotten anything that would give them a good case for live witnesses.

JIM LEHRER: Where does that rest at this moment? Are the managers still pushing for live witnesses?

BILL KRISTOL: I think — I hear that they are not certain they want to push for that, they don’t think they can win that vote and they would prefer to say we thought we should have had live witnesses, we thought we should have had a much more thorough trial than the senate in its grand majesty has chosen to give us, but we have done the depositions, we think there’s enough to remove the president in these depositions, and in the record so far, and let’s just go to the vote.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you heard the same?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. What the Republicans are saying this afternoon is you can feel them falling back to the idea that the videotapes perhaps should be seen by the senate, though even there that’s not certain at this hour anyway. And it’s entirely possible, for example, on Thursday that the senate might decide to merely make the videotapes part of the public record, which would enable all of us to see them but not necessarily take time on the senate floor to hear them.

JIM LEHRER: Is that — do you hear that as well — that they will become public but maybe not shown on the senate floor?

BILL KRISTOL: Well, senators have been able to see the videotapes beginning this morning and to read transcripts. So, I never expected them to be shown on the senate floor. Yes, I think they might try to simply make it part of the record of the trial and then the House managers will simply seek to go ahead and get a vote on removing the president.

JIM LEHRER: And that could — now, the other little fly, I don’t know whether it’s in the ointment or wherever it, is finding of fact. First of all, tell us what it is, Tom, and tell us where you understand that part of the story is.

TOM OLIPHANT: This is an effort before there is a vote whether to convict or not to convict the president to have the senate go on record by majority vote as having found certain facts in the case, which would be enumerated, listed — not generalities, lied under oath — not specific allegations of criminal behavior, but perhaps a listing of certain things that he did or said that the senate wants to make a record of. Since floated, this is the only idea short of the final vote, I think, that has shown any traction whatsoever. But it remain a long way from the majority.

JIM LEHRER: You agree?

BILL KRISTOL: Well, I think the Majority Leader, Trent Lott, is interested in this. A lot of Republicans are frustrated, they can’t stand the idea of the president just getting off and celebrating with his cigar, or his, you know, drums, as he did in Africa after the Paula Jones lawsuit was settled, and they’d like to get a vote, preferably, in their view, a bipartisan vote. They think they can get some Democratic senators for this.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a substitute for censure, is that right?

BILL KRISTOL: Right. It’s a better — in their view – I don’t agree with this, but in their view it’s better than censure, it’s an appropriate thing for the senate to find, they think they can get some Democrats. Senator Lieberman indicated over the weekend he was open to this. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see on Thursday or maybe more likely Friday Senator Lott take the lead and suggest that the senate move to consider this findings of fact. And that could become the big debate then on Friday, Saturday and Monday.

JIM LEHRER: Is this an invention or anything like this ever happen before?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, it flows out of an earlier effort, I think it was first put into play by one of the House managers, Lindsey Graham, to actually do something that was done occasionally in the distant past, and that is to actually separate the vote whether or not to convict from the vote — whether or not to remove. And this became a kind of fallback position. I think what some of us like about it is it’s about the only thing that’s happened in this trial that has scrambled the politics. In other words, you do have a few Democrats who have expressed some conditional interest, though someone like Senator Lieberman has also participated with Senator Diane Feinstein in an effort to write a censure resolution. Bob Byrd has opposed it, which I think tends to block further. But the Republicans are interesting because you get some who are traditional law and order, strict constructionist types, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama, who think this is anathema constitutionally and others who, as Bill said, have sought this not just to prevent the president from being exonerated but also to kind of take a stand that what the House sent them was a real case and that it should be viewed as legitimate.

JIM LEHRER: Now, your magazine has editorialized against this. You’re in favor of removal just for the record here – you’re clearly not against removal — but you don’t like finding of fact?

BILL KRISTOL: No. And I’m happy to defend the House managers and Henry Hyde at any and every occasion. I’m against findings of fact because then you are saying the president has done these things, has lied under oath, has obstructed justice in certain ways, we find these to be facts but he’s still fit to be president. I think that is a bad thing for the United States Senate formally to find. If the senate wants to acquit the president, they have every right to do that. We can then argue about whether it was the right decision for the next two years, the next five years, the next ten years. But the notion of sort of putting the stamp on his forehead and then letting him continue to be president I think is bad for the presidency. We should clear him and let him be president without any sort of stamp on him for the next two years or remove him. That’s my view at least. But a lot of Republicans are interested in this — for reasons that are both, you know, high-minded so to speak — they’d like to try to have a bipartisan conclusion to this — as well as for more petty reasons of just they hate the idea of the president getting off. And one Republican said that to me this afternoon. The president’s going to get off. We can’t let that happen. And I said, you know, get used to it.

TOM OLIPHANT: What’s so interesting about that is that you get exactly the same behavior from Democrats. I mean, there is high-minded opposition to this because the constitutional breakthrough here is serious and can be opposed. But at the same time there is the beginning of a little effort here to rub it in and to claim exoneration. So on both sides you have the high and the low.

JIM LEHRER: But aren’t there some Democrats who also want to walk away from this and go home and say, hey, look, I voted to acquit but I voted to say it was an awful thing that this guy did?

TOM OLIPHANT: There’s going to come a moment, which we’re forgetting, is that when you approach the final vote, every senator I presume in public gets 15 minutes. And if a senator cannot explain his position, how he views the case and how he justifies his decision in 15 minutes, then what are they doing there?

JIM LEHRER: Okay.

TOM OLIPHANT: Oops, dangerous question.

JIM LEHRER: And neither Kristol nor I are going to try to answer it, right? But one question finally – this thing — both of you feel like the train is about to get to the destination, right, within the next few days, I mean, clearly by next week sometime?

BILL KRISTOL: Next week, yes.

JIM LEHRER: And is there any evidence that anything has changed as far as there are not 67 votes to remove the president?

TOM OLIPHANT: None whatsoever.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

BILL KRISTOL: No change.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. And February 12th is the date. That is next week. There’s talk now it could even come sooner than that, it might be even as soon as this weekend, no?

BILL KRISTOL: I think that’s unlikely, but it could come Wednesday or Thursday of next week, though given the way the senate works, they usually take maximum possible time. And I think Friday the 12th, they’re going off on vacation next week; they’d like to get it done. It will be Lincoln’s birthday when Bill Clinton will be acquitted.

TOM OLIPHANT: No prediction on dates. Prediction on result — but never on dates where the senate is concerned.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both.