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United States: Investigation Overshadows Annual Presidential Speech

Washington, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- No matter what he says, President Bill Clinton's annual address to the U.S. Congress and the nation this week will be overshadowed by the investigation into allegations of improper personal conduct by the president.

Clinton is scheduled to deliver what is called the State of the Union address to a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress tomorrow night. The U.S. Constitution says the president must give a report to Congress every year on the state of the union -- the condition of the country. The speech is broadcast live.

In the 20th Century, presidents have used the State of the Union speech to not only review past accomplishments, but to outline their foreign and domestic policy goals for the coming year.

And usually, in the days before the speech, the president and his top spokesmen try to build interest for the speech by giving interviews that preview what the president intends to say.

Clinton was supposed to have done that last Wednesday. He had three separate interviews scheduled -- one for television, one for radio and one for a newspaper. However, Clinton was compelled to devote most of the interviews' time to respond to the news of the potential scandal that broke over the White House earlier that day.

A special government prosecutor is investigating charges that Clinton told a former White House aide to lie if she was ever asked about an alleged affair the two had between 1995 and 1997. The special prosecutor -- Kenneth Starr -- will determine if there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the president. Clinton could be charged with subornation of perjury -- which means persuading someone to lie while they are under a formal legal obligation to tell the truth. He could also be charged with obstruction of justice.

Clinton has denied the allegations. He said he did not have an improper sexual relationship with the woman and he said that he did not tell her to lie. Clinton has said he will cooperate with the investigation because he wants all questions answered.

The charges, if proven, could lead to the start of proceedings to remove Clinton from office. Only the U.S. Congress can remove a president. The House of Representatives would first have to pass what is called a resolution of impeachment setting out the charges, and at least 66 members of the 100-member U.S. Senate would have to vote to convict the president after a full-scale trial before the Senate.

Clinton is a Democrat. Political control of the House and Senate rests with the opposition Republican Party, but Republican leaders in Congress have spoken very softly about the possibility of impeachment proceedings, saying that the prosecutor's investigation must be completed first.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) said Friday the allegations against President Clinton could be a distraction for the White House, but he said he hoped that Congress would stay focused on its legislative agenda.

Lott said he thought Clinton should give the State of the Union address as scheduled Tuesday. When asked whether he personally believed the allegations of adultery and possible obstruction of justice he said, "I don't think I should comment on that."

Clinton has not been formally accused of any crime, and even with the controversy swirling around him, he still must lead the country. He told interviewers last week that he must go to work everyday and devote his efforts to government. Said Clinton: "Whatever I feel about it, I owe it to the American people to put it in a little box and keep working for them. This job is not like other jobs in that sense. You don't get to take a vacation from your obligations to the whole country. You just have to remember why you ran, understand what's happening and why, and go back and hit it tomorrow. That's all you can do."

There are a number of foreign and domestic policy issues on the 1998 agenda that Clinton may talk about tomorrow.

One of the central foreign policy issues is winning U.S. Senate approval for the admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into the NATO military alliance. Clinton will also need Congressional support for any extension of the U.S. commitment with NATO to maintain the peace and continue the strengthening of a federated nation in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia.

The president was encouraged last week when Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Clinton that his committee's first priority will be to secure ratification of the amendments to the NATO treaty that will allow expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.