President isn't being tried for committing perjury

House managers contend Clinton should be removed because he `willfully' lied

January 16, 1999|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- As the Senate impeachment trial unfolds, it is widely assumed that the House charge of perjury will turn out to be the more threatening one to President Clinton -- that is, it has more chance of producing a conviction than the charge of obstructing justice. But the perjury charge is immersed in legal confusion, and more may develop in coming days. Lyle Denniston of The Sun's national staff explores some of the questions arising over that accusation: Much of the House prosecutors' discussion yesterday treated the crime of perjury and the accusation that Clinton lied as one and the same. Are they?

No. Perjury is a crime under two separate provisions of federal criminal law, and the article of impeachment accusing Clinton of "willfully" lying represents the House's conclusion that the president committed an offense that satisfies the Constitution for impeachment. The federal criminal code does not control the constitutional process of impeachment.

Are perjury and the offense charged in impeachment Article 1 identical?

Only if the Senate agrees that they are.

Because the House believes perjury is an impeachable offense, is it just quibbling to treat the House accusation as if it were different?

No. The House has accused Clinton of an offense that could satisfy the constitutional standard for impeaching a president. The House does believe that commission of a crime by a president would be an impeachable offense, but that is not necessarily so, and the Senate does not necessarily accept that. A traffic court conviction probably would not be enough. There is no binding definition of what an impeachable offense is, other than -- as the Constitution puts it -- bribery, treason and other, unspecified "high crimes and misdemeanors."

But House prosecutors repeatedly talked about what the crime of perjury involves under federal law, and related that directly to the House article. Why did they do that?

It helps make the House's point that, if a president did commit a crime, he definitely should be removed from office. By suggesting that he is guilty in the same way that a perjury defendant is judged guilty in a criminal court, the House strengthens its plea for conviction.

Another reason for doing so turns on a point of rare agreement between House prosecutors and the president's defense lawyers: Both suggest that the Senate may take some guidance from federal criminal law and procedure in understanding perjury as an impeachment offense. The president's lawyers, though, more firmly hold the view that the Senate should not feel bound by that.

Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, a House prosecutor, said the crime of perjury requires these elements: taking an oath, intending to lie after swearing to tell the truth, and saying something false about a matter that could affect the outcome of the case in which the lie was uttered. Is the constitutional standard for perjury under the House article the same?

Not unless the Senate decides to make it so. Again, Chabot was using ordinary perjury law as if it should control what the Senate does.

Chabot also cited a number of court cases to bolster the perjury article. Was that appropriate?

Yes. It was another part of the argument that the Senate can draw upon the ordinary law of perjury in judging Clinton on this article. The president's lawyers next week are likely to dispute Chabot on the meaning of every one of those cases.

So Clinton really is not on trial because he committed the crime of perjury?

He definitely is not. No criminal prosecutor has accused the president directly of that crime. Any such accusation, if made by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, would not be likely to occur while he remains president.

The perjury article the Senate is trying is based upon evidence that the House believes showed he lied under oath before a grand jury and in response to questions he was required to answer in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct civil case. While the House believes those alleged lies fit the legal definitions of perjury under federal law, it formally decided only that Clinton committed an impeachable offense.

But if the Senate does convict Clinton on that article, would it be right to say that he was guilty of the crime of perjury?

Legally, and as a matter of fairness, no. Many people might conclude that, but Senate conviction on the perjury article would not mean that the president was guilty of that crime.

A Senate conviction would mean only that the Senate agreed with the House that he lied under oath and that such lying justifies his removal.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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