TOPICS > Politics

Trial of the Century?

December 21, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Perspective on what next in the impeachment story is first tonight. It comes from four key members of the United States Senate: two Republicans, Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee; and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming chairman of the Rules Committee; and Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Senator Hatch, what do you think of the Ford/Carter proposal for censure, rather than a trial in the Senate?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, it’s a very good idea, and certainly well-intentioned, and both of those fine former presidents deserve to be listened to. On the other hand, you know, there is an obligation to try the case in the Senate. I think before something like that can be implemented, there’s going to have to be some pretty strong indication from the Democrats that they’re not going to support and they’re not going to possibly support, you know, conviction in the Senate. You know, I think it’s going to have to come to that, and I do believe we’ll probably have to start the trial. A lot depends too on what fellow Senators feel with regard to going ahead with a trial in this matter, because no one knows really where everybody is right now.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think – in other words – the Senate should be informally polled, all 100 members?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I think that the two leaders have to poll their two sides and get a pretty good hard count at some time after the trial begins – it would seem to me – or if there’s the goodwill in the Senate to try and do this before the trial, which I – I think a lot of Senators are going to have a very difficult time trying to make a decision on compromising this matter before they actually see the trial begin. But whatever, we could do either, but it’s going to have – there’s going to have to be a pretty good strong showing that under no circumstances would conviction ever occur if we go through a full-fledged trial.

JIM LEHRER: And is that your feeling right now, that that’s where things stand?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I think that’s one of the areas where they stand. There are a variety of things that can be done here.

JIM LEHRER: No. But I mean – do you feel that that is where the majority of the Senate – I mean, in other words, there are not 67 votes to vote to remove the president at this point?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I don’t think anyone would disagree with the statement that right now based upon what we know today we do not have 67 votes to convict the president and complete the process of impeachment.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Senator Leahy, would you agree with that, that there aren’t 67 votes?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I think Senator Hatch is taking it very well. He and I have discussed this somewhat ourselves, but we also have – in my own informal accounts of Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, I get that impression, that the 67 votes are not there for conviction. Now, whether we start a trial or not, I think that the suggestion made by President Ford and President Carter has a great deal of merit. President Ford, as you know, made a somewhat similar suggestion in an op-ed piece a few weeks ago, and I called him. I had a long talk with him about it. I was struck by the fact that President Ford wanted to do what was best for the country. He had no partisan gain one way or the other. He wanted to do what was best for the country.

JIM LEHRER: Does it matter to you, Senator Leahy, if a deal – if a censure resolution came out of this – whether it came before a trial, or after – in other words, do you think there should be a trial, at least a trial should begin before any formal action of any kind is taken?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think the practical thing is a trial may begin. But I think that we ought to be looking at what the end game is. If you’re going to not have a conviction, as most Senators feel, do we want to put the country through the trauma of a trial? The country is saying, censure the president for what he did; maybe should all step back, take a deep breath and listen to the country.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell, where do you come down on this?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, I think our first obligation, Jim, is to the Constitution and to determine what is appropriate when an article or articles, as is the case now, are passed by the House of Representatives, articles of impeachment — what is our obligation? My reaction to studying this so far is that we have an obligation to go forward with the trial. The various suggestions, such as those made by President Carter and President Ford, are useful, but the question is: At what point is that worth considering? My view is that we really don’t know where the Senate is yet. We’ve taken no testimony. And I think once we dispose of the articles of impeachment, we can have the other discussion about what kind of remedy might be appropriate at that time, assuming the articles are not passed.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you do not agree with Senator Hatch that the first step should be at least an informal polling of where the Senators stand now, and let that kind of at least dictate some of the steps that follow?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, I think one of the people I’m going to be looking to, and I think all of the Senate is going to be looking to, is Senator Robert Byrd – the expert on the Senate – probably the greatest expert whoever lived on the Senate, and he’s still serving in the Senate. I’m anxious to hear what he has to say about his view of what our obligation is under the Constitution. I’m not ruling out at some point a solution such as those that have been suggested. But I think our first obligation is to the Constitution and to go forward as was envisioned in the Constitution when we receive an article of impeachment from the House.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Byrd issued a statement late this afternoon, Senator McConnell, in which he said – I’m paraphrasing here – that some kind of arrangement is fine, but it must be among the United States Senators, not with the White House or any outside parties. Would you agree with that, in principle?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think what Senator Byrd is saying is that under the Constitution we’re the jurors in this case and that we’re responsible ultimately for applying the Constitution and listening to the impeachment trial. I think Senator Byrd is absolutely right.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lieberman, what about you, do you think there should be a trial, at least the beginning of a trial, or do you think a deal could be made before, maybe not with the White House but a deal of some kind?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, Jim, I think we’re all – I’m sitting back listening to my three colleagues. I’m proud of what I’ve heard, because what I’ve heard is what I’ve heard also privately from many colleagues of both parties that I’ve spoken to, which is that the Senate is intent on approaching this in a non-partisan manner and doing this in a way that not only is just to the president but brings some honor to the institution of the Congress and maybe even repairs some of the damage done to the relationship between government and the people this year.

I think we’re all trying to balance our constitutional responsibility as Senators to try articles of impeachment that have been passed by the House and sent to us with our desire not to inflict more damage on this country than has already been inflicted. And ultimately a trial by our rules has to start. How long it goes depends on a majority of members of the Senate. And I think most of us are now focusing in on the articles, the evidence, the law, the history in a way that we haven’t, frankly, during the year to see whether within our heads and hearts we’re prepared to reach a judgment now to say that we can’t imagine under the current circumstances of the evidence that we’ve seen that we would go for a conviction. And when more than 50 of us reach that point, that’s when we will try to do something — if that happens before the end of the trial – to end the trial.

