Clinton on Trial

Clinton on Trial

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 8 1998 9:30 PM

Clinton on Trial

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The President's Defense: A Good Offense

Today's Judiciary Committee hearing, the first of two days of presidential defense, begins with a new Republican game: Pin the Word on Greg Craig. Craig, the president's latest and most charming scandal lawyer, is the day's first witness. During his testimony and subsequent questioning by committee members, Republicans use every method short of the rack to make him admit the president lied. Craig concedes that the president was "misleading," "evasive," and "even maddening." Craig allows that Clinton "misled and deceived" the American people. Craig acknowledges that Clinton "did not tell the truth." Craig confesses that the president "should have made full disclosure." But the word "lie" does not cross his lips. It is a superb performance.

This semantic squabble is at the heart of today's drama. By now it is universally acknowledged that the Judiciary Committee is not the real audience for these Judiciary Committee hearings. The committee will undoubtedly approve at least one impeachment article by party line vote. The real audience is the two-dozen-odd Republican moderates who might be convinced to oppose impeachment when the full House votes on it next week.

Craig and the 14 witnesses he has marshaled are lobbying the moderates from two directions. First, they want to persuade the mods that the president is really, really, really, really sorry about Flytrap. (Even as he avoids "lie," Craig apologizes repeatedly on Clinton's behalf.) Second, they want to give the mods convincing, or at least tenable, legal and historical reasons to oppose impeachment. Craig's ducks and wiggles are part of this effort: Craig is willing to concede that Clinton has been a shifty, manipulative jerk, but he can't grant that Clinton perjured himself. If Craig admits that Clinton did break the law, then all the legal defenses vanish.

The defense strategy does not start well. The thrust and parry with Craig annoys Republicans, who are clearly tired of the White House's linguistic games. And Craig is followed by Sean Wilentz. If you had to pick the person most likely to alienate moderate Republicans, you could not do better than Wilentz: a left-wing, Ivy League professor who is more than happy to lecture members on their hypocrisy, venality, and stupidity. The Princeton University historian testifies that the framers of the Constitution intended impeachment to apply only to crimes against the United States, not to private crimes. This seems reasonable enough, but Wilentz spices his testimony with a political harangue. Those who vote to impeach Clinton "risk ... going down in history with the zealots and the fanatics. ... And your reputations will be darkened for as long as there are Americans who can tell the difference between the rule of law and the rule of politics."

But the White House defense improves after Wilentz. Yale University law Professor Bruce Ackerman makes the case that a lame-duck House can't pass impeachment. Unless the Senate finishes its trial by the end of this session-an impossibility-any impeachment articles the House approves "lose constitutional force on Jan. 3." The new House would have to reapprove such articles. Ackerman's argument does not convince committee Republicans, but it does sow confusion and doubt among them.

The Clinton witnesses' historical arguments are even stronger. In the late afternoon, former Reps. Wayne Owens, Liz Holtzman, and Robert Drinan-all Judiciary Committee members during Watergate-compare their scandal with ours. Conservative committee members would have been wise to leave these old lions alone, to silently concede that Flytrap does not match Nixon's evil. But they are so addled and frustrated and enraged by Clinton that they can't resist the bait. When Holtzman asks Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., "Is there a difference between lying under oath about a private sexual offense and lying about the secret bombing of Cambodia?" Sensenbrenner replies, amazingly, that there isn't. North Carolina Republican Howard Coble then grumps that Flytrap is a "duplication" of Watergate. Even the admirable Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., suggests that today's scandal is "probably more serious" than Watergate.

These Republican complaints tee the ball up for Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who then reads the committee excerpts from the Nixon tapes: Nixon ordering the break-in of the Brookings Institution, Nixon ordering IRS audits of his political enemies, Nixon ordering the CIA to stop the FBI investigation of Watergate. It is a crystalline moment, a perfect encapsulation of how petty Clinton's crimes are and how absurd it is to waste all this time on them.

(The committee member who follows Meehan, Indiana Republican Steve Buyer, whines that the reason Flytrap hasn't broken open like Watergate is that "We don't have a John Dean." Republicans still don't seem to understand. The problem is not that they don't have a John Dean. It's that they don't have a Richard Nixon. The presidential crimes simply can't compare.)

Late in the day, and outside the committee, the White House makes another, less successful, effort to win over the moderates. It releases a 180 page legal defense against the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The report, which the White House is gleeful about, is full of credible legal arguments: Clinton did not technically perjure himself because the questions were vague or because he did not intend to lie or because it's his word against hers. But I suspect the report may undo whatever progress the White House made today. The problem with legal documents is that they are, well, legalistic. The White House brief is technical and full of citations. It does indeed give the moderates legal arguments to seize, but it also reinforces the notion that the White House is just splitting hairs. I suspect the ambivalent Republicans will see more hairsplitting than legal persuasion.

The Joy of That Kind of Activity

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Greg Craig is not the only person performing linguistic gymnastics today. Committee members offer superb euphemisms to describe the president's sexual encounters with Monica. One calls it "intimate touching." Another offers "that kind of activity." Rep. Bob Wexler wins first prize with "the characteristics of their relationship."