The Starr Report
By William Saletan
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr has submitted his report to Congress. If early briefings provided to the New York Times and Washington Post are correct and complete, it's highly unlikely that Congress will impeach President Clinton. Here are the charges and their respective weight in the impeachment calculus.
1) Perjuring in the Paula Jones deposition. Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky and said he didn't recall ever being alone with her in the White House.
Prognosis: Conclusively proved but not fatal, because 1) Congress already knows Clinton lied and 2) enough members of Congress will agree that the lies were about adultery--not about official duties--and were motivated by natural embarrassment.
2) Perjuring before the grand jury Aug. 17. Clinton testified that he had engaged in "inappropriate intimate physical contact" with Lewinsky but maintained that their contact did not meet the Jones lawyers' definition of "sexual relations."
Prognosis: Proved in letter but not in spirit. Clinton essentially confirmed to the grand jury, and again on television that night, that he had messed around with Lewinsky. His denial that this constituted "sexual relations" is unpersuasive hairsplitting. But so is Starr's charge that such a hairsplitting denial, in the midst of an essential confession, constitutes perjury.
3) Coaching Betty Currie. The report says after testifying in January, Clinton asked Currie questions calculated to influence her potential testimony about Lewinsky.
Prognosis: This could be fatal to Clinton, if proved, since Congress won't tolerate the president bullying an innocent third party into a cover-up. But Currie's testimony has evidently failed to clarify the intent of the conversation sufficiently. If it remains a matter of subtle interpretation, Congress won't have the confidence to impeach Clinton over it.
4) Getting Lewinsky a job. The report says Clinton enlisted Vernon Jordan to get Lewinsky a nice private sector job in order to shut her up.
Prognosis: This was the charge that was supposed to justify the whole investigation and link it to other Clinton scandals. The theory was that Clinton and Jordan had conspired to get former Assistant Attorney General Web Hubbell lucrative private sector contracts in order to shut him up about Whitewater, and they were pulling the same stunt with Lewinsky. But Starr's report allegedly portrays Jordan as Clinton's innocent dupe in the Lewinsky job hunt, which kills the larger theory and thus the likelihood that this line of attack will lead to impeachment.
5) Hiding the gifts. Lewinsky says Clinton told her she didn't have to turn over to Jones' lawyers (as evidence) gifts Clinton had given her, as long as she didn't have them in her possession. Currie subsequently called Lewinsky and went to her apartment to retrieve the gifts.
Prognosis: If Clinton explicitly orchestrated the retrieval, there's a good chance Congress will impeach him over it, since 1) it entails far more aggressive defiance of the law than perjury does and 2) it involves the enlistment of an innocent third party. But Currie evidently said that Lewinsky, not Clinton, directly prompted the retrieval.
6) Hushing up Lewinsky in 1997. The report says that, in the summer of 1997, 1) Clinton asked Lewinsky to keep their affair secret and 2) he tried to get her a new job that would bring her back to the White House. The report portrays this as an attempt to obstruct justice by buying Lewinsky's silence after Jones' lawyers had said they would seek testimony from Clinton's lovers.
Prognosis: Weak. This was six months before Lewinsky was subpoenaed. Criminal intent in these actions is extremely hard to prove.
7) Abusing power. Clinton used government lawyers to file numerous motions, chiefly claims of privilege, to frustrate Starr's investigation and his subpoenas of testimony from Clinton's aides. Starr reportedly likens this to Watergate.
Prognosis: Extremely weak. Only the most partisan Republicans in Congress will accept the argument that mounting a legal defense, within the law, constitutes obstruction of justice or abuse of power.
8) Inducing aides to lie to the grand jury. Clinton falsely denied the affair to his aides. On that basis, his aides reportedly falsely denied it when summoned before the grand jury. Starr portrays this as a deliberate decision by Clinton to let the aides mislead the grand jury.
Prognosis: This is a derivative of Charge No. 1 and will fail for the same reasons.
9) Having sex while talking to members of Congress. According to the report, Lewinsky testified that on two occasions in 1995, Clinton was engaged in a sex act with her while he talked on the phone with a member of Congress.
Prognosis: This will disgust the public and give late-night comedians plenty of material, but it won't add anything to the case for impeachment.
10) Having kinky sex. The report includes graphic accounts of a dozen sexual encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky. Sources told the Washington Post that Lewinsky testified specifically about their use of a cigar on one occasion. Starr's team says these details show that Clinton's denial of "sexual relations" is false.
Prognosis: Over time, the inclusion of this material will hurt Starr more than it will Clinton, by overdosing Congress with sexual details and inviting charges of prosecutorial prurience.
11) Silencing Linda Tripp about Kathleen Willey. Starr's team says that, in July 1997, Clinton met with Lewinsky and encouraged her to ask Tripp to keep quiet about Willey, who alleged that Clinton had subjected her (Willey) to an unwanted sexual advance.
Prognosis: This is the truly dangerous sleeper in the report. If proved, it would show that Clinton's alleged cover-up effort extended beyond his consensual affair with Lewinsky to a separate nonconsensual incident. This would almost certainly lead to impeachment.
Bottom line: Unless the Willey incident can be confirmed as advertised, the Starr report delivers no lethal revelations. The suspense of the past four weeks is culminating not with a bang, but with the click of an empty chamber against Clinton's head.
Photograph of Kenneth Starr by Larry Downing/Reuters.