The Impeachment Trial of Bill Clinton
Never in the history of US Judicial history had a case generated so much controversy and media debate as the attempt to impeach President Bill Clinton during his second term in office. The case had all the ingredients of a regular potboiler, a beautiful intern, Presidential indiscretion and possible financial impropriety but more importantly, the case tested the very mettle of American Jurisprudence. This essay examines the trial for the impeachment of Bill Clinton in its entirety to arrive at the political ramifications, mistakes of the prosecution and the effect the case had on domestic and international perceptions regarding the ethical state of American Law.
The Factual Background
On May 6 1994, a former state employee in the Arkansas state government, Paula Jones had sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment while he was the Governor of Arkansas. In August 1994, Judge Kenneth Starr had been appointed as an independent counsel to investigate a real estate deal called Whitewater in which Bill Clinton was reportedly involved. Kenneth Starr during the course of his investigation found very little evidence to support his case for Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater case but had persevered trying to find some thing to link Clinton to misdemeanors.
Meanwhile, President Clinton has embarked on a secret sexual liaison with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky in the period 1995 to 1997 who confided about her involvement with the President to her ‘friend’ Linda Tripp who secretly began taping the phone conversations between her and Lewinsky. Meanwhile, the Paula Jones Vs Bill Clinton case had been reopened and the presiding District Judge in that case, Susan Webber Wright allowed Paula Jones’ lawyers to open investigation into any other liaisons, affairs or harassment with other women that Clinton may have had to buttress their case. Paula Jones’s lawyers evidently got in touch with Linda Tripp who provided the Lewinsky-Clinton liaison details. This information gave the Jones’s lawyers in December 1997, enough ammunition to include Lewinsky’s name in the list of people they wished to depose. When Bill Clinton came to know about this development he phoned Lewinsky on December 17 1997 and suggested that she could avoid deposition by filing an affidavit giving a cover story that she had visited the White House to meet his secretary Betty Currie to give some documents. On December 19th Paula Jones lawyer’s subpoenaed Lewinsky and on January 7 1998, Lewinsky signed an affidavit concerning her relationship with the President, for eventual submission to the lawyers for Jones. Soon thereafter, Vernon Jordan, a close confidante of Bill Clinton got the then out-of-work Lewinsky a job with Revlon.
Kenneth Starr through Linda Tripp came to know about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and felt that this could become a case for obstruction of justice in the Jones’s case and requested permission to expand his investigation to include the Lewinsky affair. Lewinsky’s false affidavit rendered her vulnerable to prosecution for perjury and Starr homed on to this vulnerability to induce Lewinsky to come clean who refused. The media got to know of the scandal and Clinton repeatedly denied all involvement even lying under oath in the Jones deposition. Buckling under pressure Lewinsky on July 28, 1998 signed an immunity agreement with the independent counsel’s office and told the whole story. The President’s DNA extracted from a semen stain on Lewinsky’s dress proved to be clinching evidence and on August 17, 1998, President Clinton appeared before the grand jury in the District of Columbia where he admitted to his relationship with Lewinsky but refused to admit that he had sex with Lewinsky. On September 9, 1998, the Starr report was tabled in the House (Oppenheimer, 2002, p. 307) that authorized the House Judiciary Committee to conduct an investigation into the affair. On November 27, 1998 in response to 81 questions posed to him by the House Judiciary Committee, Clinton again repeated his denials under oath setting the stage for the impeachment trial that was opened on January 7 1999.
Summary of the Trial Events
The impeachment trial began with the swearing in of the senators and Judge Rehnquist being sworn in as the presiding judge. On January 8, the senate agreed on the impeachment procedure with a 100-0 margin that set the stage for summoning the President. On January 14, 1999 Senator Hyde delivers his opening statement laying down the business of the court over the course of the trial together with the operative dates. 12 members of the House were nominated as ‘managers’ for the proceedings of the trial. This statement was followed by an overview delivered by Sensenbrenner, who stated that Bill Clinton put himself repeatedly above the law when he “engaged in a multifaceted scheme to obstruct justice (Linder, 1999)” during the Paula Jones vs Clinton case and that he made perjurious, false and misleading statements under oath during his grand jury testimony on August 17, 1998 these being sufficient grounds to carry out an impeachment of the President. The manager then pointed to past precedence for judicial impeachments in which Judge Clairborne, Judge Hastings and Judge Nixon had been removed from office on charges of perjury. Clinton was charged with obstruction of justice on seven specific instances as also perjury. Thereafter three managers provided evidence on the case. January 15, and January 16 were the two days where the prosecution covered the evidence of the case, the perjury law and the laws regarding obstruction of justice, constitutional arguments and impeachment precedence. From January 19 to January 21 1999, the defense deposed its side of the case arguing that the President had never committed perjury or tried to obstruct justice. From January 22 to January 23 the defense was grilled by the senators with 105 questions going into the minute details of the case. On January 25th the court debated on the possibility of dismissal of the charges in which both the sides were given the chance to argue their case that was then settled for not agreeing to a dismissal of the case with a 57-43 margin. On January 26, the court carried out a debate on the principal witnesses Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal and the three deposed on January 28, February 1 and February 2, 1999. This was followed by a presentation of evidence on February 6 and video presentations on February 7th with closing arguments on February 8, 1999. On February 9, motions to hold closed sessions was deliberated that was followed by a final vote on February 12, 1999 in which the senators voted along party lines proclaiming Bill Clinton not guilty on Article I, charge of perjury by a margin of 55-45 and a tie of 50-50 on article II, obstruction of justice. Since two thirds of the senators had not pronounced Clinton guilty of the charges, President Clinton was acquitted of all charges.
