Impeachment Trial of Bill Clinton

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IMPEACHMENT TRIAL OF BILL CLINTON. On 19 December 1998 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives brought two articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice. Both charges stemmed from Clinton's efforts to conceal the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, with whom he had had intermittent sexual encounters from November 1995 to April 1996 when she was a White House employee. On 12 February 1999 the Senate voted to acquit the president on both charges, capping a fourteen-month saga that dominated the news and brought partisan fighting in Washington to a fevered pitch.

The Road to Impeachment

The drama began with two would-be scandals that, apart from their implications for the Lewinsky matter, effectively came to naught. The first, which arose during the 1992 presidential campaign, involved alleged improprieties surrounding Clinton's 1978 investment in an Arkansas real estate deal known as Whitewater. After Clinton assumed the presidency in 1993, Congress held hearings on the matter, and under mounting pressure the president agreed on 12 January 1994 to appoint an Independent Counsel to investigate. In June 1994 the Counsel, Republican Robert Fiske, issued two reports exculpating Clinton. One month later, however, the Republican judge overseeing the Counsel's office replaced Fiske with the Kirkland and Ellis attorney Kenneth W. Starr, a former judge and staunch Clinton opponent who had served as solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush.

Concurrently, in December 1993 the conservative magazine The American Spectator reported claims by Arkansas state troopers that Clinton had conducted extramarital affairs while governor of Arkansas. The article attracted widespread attention among Washington journalists. On 6 May 1994, one woman cited in the article, Paula Jones, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the president, alleging he had made a lurid pass at her. Clinton fought the suit, but the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 on 27 May 1997 that it could proceed. Supported by conservative organizations and secretly assisted by Republican lawyers including Robert Bork and Theodore Olson, Jones's legal team gathered information about Clinton's sex life. They hoped to bolster Jones's claims with evidence of other harassment incidents.

Starting in October 1997, Linda Tripp, a Defense Department employee and friend of Monica Lewinsky, began secretly tape-recording her conversations with Lewinsky, which included discussions of Lewinsky's affair with Clinton two years earlier. Tripp, who disliked the president, hoped to expose the affair. In October, Tripp began sharing her information with a reporter for Newsweek magazine. In November she shared it with Jones's lawyers, who subpoenaed Lewinsky to testify. Lewinsky visited Clinton in December 1997 and discussed her testimony. On 7 January 1998 she signed an affidavit saying she had not had a "sexual relationship" with Clinton.

Meanwhile, Starr had broadened his Whitewater inquiry to probe a host of issues, including Clinton's sex life. Through back-channel contacts with Jones's lawyers, Starr learned of the Lewinsky affair. On 12 January 1998, Tripp gave Starr her tapes of Lewinsky disclosing the affair and suggesting that Clinton had encouraged her to deny it. Four days later Starr secured permission from Attorney General Janet Reno and a three-judge panel to investigate the affair.

On 17 January, Clinton, unaware of these developments, testified in the Jones case. Carefully parsing his language, he sought to avoid admitting to any extramarital sexual activity while also truthfully describing his behavior. His evasive answers, however, revealed the futility of his task. When asked, for example, if he had ever been alone with Lewinsky, he said, "I don't recall. It seems to me she brought things to me once or twice on the weekends." Such comments (and similar ones in Clinton's later testimony) became the bone of contention in the impeachment case. Clinton's critics would assert that they constituted perjury and required his ouster. The president would maintain that, although often ambiguous, they were literally truthful. Other supporters of the president would argue that, whatever their technical veracity, such statements were designed to conceal a private affair and did not warrant the removal of a president for just the second time in history.

By the time of Clinton's testimony, Newsweek was preparing to run its story, but at Starr's request, it agreed to wait. On 18 January the Drudge Report, an Internet gossip site, reported that Newsweek had held its story—thus publicly disclosing for the first time the news of Clinton and Lewinsky's affair. Mainstream news outlets began investigating the matter. On 21 January several news organizations reported the allegations, along with the fact that Starr was probing whether Clinton had committed or suborned perjury in the Jones suit.

Suddenly, newspapers and television networks sensed—and created—a scandal that riveted much of the nation for weeks and dominated the news for more than a year. Editors ordered their reporters to leave Havana, where they were covering the Pope's historic visit to Cuba, for Washington. Some commentators predicted Clinton would resign or be impeached imminently.

On 26 January, Clinton spoke at the White House, insisting, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Some observers accurately guessed that Clinton might be craftily denying that he and Lewinsky had had intercourse (which they had not) without disowning other intimate activities. Others jumped to the conclusion that he was lying. A few believed no extraordinary relationship had existed at all.

After a brief dip, Clinton's popularity quickly rebounded. By February his approval rating hovered at about 70 percent, where it remained throughout the year, despite intense criticism. For roughly the next six months, as Starr called witnesses before a grand jury, a stalemate ensued. Because Starr would not grant Lewinsky immunity from prosecution, she refused to testify. The inquiry stalled.

Starr's case suffered a blow on 1 April 1998, when U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright dismissed Jones's sexual harassment suit. The dismissal raised the prospect that Clinton's testimony in the Jones case, even if false, might be "immaterial" and technically not perjurious. Starr also drew fire for leaking grand jury testimony to sympathetic reporters in order to mobilize public pressure against the president.

