The Magazine

WHITE HOUSE FEARS

Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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LAST WEEK, WHITE HOUSE press secretary Joe Lockhart explained why Bill Clinton beings the Senate impeachment trail at a profound disadvantage. The case that Republicans will bring against the president, Lockhart told the New York Times, is based on "the most prejudicial record that could possibly exist" -- a record that is mysterious in origin, "untested and not cross-examined," a record from which "we know exculpatory information was left out." No sane defendant would choose to defend himself self against such incomplete and misleading evidence in court, Lockhart implied. Nevertheless, he said, "We are accepting that record."


Does the White House have a death wish? Why would the president's lawyers allow biased and incomplete evidence against their client to stand unchallenged? Because the alternative is worse. Challenging the facts of Ken Starr's case would require new testimony, and there is nothing the White House wants less than a Senate trial with witnesses.


All of which puts Clinton partisans in a tough position. It's hard to argue simultaneously that Starr's evidence is misleading and that no witnesses should be called to correct it, though the president's defenders have done their best. I don't think witnesses should be called, James Carville explained last week, because, "as a human being, I don't want to see Betty Currie have to testify." Hours later, Carville's former partner, Paul Begala, made the same point in strikingly similar language. "As a human being," Begala said, "I'd rather do almost anything than see Betty Currie dragged through this stuff one more time."


Apparently, someone in the White House communications office realized that Betty Currie's hurt feelings didn't make for a very effective talking point, because within a short time a new argument appeared: Calling witnesses would make for a long trial -- months and months, at minimum -- and a long trial hurts everybody. The White House would be paralyzed for the duration. The Supreme Court, adrift without the chief justice, would cease to hear cases. The American people would miss out on all sorts of vital education and health care initiatives. Only Republicans would welcome the gridlock, and they, too, would suffer in the end, punished by angry voters two years from now.


It's grim scenario, and not all of it is spin. Witnesses would certainly make the trial longer. A long trial might indeed irritate the public and hurt the Republican party in the 2000 elections. The White House, meanwhile, will be in a poor position to haggle over legislation while the trial is in progress. "To the extent that Bill Clinton is held hostage to the Democratic party during the impeachment process," says someone who frequently advises the administration, "he cannot negotiate as easily with the Republicans on something as sensitive as Social Security. He needs to keep his labor base."


All of this is true, but there are other reasons the president's advisers fear a parade of witnesses at trial. For one thing, the longer a trial continues, the more opportunities the president will have to sabotage his own good fortune. There is the possibility that Clinton will have another unseemly, and televised, outburst of smugness -- a repeat of what one adviser calls "the bongo-beating, cigar-chomping thing" -- and alienate Senate Democrats in the process. There is also the chance that yet another scandal will break before the president has been acquitted. Rumors that Clinton has an illegitimate teenage child by a Little Rock prostitute have been floating around Washington for weeks (and around Arkansas for years). On its face, the story seems implausible. On the other hand, no one around Clinton is categorically denying it. "I have no idea whether it's true or not," says Lanny Davis, formerly of the White House counsel's office. "I don't think people want to think about it. It's like we're all afraid to breathe when the topic is raised."


Nor is the appearance of a Clinton love child the White House's only fear. Perhaps as terrifying, a long trial would force Clinton defenders to explain why, exactly, a president who commits perjury should keep his job. So far, says Lanny Davis, "No Democrat has been willing to utter the words, 'Perjury before a grand jury is not grounds for removing the president from office.' I mean, I have a hard time saying that But that's exactly what we are saying. And the way that we articulate it is, 'We don't accept that there was perjury before the grand jury' -- I think I have a harder time with the civil deposition -- 'but it's a terrible thing that he did. He shouldn't be removed from office.'" Once a trial begins, Davis says, "they're going to have to confront the reality, on both sides, of what they're really doing, and articulate it clearly."


If witnesses are called, the White House may also have to confront the reality of Monica Lewinsky. It's axiomatic among lawyers that the certainty of a mediocre settlement is better than the rise of a trial, and Lewinsky proves the pint. No one at the White House has spoken to Monica Lewinsky in more than a year. No one knows what she might say if put on the stand. Consider, for example, her now-famous statement to Starr's grand jury, "Nobody ever asked me to lie." Much has been made of these words, and in a trial without witnesses, they are priceless for the White House, certain to be at the center of any defense against charges that the president obstructed justice. But what happens if Lewinsky herself shows up in the Senate? What if, under direct examination from Republicans, she explains that while nobody ever asked her to lie, the president and his allies winked, hinted and otherwise strongly implied that she should?


At the point, says Michael Zeldin, a trial lawyer and Clinton defender who sometimes participates in the White House's daily strategy conference call, "your well-scripted argument doesn't work any more. She's just blown you out of the water. If you're the White House, the best way you can have a trial is with no witnesses, because that way there's nobody to screw up your closing argument. You can take the cold record with nobody there to fool with it."


And even if Lewinsky -- or Betty Currie or Vernon Jordan -- has nothing new to say, just the fact of their appearing could have a profound effect on the Senate. Never underestimate, Zeldin says, the effect of live witnesses on a jury.


If you're senator who believes there shouldn't be a long trial, that it's a partisan witch hunt, that it doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense, blah, blah, blah, and then you're confronted with the evidence that the president really did lie under oath because you've seen the witness who can make his denials a lie, maybe it gives you pause, maybe you think it all over again. You just don't know what affects people. You never know. I wouldn't bet a dollar to a million bucks that this president can be assured that he won't be removed if there's a full trial.


Members of Clinton's defense team have been making the same calculations, and it private at least one of them has vowed to pull out all stops before accepting the Republican trial rules. The White House is already arguing for the right to depose any witness called before the Senate. Hillary Clinton is known to support a hardline defense strategy, and there is talk of other, more obstructionist tactics, such as challenging the legality of the trial itself, perhaps in an appeal to the Supreme Court. It's unlikely, however, that Clinton lawyers Charles Ruff and David Kendall will become too belligerent, if only for fear of alienating Democrats in the Senate. Senators like Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut won't put up with an overly legalistic defense from the president, predicts a lawyer in the White House counsel's office. "There's a real sensitivity to that," he says. "Things that you might do in a downtown superior court, you wouldn't do here."


And what will the Senate do? There has long been a consensus on television chat shows that Clinton faces no risk of removal, that 67 senators would never, in a million years, vote to convict. Someone who has spoken to Clinton recently says the president has heard all of those predictions, too. Clinton's reaction: What do thy know? They're not the one facing removal.


James Carville agrees. "In Washington," Carville says, "you can stand on a corner with a sing offering to do cable TV for a cup of coffee and someone will book you." The real test is the trial. "You can wonder about the future," he says, "but you sure can't predict it with any accuracy. These things are like kicking a door down -- no one is quite sure what's on the other side."




Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.