October 5, 1998
JIM LEHRER: The House Judiciary Committee today debated whether to launch an impeachment inquiry against President Clinton. A list of 15 possible impeachable offenses was offered by the committee's chief Republican investigator. The committee's Democratic investigator countered that none rose to the level of impeachable offense. The committee then debated a resolution authorizing a formal inquiry. Kwame Holman has our report.
KWAME HOLMAN: 37 members sit on the House Judiciary Committee, 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats. But when they spoke today, most began by invoking a non-partisan tone, using words such as historic, monumental, and humility. Many referred to their constitutional duty, and a number of members said pursuing possible impeachment of the president was the most important responsibility of their elected careers but not one they at all relished. Some members repeated statements they had made over the last four weeks. For others, it was the first major public statement on impeachment. Almost all read prepared remarks, choosing their words carefully, beginning with committee chairman Henry Hyde.
REP. HENRY HYDE, Chairman, Judiciary Committee: We are constantly reminded how weary America is of this whole situation. And I dare say, most of us share that weariness. But we members of Congress took an oath that we would perform all of our constitutional duties, not just the pleasant ones. As chairman Peter Rodino stated in 1974, "We cannot turn away out of partisanship or convenience from problems that are now our responsibility, our inescapable responsibility, to consider. It would be a violation of our own public trust if we, as the people's representatives, chose not to inquire, not to consult, not even to deliberate, and then pretend that we had not by default made choices." This will be an emotional process, a strenuous process, because feelings are high on all sides of this question, but the difficulties ahead can be surmounted with goodwill and an honest effort to do what is best for the country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Hyde chose not to speak of evidence of possible impeachable offenses committed by the president; however, John Conyers, the committee's top Democrat, approached the issue head on.
REP. JOHN CONYERS, (D) Michigan: Now there's no question that the president's actions were wrong. I submit to all of you that he may be suffering more than any of us will ever know. But I suggest to you, my colleagues across the aisle, in every ounce of friendship that I can muster, that even worse than an extramarital relationship is the use of federal prosecutors and federal agents to expose an extramarital relationship. Yes, there is a threat to society here, but it is from the tactics of a win-it-all-costs prosecutor determined to sink a president of the opposition party. Our review of the evidence, sent with the referral, convinces many of us of one thing: There is no support for any suggestion that the president obstructed justice, or that he tampered with witnesses or abused the power of his office. By alleging abuses of power by the president, the independent counsel has simply repackaged his basic allegation of lying about sex in a quite transparent effort to conjure the ghost of Watergate.
KWAME HOLMAN: Each member was allotted five minutes for an opening statement. Most used the time to stress a specific point, and for many of the Republicans, the point was that the president committed perjury.
REP. F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, (R) Wisconsin: It is important at the outset to note that this debate is not about the fact that President Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky and then lied about it to his family, his staff, his cabinet, and to the American public. It is about Judge Starr's finding that the president violated his oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in a successful attempt to defeat Paula Jones's civil rights suit against him.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: When people believe that the President of the United States can lie, commit perjury, and get away with it, what are they going to say the next time they have to go to court -- and thousands of them do every day in this country - and they're expected to tell the truth when they get on the witness stand or face the crime of perjury? I would suggest to you that it should be noted that today in our federal system there are 115 people serving time in federal prison at this present moment for perjury before a grand jury or a federal court, 115 people. I don't know if the president committed these crimes of perjury, but if he did, they alone, it seems to me, would merit impeachment and removal from office.
KWAME HOLMAN: One point stressed by Democrats was to criticize the Republicans' desire to make the impeachment inquiry open-ended, unlimited both in time and scope.
REP. BARNEY FRANK, (D) Massachusetts: There is a fear on the part of many who want to destroy Bill Clinton, who didn't like the '92 election and didn't like the '96 election, and would like to undo it -- there is a fear that the matters in the Starr referral do not carry enough weight to justify an impeachment. The chairman himself in a very fair way yesterday, apparently on television, said that he did not think there were now votes in the Senate for impeachment, and that wouldn't be the case unless public opinion moved. What we have to resist - and I do not impute this to the chairman - but there are other people who I think have this motive - what we have to resist is an effort to keep going to try and move public opinion.
REP. CHARLES SCHUMER, (D) New York: I'd support a motion of censure, a motion to rebuke, as President Ford suggested yesterday, not because it is politically expedient to do, but because the president's actions cry out for punishment, and because censure or rebuke, not impeachment, is the right punishment. It is time to move forward, and not have the Congress and the American people endure a specter of what could be a long - a year-long focus on a tawdry but not impeachable affair.
KWAME HOLMAN: While some members indicated they had made up their minds as to whether the president had committed impeachable offenses, others said they would wait until they heard more evidence.
REP. HOWARD BERMAN, (D) California: This is not just about sex. But it is colored by sex. That coloration could be viewed by some as irrelevant. That coloration could be viewed by some as mitigating criminal wrongdoing. It is up to this committee to decide in this uniquely political and legal and democratic forum the significance of the context and how, if at all, it affects our determination of whether impeachable offenses have been committed. REP.
LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) South Carolina: Nobody can tell me yet whether this is part of a criminal enterprise or a bunch of lies that build upon themselves based on not wanting to embarrass your family. If that's what it is about an extramarital affair with an intern, and that's it, I will not vote to impeach this president, no matter if 82 percent of the people at home want me to, because it will destroy this country. If it is about a criminal enterprise, where the operatives of the president at every turn confront witnesses against him in illegal ways, threaten people, extort them, if there's a secret police unit in this White House that goes after women or anybody else that gets in the way of this president, that is Richard Nixon times ten and I will vote to impeach him.
KWAME HOLMAN: Opening statements alone took up all of three hours. Following a short break for lunch, the committee heard from its two chief investigators, who have analyzed the information sent to the House by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The Republican's lead counsel, David Schippers, presented his findings first.
DAVID SCHIPPERS, Republican Counsel: It has been the considered judgment of my staff and myself that our main focus should be on those alleged acts and omissions by the president which affect the rule of law and the structure and integrity of our court system. Deplorable as the numerous sexual encounters related in the evidence may be, we chose to emphasize the consequences of those acts as they affect the administration of justice and the unique role the president occupies in carrying out his oath faithfully to execute the laws of the nation. The prurient aspect of the referral is, at best, merely peripheral to the central issues.
The assertions of presidential misconduct cited in the referral, though arising initially out of sexual indiscretions, are completely distinct and involve allegations of an ongoing series of deliberate and direct assaults by Mr. Clinton upon the justice system of the United States and upon the judicial branch of our government which holds a place in the constitutional framework of checks and balances equal to that of the executive and the legislative branches. As a result of our research and review of the referral and supporting documentation, we respectfully submit that there exists substantial and credible evidence of 15 separate events directly involving President William Jefferson Clinton that could, could constitute felonies which in turn may constitute grounds to proceed with an impeachment inquiry.
KWAME HOLMAN: For an hour, Schippers methodically went through the allegations against the president and the evidence supporting them. For instance, he produced a series of charts showing a flurry of phone calls that followed the president's deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case last January.
DAVID SCHIPPERS: At approximately 1 p.m., the president calls both Vernon Jordan and Betty Currie at their homes. Between 2:15 and 2:55, the records show that Vernon Jordan placed one call to the White House and one call to the president, himself. And at 5 o'clock the president meets with Betty Currie. In that meeting, the president informs Ms. Currie that he had been questioned at his deposition about Monica Lewinsky. During the next three hours and sixteen minutes Betty Currie places four pages to Monica Lewinsky's pager requesting that Monica call Kay, a previously agreed upon code name that was being used by Ms. Currie and Ms. Lewinsky. At 10:09 p.m., Monica Lewinsky finally telephoned Betty Currie at home. She told Betty Currie that she was not in a position to be able to talk but that she would call back later.
KWAME HOLMAN: Schippers' briefing was carefully constructed, broken down into sections and subsections so that members could follow easily. This was Schippers' explanation of the allegation that the president may have obstructed justice.
DAVID SCHIPPERS: First, there is substantial and credible evidence that the president may have been part of a conspiracy with Monica Lewinsky and others to obstruct justice and the due administration of justice by (a) providing false and misleading test under oath in a civil deposition and before the grand jury; (b) withholding evidence and causing evidence to be withheld and concealed; and (c) tampering with prospective witnesses in a civil lawsuit and before a federal grand jury.
The president and Ms. Lewinsky had developed a cover story to conceal their activities. On December 6, 1997, the president learned that Ms. Lewinsky's name had appeared on the Jones Vs. Clinton witness list. He informed Ms. Lewinsky of that fact on December 17, 1997, and the two agreed that they would employ the same cover story in the Jones case. The president at that time suggested that an affidavit might be enough to prevent Ms. Lewinsky from testifying. On December 19, 1997, Ms. Lewinsky was subpoenaed to give a deposition in the Jones case. Thereafter, the record tends to establish that the following events took place. One, in the second week of December, 1997, Ms. Lewinsky told Ms. Tripp that she would lie if called to testify and tried to convince Ms. Tripp to do the same; Two, Ms. Lewinsky attempted on several occasions to get Ms. Tripp to contact the White House before giving testimony in the Jones case; Three, Ms. Lewinsky participated in preparing a false and intentionally misleading affidavit to be filed in the Jones case; Four, Ms. Lewinsky provided a copy of the draft affidavit to a third party for approval and discussed changes calculated to mislead. Five, Ms. Lewinsky and the president talked by phone on January 6, 1998, and agreed that she would give false and misleading answers to question about her job at the Pentagon. Six, on January 7, 1998, Ms Lewinsky signed the false and misleading affidavit. The conspirators intended to use the affidavit to avoid Ms. Lewinsky's giving testimony. Seven, after Ms. Lewinsky's named surfaced, the conspirators began to employ code names in their contacts. Eight, on December 28, 1997, Ms. Lewinsky and the president met at the White House and discussed the subpoena she had received. Ms. Lewinsky suggested that she conceal the gifts that she'd received from the president. Shortly thereafter, the president's personal secretary, Betty Currie, picked up a box of the gifts from Ms. Lewinsky. Ten, Betty Currie hid that box of gifts under her bed at home. Eleven, the president gave false and evasive answers to questions contained in interrogatories in the Jones case. Twelve, on December 31, 1997, Ms Lewinsky, at the suggestion of a third party, deleted 50 draft notes that she had made up to the president. She had already been subpoenaed to testify in the Jones case. Thirteen, on January 17, 1998, the president's attorney produced Ms. Lewinsky's false affidavit at the president's deposition and the president adopted it as true. Fourteen, on January 17, 1998, in his deposition, the president gave false and misleading testimony under oath concerning his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky about the gifts she had given him and several other matters. Fifteen, the president on January 18, 1998, and thereafter, coached his personal secretary, Betty Currie, to give a false and misleading account of the Lewinsky relationship if called to testify. Sixteen, the president narrated elaborate, detailed false accounts of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky to prospective witnesses with the intention that those false accounts would be repeated in testimony. Seventeen, on August 17, 1998, the president gave false and misleading testimony under oath to a federal grand jury on the following points: his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, his testimony in the January 17, 1998 deposition, his conversations with various individuals; and his knowledge of Ms. Lewinsky's affidavit and its falsity.
