If the president testifies Precedent: Subpoena to Clinton will have effects long after he leaves the White House.

July 28, 1998

A SUBPOENA to the president is serious business. No president has testified before a grand jury.

No subpoena was issued in the Credit Mobilier scandal of the Grant administration, the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration, the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan administration.

Twice, presidents have honored subpoenas to provide evidence. President Thomas Jefferson surrendered documents to the House in 1807 bearing on his charge of treason against Vice President Aaron Burr. President Richard Nixon surrendered tapes of Oval Office conversations to independent counsel Archibald Cox in the Watergate investigation, after the Supreme Court ordered him to comply.

Any subpoena to President Clinton, therefore, ought to be about a matter sufficiently grave that what was not needed in prior scandals is necessary now. This one is to establish whether he lied or suborned others to lie in a civil lawsuit charging him with sexual harassment while governor of Arkansas, which a judge threw out as lacking merit.

President Clinton's options areto comply with the subpoena; to refuse on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment; to refuse on grounds of constitutional separation of powers and force the Supreme Court to decide; to provoke a constitutional crisis by denying the Supreme Court's jurisdiction on the same grounds; or to negotiate with independent counsel Kenneth Starr the conditions and ground rules for the interrogation. This last option has been going on.

The Monica Lewinsky escapade in personal behavior contrasts with the Watergate investigation into Mr. Nixon's official conduct. But any protection created for Mr. Clinton now might serve a future president accused of usurping powers or committing treason. Similarly, an obligation created now might be used to harass future presidents.

The bad news is that no good may come from this. The good news is that the investigation appears at long last to be winding up.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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