Washington, 23 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Even his staunchest defenders concede U.S. President Bill Clinton faces the most serious personal crisis of his presidency -- not because he allegedly committed adultery in the White House, but because he allegedly suggested to the woman involved that she deny the affair with the president.
Other news in Washington was pushed into the background as reporters seized on the possibility that a sex scandal could drive the president from office.
Clinton was supposed to have spent Wednesday giving interviews about a major speech he is to deliver next Tuesday -- the annual State of the Union message that a president is required to present to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Instead, Clinton was compelled to use the interviews to deny that he had done anything wrong.
Clinton's comments on Wednesday, however, did not settle the issue. The story only got bigger as journalists dissected every word the president used to mine any possible nuance from Clinton's remarks.
On Thursday, the Washington press corps used metaphors of war and conflict to describe the effect of the latest controversy. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory likened the story to a bomb exploding on a quiet street. The Associated Press referred to a political earthquake.
President Clinton has denied the charges. He said to reporters Thursday that: "the allegations are false, and I would never ask anybody to do anything other than tell the truth. Let's get to the big issues there -- about the nature of the relationship and whether I suggested to anybody not tell the truth. That is false."
What is going on?
First, Clinton is neither formally charged with nor accused by any law enforcement agent of any crime. However, the allegation that Clinton told a former White House aide to lie is being investigated by what is called an independent counsel. The counsel is also referred to as a special prosecutor. The independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, will determine if there is any evidence of a crime.
If criminal charges are brought, Clinton could face removal from office. That would be unprecedented. The removal of a public official is called impeachment. The proceedings are so serious that there have been only two occasions in the more than 200-year history of the United States -- in 1868 and 1974 -- that a president faced the possibility of being driven from office.
It is a measure of the gravity of the situation that even Clinton's bitterest political enemies refrained from using the word "impeach" Thursday or suggested that impeachment proceedings are imminent.
How did this come about?
The U.S. Justice Department, a cabinet ministry, is responsible for investigating alleged violations of federal laws and prosecuting those accused of breaking them. However, the head of the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney General, is appointed by the president and is often a political ally or at least a member of the same political party. In this case, Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno are Democrats.
A law that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1978 requires the Attorney General to summon a special prosecutor from outside the government when there are credible charges of wrongdoing by top government officials. The law not only covers the president, but also the vice president, all the cabinet secretaries (ministers) and several dozen of the most senior political appointees.
In January 1994, Reno appointed a lawyer named Robert Fiske as special prosecutor to investigate allegations of improper conduct by Clinton and his spouse, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. These allegations stemmed from the Clintons' financial involvement in a real estate development that went bankrupt in Clinton's home state of Arkansas. The Clintons made those investments when Clinton was governor of Arkansas and they did not involve the presidency.
Fiske resigned in August of 1994 and was succeeded by Starr. Starr has never brought charges against either the president or Mrs. Clinton in connection with the Arkansas land deal. However, several of Clinton's former political associates in that state were convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges that Starr filed in a U.S. District Court.
Starr had focused his investigation, and spent more than $25 million in the process, on the real estate investment. Last weekend, however, he asked Attorney General Reno for permission to expand his inquiry into the claim that Clinton had an affair with a 21-year-old woman who worked as an unpaid assistant at the White House in 1995, and then told her to deny the story.
That allegation arose because of another legal problem that has beset Clinton. He is being sued in the civil courts by a woman named Paula Corbin Jones. She has accused Clinton of making improper sexual advances to her in 1991, when Clinton was still governor of Arkansas and Jones was a state employee. Clinton has denied that allegation.
The president's personal lawyers tried to prevent the suit from going forward while Clinton was still in office, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the president was not immune from civil actions.
In the course of preparing their lawsuit against Clinton, the attorneys for Paula Corbin Jones went looking for any evidence of extra-marital affairs involving Clinton. This is standard procedure in civil suits. The purpose of such inquiries is to establish a pattern of behavior, to prove that a man accused of sexual harassment is capable of pressuring a woman in an attempt to have sex.