KWAME HOLMAN: After detailing the evidence supporting all 15 of his charges against the president, Schippers concluded with a brief personal statement. He said it was delivered not as counsel to the committee but as a father, grandfather, and citizen.
DAVID SCHIPPERS: To paraphrase St. Thomas Moore in Robert Boalt's and excellent play, "A Man for All Seasons," - The laws of this country are the great barriers that protect the citizens from the winds of evil and tyranny. If we permit one of those laws to fall, who will be able to stand in the winds that follow? Fifteen generations of Americans, our fellow Americans, many of whom are reposing in military cemeteries throughout the world, are looking down on and judging what you do today. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
KWAME HOLMAN: Several Democrats quietly took exception to Schippers' personal statement, as did the Republican chairman, Henry Hyde.
REP. HENRY HYDE: The chair, in response to some questions and complaints by the Democrats -- and I must say I find them with some substance to them - object to Mr. Schippers' remarks as a citizen. He was here testifying as special counsel to the majority and not as a citizen. So those remarks he made at the end, which do not refer to the record, to refer to the Starr referral, will be stricken from the record.
KWAME HOLMAN: Abbe Lowell, the chief counsel for the committee's Democrats, then presented his analysis of the Starr Report.
ABBE LOWELL: The independent counsel can take the same conduct by the president and with all the laws that exist on the books call them one offense, ten offenses, or a hundred offenses, that is what prosecutors do. But no matter how many different grounds were sent by the independent counsel, and no matter how many majority counsel may further divide them up or rename them to be in order to pile on additional charges, they fit into three distinct claims:
First, that the president lied under oath about the nature of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; second, that he committed obstruction when he sought others to help him conceal that inappropriate relationship; and third, that he abused the office of the presidency by taking steps to hide that relationship. So no matter how majority staff may hope to strengthen their recommendation by finding new offenses to tag on, one basic allegation, - that is, that the president was engaged in an improper relationship which he did not want disclosed - is the core charge that Mr. Starr and the majority staff suggest triggers this constitutional crisis. As to the allegations that the president lied under oath, whether you call them lying or perjury or false statements, or whatever, half the alleged rounds in the independent counsel's referral and now seven of the grounds renamed by the majority staff are that the president lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It is not the actual lie about the relationship that rises to an impeachable offense. I suppose the independent counsel agrees that people lie about their improper relationships. But it is the fact that the lie occurred during a civil lawsuit, or before the independent counsel's own grand jury that, according to the charges, constitutes the offense.
Majority staff's approach, taking up where Ken Starr left off, would have the committee continue to delve into even more details concerning the physical relationship between the president and Ms. Lewinsky, so that I suppose the committee could determine who was telling the truth about who touched who where and when. However, this unseemly process does not have to occur. The better approach would be to take the independent counsel at his charge. If it was the fact that the president lied at his Paula Jones deposition that creates the possibly impeachable offense, then the inquiry required would be to determine the importance or impact of that statement in that specific case. And this is what the evidence shows: These were misstatements about a consensual relationship made during a case alleging non-consensual harassment. When Judge Weber Wright of Arkansas ruled on January 29th that the evidence about Ms. Lewinsky was "not essential to the court issues of the case," and when she then ruled on April 1st that no matter what the president did with any other woman, Ms. Jones, herself, had not proven that she had been harmed by what she alleged, the judge was giving this committee the ability to determine that the president's statements, whether truthful or not, were not of the legal importance suggested by Mr. Starr, let alone the grave constitutional significance to support impeachment. And a prolonged inquiry is not required to see that proper context.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the end of the day the committee debated the length and breadth of the impeachment process.
REP. HENRY HYDE: The clerk will call the roll.
KWAME HOLMAN: The main Democratic proposal to set a standard for impeachment and conclude any inquiry by Thanksgiving was voted down along party lines. Republicans' five-member committee majority was expected to ensure passage of the open-ended inquiry Republicans favor.