Accusations lack strength for impeachment of Clinton Counsel constructed case with little evidence, direct remarks, iffy conclusions

The Starr Report

September 12, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The "grounds for an impeachment" section of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's massive report to Congress reads much like a criminal prosecutor's opening trial statement: the argument to jurors about what the evidence will show.

He builds a suggested case for impeachment out of a pile of sometimes very specific testimony, a host of inferences about what opaque statements really meant, a few damaging pieces of physical evidence, and a wide array of debatable conclusions.

That section only sporadically uses the language of impeachment. In fact, only one of the 11 specific accusations Starr levels has the ring of an impeachment article to it: his argument that President Clinton was guilty of "abuse of his constitutional authority."

And even that article is largely a compilation of the 10 other specific claims of criminal code violations. That broader 11th item becomes a classic, catchall conspiracy assertion -- an alleged attempt by Clinton "to hinder, impede, and deflect possible inquiry by the Congress of the United States."

And those last words are a bit of a surprise, since the rest of Starr's impeachment proposal -- and many of his public statements on what his investigation was all about -- focused intently on allegations that Clinton sought not to hinder Congress but rather the lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, Starr's investigators and the grand jury.

Those words, though, are clearly aimed at catching the attention of the only jurors who will count this time: the 435 members of the House, who may act something like grand jurors in leveling charges -- "impeachable offenses" -- and the 100 members of the Senate, who may act as jurors who will try Clinton.

But what Starr's "grounds for an impeachment" seem to invite is a legalistic defense by Clinton's lawyers and sympathetic Democrats in Congress.

The suggested 11 articles are the product of more than seven months of gathering evidence by a criminal grand jury, under the guidance of criminal prosecutors, in a process that ordinarily simply leads to a criminal indictment. The final product shows that.

By the time it passes through the political filter of the House, it may not read the same at all.

Although most of those who will be working on the specifics of possible articles of impeachment will be lawyers on the Judiciary Committee and its staff, their task -- if they decide to take it on -- will be to craft declarations of governmental wrongdoing, declarations that would read and sound like "high crimes and misdemeanors," in the Constitution's phrase on grounds for impeachment.

Starr's report says that the crimes he suggests Clinton committed -- he summarizes them as "perjury and acts that obstruct justice by any citizen" -- rise to a higher constitutional level when "such acts are committed by the president of the United States."

The report builds a case as criminal prosecutors usually do in compiling evidence for an indictment, bit by bit, detail by detail.

For example: in discussing Clinton's alleged lies under oath to Paula Jones' lawyers, the report pairs off the president's testimony -- "I could have given [Lewinsky] a gift, but I don't remember a specific gift" -- against a list of the gifts she handed over to prosecutors, including a large Rockettes blanket, plus a couple she did not turn over -- a pin of the New York skyline, a small box of cherry chocolates and a stuffed animal.

It goes on to chronicle, specifically, the many gifts Lewinsky gave Clinton -- far more than he had acknowledged in his testimony, and then sums up: "The evidence demonstrates that they exchanged numerous gifts of various kinds at many points over a lengthy period of time."

And, then, the conclusion Starr draws: "A truthful answer to the questions about gifts at the Jones deposition would have raised questions about the president's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

A truthful answer about the gifts to Ms. Lewinsky also would have raised the question of where they were. The President had a clear motive when testifying under oath to lie about the gifts." And that conclusion, together with many more like it, helps build a much broader Starr conclusion: "There is substantial and credible information that the president's lies about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky were abundant and calculating."

The more sexually explicit details in the Starr report are not voluminous, and Starr notes that they have a bearing only on two of the 11 possible grounds for impeachment -- lying in the Jones case and to the grand jury about Lewinsky.

But those bits of evidence are punishingly direct; their inclusion comes with something of an apology from the special prosecutor.

Although the report's details make clear that the prosecutor and his staff had spent much of the past seven-plus months gathering those details, the report implies that Starr had no thought of disclosing them before Aug. 17, when Clinton testified under oath to the grand jury.

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