December 9, 1998
Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and National Journal and Newsweek columnist Stuart Taylor, Margaret Warner and Jim Lehrer anticipate the testimony of Charles Ruff, the White House chief counsel.
JIM LEHRER: President Clinton's legal defense before the House Judiciary Committee. Stuart Taylor of the National Journal and Newsweek magazines and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe are back to offer their commentary. The NewsHour's chief Washington correspondent, Margaret Warner, is here to assist me in keeping the story line going, among other things. And speaking of the story line, tell us what it is this afternoon.
Assessing the hearing.
| MARGARET WARNER: Well, this is the big moment that everyone's been
waiting for, I think the President's detractors, as well as his supporters.
This is when Charles Ruff, the White House counsel, lays out the president's
defense both factually and on the law. And he -
JIM LEHRER: And there he is, sitting. He's already at the witness table, waiting for the committee members, and the man directly behind him is David Kendall, who is the president's personal lawyer, now being obstructed by a - there you go - there, you can see him - just to Mr. Ruff's left. That is David Kendall, the president's personal lawyer, who is not scheduled to participate in this, this afternoon, correct?
MARGARET WARNER: That's correct. He did the questioning of Kenneth Starr when Kenneth Starr appeared before the committee. But he has been kept out of a public role in these hearings this week.
JIM LEHRER: And Mr. Ruff will - will obviously be speaking - what he says will be based on the 182-page paper that the White House has offered, correct?
MARGARET WARNER: That's correct. And, you know, we heard a lot of the Republicans say there are no new facts in it, and I think the White House might acknowledge there are no new facts. What they try to do is take other facts that were in the records amassed by Kenneth Starr and put them in a new light or arrange them in a new way, and I think that's what we'll hear Ruff do. Then, of course, there will be at least three hours' of questioning by the members of the committee. They each again will get five minutes. Then -
JIM LEHRER: And that takes roughly - there are 37 members - it takes roughly three minutes -
MARGARET WARNER: It's another three hours.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Three hours, right.
MARGARET WARNER: It's very clear Ruff will take his full three hours to make his original presentation, but after that, we heard Chairman Hyde suggest that David Schippers, the majority counsel, may question Mr. Ruff, and it's unclear how long that would go for.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now, that's in addition to - Schippers and Abbe Lowell, who is his counterpart of the Democratic side - they will make summary presentations of their own tomorrow, but they could both -
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: -- be allowed to question or particularly Mr. Schippers - to question Mr. Ruff this afternoon. Tom, tell us a little bit - we talked before the break a little bit about Charles Ruff. Tell us a little bit more about him.
TOM OLIPHANT: Okay. In this case he has turned out to be a very important figure because he has advised the president throughout to aggressively defend his office, when aides were subpoenaed and assertions of executive privilege were made, it was often on his very vigorous recommendation that this happen. When other privileges were asserted, often unsuccessfully, again, Mr. Ruff was in the background. I mean, it's interesting because in one of the charges in this case abuse of power that was in Mr. Starr's referral, these very aggressive assertions of presidential privilege were cited as a ground for impeachment. So, on an intellectual basis as opposed to a political basis, this is an extremely vigorous advocate for the office of the presidency.
JIM LEHRER: Stuart, where do those matters stand now? What is your reading of the abuse of power, that particular element to the charges against the president, are they likely to be part of an impeachment article?
|The charge of abuse of power.|
STUART TAYLOR: I really don't know. We heard that a couple of Republicans on the committee, Representatives Pease and I think Gekas - don't like the idea of including in an article of impeachment, the idea that someone claim privilege - executive privilege - trying to claim it - and it was bogus and therefore, we're going to impeach him. And from the start, those - that particular charge, particularly insofar as it hinges on claiming privileges, has been widely derided by - at least by the President's side as particularly weak, and the courts did not reject the privileges out of hand. Kenneth Starr won those fights, but not - not slam dunk. On the other hand, the abuse of power charges, as I read them, are not solely based on claiming privileges. It's sort of where Starr tries to take the entire course of conduct beginning with the alleged perjuries in the Paula Jones deposition - even before - with the alleged suborning of perjury by Monica Lewinsky and continuing through sending the Secretary of State out to repeat the lies, repeating them to other people, stonewalling the grand jury for six months - the whole seven month spectacle. And I think Starr tries to weave the privilege claims as part of a general picture that the president was using his office - this is where he tries to take it out of just being about his private life - using his office to stonewall a criminal investigation.