JIM LEHRER: But you think there should be a beginning? There probably will be the beginning of a trial?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I think we’re obligated by the Senate rules to start the trial. And based on the conversations I’ve had with colleagues, I think it will begin and go for a while, but how long it goes depends on the will of 51 members of the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you mentioned bipartisanship. Yes.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: This is on trials. We also – though – we want to have some idea once we start a thing. I think the shortest impeachment trial the Senate ever had of anybody was 34 days. The longest was over 400 days, about 448 days, and Andrew Johnson is about 74 days. So we should look at what we’re starting with. I think the important thing – the most important thing in the Ford/Carter – President Ford/President Carter op-ed, is that they’re approaching it from a bipartisan fashion. What I have been struck by in the last few – last week or so especially – in talk with Senators – is that all the Senators I’ve talked with – Republicans and Democrats – wanted to do that. They feel the Senate could be the conscience of the nation in this matter. Now, it may mean starting the trial, but I think you’re going to find a real effort by Senators to come together with what is the best resolution, which will probably end up being censure, but at least it will be an effort to do it not in a partisan fashion. If it’s partisan, then I think the country loses hope in the whole process.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator McConnell, both Senator Lieberman and Senator Leahy have said that; this has to be bipartisan, and the general consensus is that that was not the case in the House, getting to this point. Why would it be different in the Senate, and do you think it will be?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, certainly the House proceeding was partisan. I, for example, was surprised that only five Democrats thought that the allegation of lying under oath before a grand jury warranted impeachment. So, clearly, it was not a bipartisan process. I think it will be bipartisan in the Senate. I also think it’s important to note with regard to the various doomsday scenarios that have been suggested if we have a trial that this is not a complicated case. There are very few witnesses. I sat on the special impeachment committee back in 1986, when we impeached a federal district judge. We heard 19 witnesses in seven days. I think this is a case that can be tried very quickly. I don’t think it’s to anybody’s advantage to drag it out. I can’t imagine that the president would want to drag it out. Certainly no one in the Senate thinks it would be a good idea to drag it out. I think this is a trial – if it’s conducted all the way to conclusion and a vote on the articles of impeachment – will be over very quickly.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hatch, do you think that this can be done in a bipartisan manner?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I certainly think it has to be done in a bipartisan manner, and we have to look at this through the eyes – I personally am going to look at it this way. I want to be as fair as I can to the president, bend over backwards for him, if I can. My standard of proof would be beyond a reasonable doubt they’d have to prove his guilt. I would want to treat this president just like I would if he was a Republican, and I would hope that the Democrats would want to treat this president just as if he was a Republican, as well. And if we do that, yes, I think there has to be a beginning of a trial. I don’t think it has to go all the way through to conclusion, although that may be what the Senate in a bipartisan manner decides to do. If, for instance, it is very apparent and very clear that there’s no way that you’re going to have a two thirds vote for conviction, there comes a time when you have to say, hey, look, let’s do the best we can to do what’s best under the circumstances, the best constitutional approach that we can take, and let’s try and do it in a bipartisan way, and let it go at that. But it may have to go completely to conclusion before we get any results. But there have been some very good suggestions. Senator Lieberman and I, Senator Leahy and others have chatted about a wide variety of ways that we could resolve these problems, and, you know, there’s a lot of ways that this problem can be resolved if we can’t – you know – if there’s not a two thirds vote to impeach –

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lieberman –

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: — to convict, rather.

JIM LEHRER: Having to convict, right. Senator Lieberman, on Saturday, the members on both sides attacked each other and this whole process, the Democrats, members of your party in the House actually walked out after the vote in the –


JIM LEHRER: If that kind of reaction – no matter what the conclusion is in the Senate, if there is that kind of reaction, what does the country face?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: First off, we will not have responsibly carried out the oath we’re going to take early in January to do impartial justice; secondly, it’s not just President Clinton that’s on trial once the trial begins; it’s the Congress; it’s the country. And I think we’re all tested to act in the national interest here. And what Orrin and others have said – if we reach a point at some point in this trial where we just know the outcome will not be conviction, then I think we’ve all got to look directly at each other and say, do we want to put the country through all the witnesses coming on – to go through all the intimate details – do we want to put our children through that once again? And I think the answer – if we come to that – will be no.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell just said he didn’t think it would be that traumatic.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, it depends how it’s done. I mean, if the parties agree, remember, we’re the judges or the jury, but there’s prosecution, the White House, there’s the defendant – I’m sorry – the prosecution is the House; the defense for the White House. And it depends on what kind of case they want to put on. If they just decide to argue on the law and accept the facts from the House, then it could be a fairly brief trial, but there are major questions of fact that are not quite clear in the two articles sent to us. And if either side decides that they have to put on witnesses, this is going to be a long and very, very traumatic trial, and, therefore, a long and traumatic event for Congress and for the country. And I think we have to think of that national interest when we see this trial go forward.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t see it that way, Senator McConnell? It doesn’t have to be traumatic for the country?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I don’t think so. I think – you know – carrying out the provisions of the Constitution is not necessarily traumatic for the country. This is a very, very strong democracy. I think the best evidence of that was last weekend when the president was carrying out a foreign military strike in the middle of what was happening in the House. Let me also say I agree with Joe entirely, that some of these witnesses who have now become rather infamous over the last nine months, if we do have to take testimony from those people, I think the Senate should not take that testimony in open session. I think we ought to take it in closed session. I don’t think that children or the families of America ought to be subjected any further to that kind of testimony. We could subsequently make the testimony, of course, public, but I don’t think we ought to put on – on that kind of spectacle for the American people.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: And I don’t think it’s required in order to reach a judgment in this case.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you all four very much.