Last year, a former White House employee named Linda Tripp claimed that she knew of another affair that Clinton had in the White House with a different aide. Clinton's attorney called Tripp a liar.
Tripp wound up in a job at the Defense Department, where, news reports say, she became friends with the woman -- her name is Monica Lewinsky -- who is alleged to have had the affair that is attracting so much attention this week. According to press reports quoting Tripp, Lewinsky allegedly told her that she was transferred out of the White House to the Pentagon because Clinton's political advisers feared that knowledge of the alleged affair would leak out and damage Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996.
Lewinsky claimed, according to Tripp, that she was involved with Clinton for 18 months, from 1995 to 1997. According to press reports, Tripp was angry over being attacked by Clinton's lawyers and concerned that no one would believe her again, so, she began to secretly tape record her conversations with Lewinsky.
According to the "Washington Post," Lewinsky confided to Tripp last summer that she was afraid she would become involved in the Paula Jones case. The Post reports that the attorneys for Jones did in fact issue a legal summons to her in December that will require her to face the Jones lawyers in a procedure called a deposition.
Several press reports say that before she received the summons, Lewinsky told Tripp that Clinton and one of his most trusted political advisors from outside the government, a well-known former civil rights leader named Vernon Jordan, were urging Lewinsky to deny any sexual involvement with Clinton. Jordan denied that accusation on Thursday.
This is where the most serious trouble for Clinton could arise. If there is evidence that the president told the woman to lie in the Jones case, he could be charged with a crime called subornation of perjury, which means inducing someone to lie while under oath, or any other legal obligation to tell the truth, such as at a deposition. The president could also face a charge of obstruction of justice.
Tripp took her tape recordings to special prosecutor Starr last week. Starr called in agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and they monitored another meeting that Tripp had with Lewinsky on January 13th, where she is alleged to have discussed the affair again. The session was recorded, and this reportedly prompted Starr to ask for the authority to expand his investigation of the president.
George Stephanopoulos, who helped Clinton win the 1992 election and then managed the White House press office for most of Clinton's first term, said Wednesday that: "These are probably the most serious allegations leveled against the president. If they're true, they're not only politically damaging, but it could lead to impeachment proceedings."
Only Congress has the power to impeach and remove an official from the executive branch or a jurist from the judicial branch of government. This power has been described as the ultimate check on executive and judicial authority.
The Constitution says that Congress may remove a president, or other federal officer, from office upon impeachment for and conviction of, "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
In modern times, impeachment proceedings begin in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. If a committee investigation supports the charges against an official, the committee files a resolution of impeachment which states the specific charges. The resolution would then go to the entire House for consideration. If a majority of the House approves the resolution, the official is considered impeached. However, impeachment alone is not enough to remove an official. The next step is conviction.
From the House, the bill of impeachment moves to the Senate, where the accused official is placed on trial. If the case involves the president or vice president, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court must preside. The trial is similar to a standard criminal trial, with the accused having the right to an attorney and present witnesses in his own behalf. When the case has been presented, the Senate goes into closed session to debate guilt or innocence. There are 100 members of the Senate, and at least two-thirds of them must vote for conviction. Any result less than two-thirds means acquittal. Conviction brings automatic removal from office. There is no right of appeal.
Only once has a president been impeached by the House of Representatives. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865, was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. Historians agree that these accusations were politically motivated, mostly because Johnson's home state of Tennessee had been on the losing side in the Civil War of 1861-65. Following his trial in the Senate, the senators voted 35-19 to convict Johnson. His presidency was saved by one vote.
The spectre of presidential impeachment was raised again in July 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. He was accused of obstructing justice, abusing his power and being in contempt of Congress, charges that were raised in connection with Nixon's re-election campaign of 1972 and subsequent allegations that Nixon used the White House to cover up a campaign finance scandal.
Nixon's case never reached the House floor. Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974 when it became clear to him that the House would vote to impeach.
Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), the current chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said only that the latest allegations against Clinton might merit impeachment proceedings if the charges hold up under official scrutiny by the special prosecutor.