JIM LEHRER: And, Tom, in the - right before the break it was actually Congressman Wexler of Florida who re-raised the issue that this was really about sex, and it had to do - the questioning of Mr. Sullivan, one of the panel of lawyers who was there - that it had to do with whether or not the president - where and how the president touched Monica Lewinsky, and it really is - that's what this case is all about. Republicans immediately, of course, countered that. Where do you think that argument rests at this moment?
TOM OLIPHANT: It is very important to this case substantively and politically how you come out on this. We're still - as we wait for these charges to be made public - there are many members of the House who do not want to vote for just an article of impeachment about perjury. I think that's really -
JIM LEHRER: Meaning that he lied about some element of what he did or didn't do with Monica Lewinsky?
TOM OLIPHANT: But sooner or later, when you peel the layers of law, you get to sex.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: But that - the question then becomes: Can you frame a charge or write one about an alleged obstruction of justice or an alleged abuse of power that is capable of getting a majority even in the committee, much less on the floor, so there's a delicate dance going on within the Republican majority really about how to frame this case. There are people who would support an article based on perjury that might oppose it if that's all there was to the case, and then they're having a problem coming up with a charge that can carry the committee on abuse of power or obstruction. I think they're likely to settle, I think, on the relationship with Betty Currie in the days after the civil deposition to come up with a tampering allegation, and that may fly in the committee.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. What do you think, Stuart, on this argument it's been there from the very beginning, when this case broke 10 months ago or 11 months ago, actually it's almost a year now - 11 months ago - about whether it was about this or whether it was about that - and it always comes back to the two camps - this was about lying under oath, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera - no, it's about sex.
STUART TAYLOR: One reason we can't ever completely resolve that is of course it's about both. It is utterly clear that if the president had told the truth about sex in that deposition, no one would have proposed that he be impeached, or at least no one would be taken seriously. And so what gave this whole - and nobody would have criminally investigated him either. So what got this into criminal impeachment terrain is the lying and the alleged obstruction of justice. And I think you can argue endlessly as to what's really at the heart of it, and I think they'll be arguing that on the floor, and they'll be arguing it in the history books 100 years from now.
|Sexual aspects of the case.|
MARGARET WARNER: One thing I thought was interesting this morning, for months we've all said neither side wants to talk about the actual sexual aspects of the case, you know, who touched who and where and so on. The last couple of days we've seen particularly Democrats being willing to bring it up, to actually discuss it. I mean, is that a strategy?
TOM OLIPHANT: Of course, because this is how you begin to prepare the way, at least toward a possible solution. The Democrats have lie or you know, something more than mislead to give. The Republicans have this willingness to consider something short of impeachment. But I am struck - to pick up on your point, Margaret, how on each side there's kind of a don't go into this zone, almost a conspiracy of silence. On the one hand, the Democrats have called no fact witnesses, the Republicans are right. Why? They want to have the case decided on summary judgment. Let's just say it's not impeachable, get rid of it. But over on the other side, the Republicans have called no fact witnesses. The Democrats are right. Why? Because some of the witnesses conflict with each other, because it gets into sex, and it's grimy, so that almost by mutual agreement the two sides have given a case that had no witnesses.
JIM LEHRER: Is the public perception, the perception that the public does not want to hear about the sex part, that that's tawdry, they're sick of that, is that what's also influencing both sides?
TOM OLIPHANT: Bones just burned up the minute the referral went over there.
MARGARET WARNER: Then why are the Democrats starting to bring it up more and more, is it because to re-arouse the sort of public -
STUART TAYLOR: I think their objective is to trivialize the perjury; it's just about sex - what did the president touch and when did the president touch it - that sort of thing. And it's hard to do that, to try and get the message across as to what the perjury is about without saying what it's about. But one thing that I think is worth emphasizing - the grand jury perjury allegation is really what I would call lying about lying about sex. By the time it was in the grand jury they had his DNA on her dress. The fact that sex, as most of us would define it - you know-had happened - was no longer in dispute, and he admitted it in the grand jury, and it's quite clear, if you parse it, that the reason we're arguing about did he touch her here, did he touch her there, is that the president went into the grand jury and would not admit that he had lied about sex earlier -
JIM LEHRER: In the Paula Jones case.
STUART TAYLOR: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
STUART TAYLOR: And Starr's argument is in order to avoid admitting that he lied about sex earlier, he lied again about sex in the grand jury in terms of the details. Now it gets a little finer tuned, but that's the essence of it.
TOM OLIPHANT: That is central. You've got to have - in order to keep that Republican majority together - Lindsey Graham, for example - you must have a charge of grand jury perjury, so however tortured it may be, it is essential to the Republican initiative.
JIM LEHRER: There is the chairman, Mr. Hyde. He is gaveling for order. And we're about to launch the afternoon.