The Magazine

WHITE HOUSE FEARS

Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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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."