What Is Clinton's Perjury Defense?

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Dec. 18 1998 3:12 PM

What Is Clinton's Perjury Defense?

President Clinton still insists he has not committed perjury. Given what we know, is that possible? What exactly is his argument?

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Until last week, the president never backed up his assertion of innocence with any details. During the House Judiciary Committee hearings, though, Clinton's legal team released a 184-page document which defends the president in highly specific terms.

First, a brush-up on the definition of perjury. Perjury means (a) knowingly (b) making a false statement (c) about material facts (d) while under oath. It's not perjury if you honestly believe what you're saying is true, or if your lie is irrelevant to the issue you're under oath about. Moreover, the Supreme Court has ruled that it's OK for "a wily witness [to] succeed in derailing the questioner--so long as the witness speaks the literal truth." Disingenuousness and misleading (but not technically inaccurate) answers are not perjury. Finally, you're off the hook for perjury if a subsequent statement in the same proceeding corrects an otherwise perjurious statement.

Even so, does Clinton have a case? Here are the accusations and Clinton's replies:

Perjury #1A: Undefined Sex.

Paula Jones' lawyers asked whether Clinton had had a "sexual affair" with Lewinsky. He answered no. His lawyers argue that Clinton believes "sexual affair" means "sexual intercourse." If this is indeed what Clinton believes--and since no one has alleged that Clinton and Lewinsky had sexual intercourse--his testimony wasn't perjurious. Clinton's defenders have pointed to several dictionaries to show that his definition is not completely eccentric. Moreover, Lewinsky says Clinton told her he belives sexual intercourse and sexual relations to be equivalent terms.

Perjury #1B: Defined Sex.

Paula Jones' lawyers handed Clinton a now famous definition of "sexual relations"--"contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of a person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person"--and asked whether he'd had these sort of relations with Lewinsky. Clinton answered no. Kenneth Starr asked Clinton the same question before a grand jury, and again Clinton answered no.

Clinton's lawyers point out that "this narrow definition did not include certain physical acts." This, of course, is an indirect way of saying that it doesn't include oral sex. But what about Lewinsky's claim that Clinton touched her breasts? Clinton's lawyers admit that if Lewinsky is correct then Clinton perjured himself. But they point out that, under Federal law, one person's testimony is not enough to prove perjury. (The Supreme Court has ruled that perjury cannot be proved by "an oath against an oath.") So Clinton's lawyers are technically correct in concluding that "this is not a case of perjury ... the factual record would not support a prosecution for perjury."

The emphasis here is less on I-didn't-do-it than on you-can't-prove-it.

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