The impeachment trial effectively consigned Bill Clinton under a shadow of doubt as the man who let down the highest office of the United States. Politically, Clinton could not seriously engage on any initiative with the Congress or even his own party. In the aftermath of the Clinton impeachment trial, the Democrats lost their ‘moral high ground’ which to a large extent affected the prospects of Al Gore, the Democratic Presidential nominee who lost the election to George W Bush. It has been variously commented that Clinton’s indiscretions cost the Democrats the Presidency for the next eight years. The trial brought to fore the bitter rivalry and lack of bipartisanship in the US political system, where every battle was being viewed along party lines and not on the necessity or propriety of the incident.
Many in America felt that Judge Kenneth Starr’s overwhelming attention on the lurid explicit details of Clinton-Lewinsky sexual escapades angered many of the senators. Some of the ‘fence sitters’ on the Democrat side who otherwise may have voted against Clinton felt outraged at the relentless legal attention to the physical acts which were recorded in great detail by the prosecution and felt that it amounted to a personal vendetta by Starr who had something personal against Bill Clinton. A lesser attention to the salacious details and greater focus on the legal aspects of perjury and obstruction of justice may well have resulted in a successful impeachment of Bill Clinton. There was no cross examination of the witnesses. The prosecutors of the house mistakenly believed that perjury was a lesser crime and put in more effort in trying to prove the obstruction of justice offense which in fact was more difficult to prove. This gave the senators a feeling that the perjury offense was a lesser offense and since obstruction of justice could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt they concluded that Clinton’s offenses did not qualify to be called high crimes and misdemeanor worthy of impeaching a President.
Domestic and International Perceptions
The conduct of the trial brought to fore many disturbing features of the state of justice delivery system in the US especially when concerning the rich and the powerful. Though there had been enough evidence to prove that Clinton lied under oath, the charges were wished away in larger interests. This perception was clearly enunciated by one of the senators, Dale Bumpers who stated that “He is not the issue. He will be gone. You won’t. So don’t leave a precedent from which we may never recover and almost surely regret (Kaplan & Moran, 2001, p. 253)”. Clinton’s verbal calisthenics that he never had ‘sexual relations with that woman’ cuts no ice with the wider world as fellatio is a recognized sex act. Yet others believed that the Clinton acquittal reflected a ‘beltway’ acceptability that “did not meet the legal requirements of high crime and misdemeanor (Baumgartner & Kada, 2003, p. 38)”. Others believed that all that Clinton had required to do was to have come clean on his relationship with Lewinsky instead of embarking upon a series of cover up actions as Posner states that “if Clinton had confessed, there would have been no need for a trial” (2000, p. 195) .
In the end, the decision not to impeach the President rested more on political considerations rather than judicial correctness or the merits of the case. It must be highlighted that the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998 had impeached the President on the grounds of perjury to the grand jury by a margin of 228-206 and obstruction of justice by a 221-212 vote. However, the senate acquitted him by voting along party lines. The impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, only the second in the history of US Presidents is a landmark case that will continue to fascinate students of law for posterity.
Baumgartner, J. C., & Kada, N. (2003). Checking Executive Power: Presidential Impeachment in Comparative Perspective. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing.
Kaplan, L. V., & Moran, B. I. (2001). Aftermath: The Clinton Impeachment and the Presidency in the Age of Political Spectacle. NY: NYU Press.
linder, D. O. (1999, January 14). Clinton Impeachment Trial. Retrieved Apr 30, 2009, from Famous Trials: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/stories/sensetes011499.htm
Oppenheimer, B. I. (2002). U.S. Senate Exceptionalism. Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Posner, R. A. (2000). An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton. Harvard: Harvard University Press.