How Clinton, House differ on meaning of Jones case

A dismissed case rising from Clinton governorship threatens his presidency

January 20, 1999

WASHINGTON -- Few points of difference between the two sides in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton are as potentially decisive as their divergent views about the lawsuit that started the scandal: the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case. The president's defense team began outlining its view yesterday. Lyle Denniston of The Sun's national staff examines the differences.

Jones' lawsuit was dismissed in April by a judge, and her appeal ended Dec. 2 after the suit had been settled out of court. Why is it still involved in impeachment?

Jones' name appears nowhere in the two articles of impeachment against Clinton, but the president's reaction to her case dominates both articles. Article 1's charges of lying to a grand jury cite four instances, three directly involving "a federal civil rights action" -- the Jones case. Article 2's charges of obstructing justice are keyed mainly to the Jones case, with six of the seven cited instances arising from it.

Judge Susan Webber Wright's dismissal of the case, saying Jones could not prove Clinton violated her civil rights, did not mean special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr could not investigate Clinton's conduct earlier in the case, or deprive the grand jury of power to ask him questions about it.

By the time of the settlement, Starr had already leveled the charges that led to impeachment by the House. The House, in approving articles of impeachment, was not barred by the dismissal or the settlement.

Didn't the House consider another article, directly accusing Clinton of lying in two instances in the Jones case? What happened to that?

The House voted that one down, 229-205, and thus it was not sent to the Senate for trial. The two sides disagree totally about the meaning of that House action.

House prosecutors insist that Clinton's conduct in the Jones case is background information that supports the two remaining articles and that the Senate can take all of that into account -- including lies they say Clinton told in his deposition in the Jones case.

The president's defenders insist that the House's failure to approve the Jones case article means the Senate may not consider anything he said in his deposition in the Jones case. In fact, they say, it would be unconstitutional for the Senate to use the deposition as evidence now.

How are the two sides interpreting Jones' legal claims as a factor in the Senate trial?

House prosecutors mounted a vigorous defense of Jones' right to sue, praising its symbolic value as the effort of a powerless person to get justice and lambasting Clinton for trying to undermine the court system by trying to frustrate Jones' claims.

They read the Supreme Court ruling letting the case go forward as validation of her rights and as an entitlement to evidence about Clinton's sexual behavior. They gave no emphasis to its dismissal and settlement.

The president's lawyers are putting heavy stress on dismissal of the case -- especially the judge's finding that Jones could not win --even with full disclosure of Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

They also are emphasizing the links between the Jones case and the Starr investigation in an effort to undercut Linda Tripp's reliability as a witness and thereby undermine Starr's findings and the two articles.

House prosecutors insisted repeatedly that the evidence that Clinton lied in the Jones case is clear and well established. What is the defenders' answer?

The president's lawyers said yesterday, and will say repeatedly in coming days, that Clinton did not lie in any of the instances that the House claims, and they will offer a statement-by-statement rebuttal starting today. They also are accusing House prosecutors of misinterpreting most, if not all, of the statements, and of accepting uncritically the worst possible interpretation.

What significance does each side see in the evidence that Clinton may have lied in the Jones case?

House prosecutors said the alleged lies are impeachable offenses, justifying Clinton's removal, because they are not simply false statements about private sexual behavior. They became "public crimes," the prosecutors said, when they were made under oath in the Jones case deposition and were repeated before the grand jury.

Clinton defenders contend that even if Clinton did lie, "perjury about a purely private matter" does not justify removal of an elected president, "no matter how seriously we take the person's violation of the witness' oath."

Do senators have to choose between the House view and the Clinton view before they can decide how to vote on conviction and removal?

In a strict sense, no; they could be partly persuaded by each side's interpretation. But the contrast between the two views is so stark that each senator probably will have no practical choice except to embrace one side.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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