In June, Lewinsky hired new lawyers, and on 27 July she "flipped." She met with Starr's staff for the first time and presented the details of her relationship with Clinton. Starr granted her immunity. Lewinsky also turned over a dress that was stained with semen, the DNA from which proved that Clinton and Lewinsky had been intimate. The next day, Clinton, whom Starr had subpoenaed to come before the grand jury, agreed to appear.

On 17 August, Clinton testified by closed-circuit television from the White House. He admitted his affair with Lewinsky while insisting he had not lied in his Jones testimony. He continued to use evasive language, for which he would later be impeached. That night, he delivered a televised address in which he apologized for a relationship with Lewinsky that he described as "not appropriate" and "wrong."

Most Americans said they were satisfied with the speech, wanted Clinton to stay in office, and hoped the investigation would be dropped. Many commentators in the media, however, joined the president's political foes in attacking his response as inadequate. In the following weeks, Clinton offered numerous additional apologies,

at one point labeling his relationship with Lewinsky "indefensible."

On 9 September, Starr submitted a 445-page report to Congress amid massive media attention. Starr charged Clinton with eleven impeachable offenses including perjury, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. Two days later, the House of Representatives voted to make the Starr report available to the public. Publishers rushed their own editions into bookstores, and the report was posted on the Internet. The report drew comment mainly for its explicit sexual detail.

Impeachment and Acquittal

Despite continuing public support for the president, the House of Representatives, in which Republicans held a twenty-one-seat majority, voted on 8 October to begin impeachment hearings. First, the Judiciary Committee would have to decide whether to recommend impeaching Clinton; then the House would have to vote to impeach; and then the Senate would vote on whether to convict Clinton and remove him from office.

On 3 November, Election Day, the Republicans lost five seats in the House after running an advertising blitz attacking the president's integrity. Few anticipated the setback, which revealed public discontent with the impeachment drive. On 6 November, House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned, stating that he was taking responsibility for the defeats, although it later emerged that Gingrich had been sexually involved with a staffer, whom he subsequently married. In the meantime, Paula Jones appealed the dismissal of her suit against Clinton, and the president, wanting to avoid further pitfalls, agreed on 13 November to pay her $850,000 if she would drop her demand for an apology. She did.

Impeachment hearings began 19 November with Starr as the main witness. Clinton participated by submitting written answers to eighty-one questions from the House Judiciary Committee. Throughout the next three months, a variety of elder statesmen and party leaders on both sides tried to negotiate a compromise under which Clinton would be censured and the impeachment charges dismissed, but these efforts repeatedly failed.

On 12 and 13 December the House Judiciary Committee, voting along party lines, approved four articles of impeachment. Two charged Clinton with perjury, a third with obstruction of justice, and a fourth with abuse of power. The House of Representatives heard arguments from both camps and planned to vote on impeachment on 16 December. But that day American and British forces attacked Iraq, hoping to thwart its development of weapons of mass destruction. Some Clinton critics, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, accused the president of trying to divert attention from the impeachment vote, which was postponed until 18 December. Then, on the morning of 19 December, Representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana, whom Republicans planned to elect as Speaker, admitted that he too had committed adultery and was resigning from Congress. (House Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde and Georgia congressman Bob Barr faced similar exposures during the impeachment saga.)

That afternoon, the House approved two articles of impeachment. The first, charging Clinton with perjury in his 17 August grand-jury testimony, passed 228-206. Another, charging obstruction of justice, passed 221-212. The two other articles, charging perjury in the Jones case and abuse of power, failed by votes of 229-205 and 285-148, respectively.

After the votes, Congress adjourned, leaving the Senate trial for the next session. Despite ongoing but futile efforts to broker a censure compromise, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Although the Republicans had a 55-45 majority, a two-thirds majority was needed to convict, and all but a few Democratic Senators had indicated they would not support the president's ouster.

Proceedings began on 7 January 1999. They followed the model of the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided as senators heard several days of testimony, first from the House Judiciary Committee Republicans who had voted for impeachment and then from Clinton's lawyers. A motion to dismiss the trial failed on 27 January, with one Democrat joining the Republicans in opposition. Then, three witnesses, including Lewinsky, gave additional testimony. The Senate hearings concluded on 9 February through 11 February with several days of debate among the Senators themselves.

On 12 February, the Senate voted. On Article One, charging perjury, ten Republicans joined all forty-five Democrats in voting to acquit Clinton. On Article Two, the Democrats were joined by five Republicans, again voting to acquit.

Afterward, commentators debated the significance of the ordeal. Some viewed it as a partisan power struggle, or an effort to oust a president who inspired deep hate among his foes. Others viewed it as a debate about the country's sexual mores, with Clinton's opponents fighting for a return to Victorian norms that punished aberrant behaviors and his supporters defending a new, more tolerant morality. The debate also revealed a gulf between the public, most of which wished to see Clinton stay in office, and elite journalists and politicians in Washington, who demanded Clinton's resignation. In the short run, the impeachment, although a stain on Clinton's record, probably harmed the Republicans more than the Democrats. Clinton remained enormously popular the whole time, while the Republicans saw their public standing drop. Some argued that the most lasting effect of the affair was to divert Clinton and the Congress from other concerns, keeping them from accomplishing more in his second term.


Baker, Peter. The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton. New York: Scribner, 2000.

Toobin, Jeffrey. A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999.


See alsoImpeachment ; Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson ; Political Scandals ; Scandals ; andvol. 9:Rose Garden Statement .