Washington, 14 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - The 18th Century American statesman and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote that nothing is certain except death and taxes; but it's a reasonable assumption that most of Washington will be eagerly awaiting news Monday of President Bill Clinton's testimony about an alleged affair with a young woman in the White House.
The president is expected to spend a major part of the weekend meeting with his personal attorneys to prepare his appearance before a grand jury of private citizens. Clinton has said he will testify truthfully and completely.
The White House has indicated that Clinton will answer every question asked when he testifies Monday in the investigation into his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. She is a former unpaid White House assistant who has reportedly testified before the same grand jury that she had a sexual relationship with the president that lasted for 18 months beginning in 1995.
The issue, however, is not whether Clinton committed adultery. A special government prosecutor who is conducting this investigation is trying to determine if there is enough evidence to show that Clinton instructed Lewinsky to lie about the relationship and that Clinton himself lied about his conduct while he was under oath in another legal proceeding.
Those allegations could lead to criminal charges against the president.
The grand jury meets in secret at a federal court building in Washington. Other witnesses in this investigation, including Lewinsky, have gone before the jury in person to give testimony. Clinton will not.
An agreement with the special prosecutor, Judge Kenneth Starr, will allow Clinton to talk to the jury on a closed circuit television link. The broadcast will be live from the White House directly to the jury room a few blocks away. Unlike other witnesses, Clinton will also have the benefit of the counsel of his own lawyers. Grand jury witnesses usually meet the jury alone.
There has been endless speculation in the press about what legal strategy Clinton might follow on Monday. Like every other American citizen, he has the constitutionally-guaranteed right to withhold answers to questions that might get him into later legal trouble. That is known as the right of protection from self-incrimination.
However, Deputy White House press spokesman Joe Lockhart has said that Clinton's statement about testifying truthfully and completely means he will answer all questions. Said Lockhart, "the statement I think is pretty straightforward, that he will testify completely and truthfully."
It's not clear yet whether Clinton will be the last witness in this grand jury investigation. Starr has the right to recall any previous witness for more questioning. However, pressure has been increasing on the prosecutor to conclude the inquiry and make a report to the U.S. Congress.
The Congress, not the prosecutor or the grand jury, will decide whether charges may be brought against the president. There is no specific law or constitutional amendment that states what must be done in the event of alleged criminal actions by a president in office. However, the consensus of legal opinion is that a president may not be indicted while in office. Starr has also indicated that he agrees with that principle.
The U.S. Constitution states that the Congress has the power to remove the president, the vice president and federal judges "on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
The law that established the independent prosecutor says the counsel is supposed to advise the House "of any substantial and credible information," that could serve as grounds for an impeachment.
Starr's report would be sent to the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives. The committee recommends whether the full 435-member House should debate impeachment. If the House votes to impeach, a trial is held in the 100-member Senate which could end with the removal of an impeached official. Once removed from office, that official is subject to prosecution in the public courts.
However, congressional leaders have been cautioning against speculation about what might happen in the weeks ahead. The Congress is on its summer recess until the first week in September. Then, the House and Senate both plan to adjourn for the year on October 9. This is an election year. All 435 House seats and 34 of the 100 Senate seats are up for election in November. The sentiment in Washington is that no one in Congress really wants to undertake a proceeding as potentially divisive as impeachment in an election year.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), has indicated that a public apology by Clinton for his alleged misbehavior would eliminate the need for impeachment proceedings. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), has urged restraint. Even before Congress began its August recess, Hyde urged his colleagues to, "Be judicious. Don't speculate. Maintain the dignity of the institution."