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Committee Reaction

December 8, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST


JIM LEHRER: Congressman Delahunt, what was accomplished today?

REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT: Well, I think what was accomplished today, particularly with the Watergate panel, was a clear distinction between what occurred in the mid 1970s and what occurred today. I think the differences were illuminating, hopefully, to the American people the conduct of President Nixon compared to the conduct of President Clinton, particularly in terms of the abuse of governmental institutions I thought really set a difference. Furthermore, we heard directly from members of the Judiciary Committee that they, in fact, heard direct testimony. They heard from John Dean; they heard from H. R. Haldeman. They heard from Mr. Ehrlichman. They met their constitutional responsibility and took testimony and were able to evaluate credibility, as well as probe the memories of those who were participants in the Watergate scandal.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hutchinson, where do you – do you feel that you learned something today about comparing the alleged crimes committed by President Clinton to those that were committed and alleged crimes committed by President Nixon, is that relevant to you in the decision you’re going to make?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, it was an interesting history lesson. I was fairly familiar with the distinctions. We’ve heard from a number of panels before that talk about the distinctions. But I have a very difficult decision to make. I have a vote to make that is going to go with me and our country the rest of the life – my life. And this testimony today was not particularly helpful for my decision-making process. The first panel – which include Mr. Craig, the President’s lawyers – was helpful, because I was able to ask some questions about the facts that troubled me. And that was a helpful panel, because I could focus on that. The rest of it is helpful just in the sense that the President had an opportunity to present his defense, but you know, for six hours, hearing about Watergate was not helpful.

JIM LEHRER: So Congressman Hutchinson, you’ve already made the decision then that if, in fact, the charges against President Clinton are true, they do rise to a high crime and misdemeanor and, thus, an impeachable offense?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: I have purpose not to reach my ultimate decision until after we conclude the President’s defense and we hear everything from him, but I do believe that perjury constitutes an impeachable offense. It does not mean that it’s mandatory. I believe there is some discretion in the House. But I do believe that perjury can constitute an impeachable offense. There’s a lot of other factors to weigh into this decision, and the witnesses, they were extraordinary. I mean, the President’s own witnesses indicated that the President lied to the grand jury. Father Drinan said censure is not an option, so it was surprising what came out of some of the President’s own witnesses.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Delahunt, you’re one of the main pushers of censure as an alternative to impeachment. How do you think that was affected by what happened today?

REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT: Well, again, I have to disagree with my friend from Arkansas. I think Father Drinan indicated that it would certainly not be his choice; however, he is clear that he saw no constitutional impediment. And recently we heard from some 19 scholars, people from historians to constitutional scholars who are familiar with impeachment precedents as well as the use of censure. The clear majority of those that testified, both Republican, Democratic, and a shared witness, the clear majority indicated that censure, indeed, posed no constitutional impediment and could very well be a way to resolve a looming constitutional crisis.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Congressman Hutchinson, you don’t feel that way, right? You don’t think censure is a legitimate alternative?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: No. And I respect my friend from Massachusetts, but my recollection of Father Drinan’s testimony is a little bit different. I quoted the language from Father Drinan, who testified earlier, and he reflects my views actually that censure would be an extraordinarily poor precedent for the presidency and the relationship with Congress and separation of powers. I think there’s probably an argument that even though it’s not allowed by the Constitution, it’s not prohibited, but I think it would be a terrible precedent, and I agreed with Father Drinan on his comments.

REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT: Jim, can I just -

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sure.

REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT: I’d like to just pick up on that. I think it’s important – and I’m not going to debate the testimony of Father Drinan and let me concede that it – let me concede Father Drinan’s testimony to Asa in terms of his conclusions. Yet, at the same time, I think it is very important that the American people understand that, in fact, there is historical precedent for the use of censure in this country. Two presidents, President Polk and President Andrew Jackson, were, in fact, censured. Is it a significant punishment? Clearly, in the case of President Jackson, years later, he sought to have that censure expunged. So it is significant – it would hold this president up to a – it would definitely tarnish his legacy and declare unequivocally that his behavior was reprehensible and should be condemned.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hutchinson, there was a lot of talk today about the American people, what the American people want, what the American people do not want, and former Attorney General Katzenbach’s major point was that unless the American people not only understand but support this, there isn’t going to be any chaos no matter what you and other individual members of the House both Republicans and Democrats want. Do you agree with that as a basic premise?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I really wanted to follow up some questions to Mr. Katzenbach. I mean, his main point was that in the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial the Congress was correct to ignore public opinion. But today, in this case, his point is that we should follow public. And I just found that a little bit interesting, that contradiction. Certainly, we wished that we could come up with bipartisan consensus. We wish that the public understood more of what we were doing or supported it, but my oath is to the Constitution of the United States, and I’ve got to make a decision that I can live with that reflects my view of the Constitution and my conscience, and I don’t think we can be guided by public opinion, because it might change 30 days from now.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Delahunt, how do you read that, because in addition to public opinion, some of the people on the panel said it would result in chaos, gridlock in the government, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, in other words, it would be the cure for what President Clinton did would be worse than the punishment, et cetera?

REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT: Well, again, without conceding the fact that if you accepted the allegations -


REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT: — regarding President Clinton in terms of whether they do constitute impeachable offenses. What I would say is that the testimony of Judge Charles Wiggin, who was a former member of the committee during the Watergate era, was very clear, he suggested that each member, each member of this panel take into account the public interest. He felt that the gravity of the misconduct by President Clinton did not amount – did not constitute an impeachable offense. At the same time, he cautioned us to factor into our decision the idea of the public interest. And I think that is very important. What are the consequences of what we are doing today? It could have dire consequences if during the course of 1999, this institution is distracted and the American people are distracted by a lengthy, interminable process, which most likely, according to what I read, would end up in the Senate and not reaching any conclusion in terms of removal or, in fact, the votes would be against removal in the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hutchinson, do you think that’s a legitimate consideration?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I do. I agree that is a legitimate factor to consider. I conclude that perjury – if proven – is an impeachable offense – but we do have some discretion in the House. You know, what are the consequences? And we could weigh what it does to the country. But I think that the – just like they said – if we engage in an impeachment inquiry, it’s going to go on to the year 2000, or it’s going to go on for six months, they’re overstating the trauma; they’re overstating how long it would take. This is a simple fact situation that could be presented and tried in the Senate in a much shorter period of time without being as disruptive, even though I would not understate the extraordinary difficulty it would be for our country. We can’t underestimate that, and it is an appropriate factor. We have to balance that with the damage that bypassing or overlooking perjury will do to our integrity of government.

JIM LEHRER: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much.


REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: Thank you, Jim.