Senate should wrap up or open up the trial

Impeachment: Calling witnesses just for show is bad form, if verdict is already decided

February 04, 1999

THE SENATE'S preoccupation with its appearance keeps it looking bad. Whether President Clinton committed high crimes seems to matter less to senators.

The self-suggested Feb. 12 deadline for wrapping up the trial is artificial. So is the proposal to permit token live witnesses.

If the Senate is serious about removing the president from office, the deadline and squeamishness about testimony would deny the nation justice. The trial, then, should run as long as needed for fairness. But if the Senate has decided against removing the president, prolonging the trial would be a charade.

When the Senate votes today on what to do next, members should vote for adjournment, equating to acquittal. If it would rather hear closing arguments followed by a vote on the two articles of impeachment, that would be reasonable, too.

Afterward, the Senate should vote on censure, to make its members feel better and appear virtuous. After all, President Clinton behaved sleazily. The House of Representatives, however, need not be heard from again. It has already impeached the fellow. What the Senate should not do is "find" the president guilty of a felony. The Senate will not have concluded a trial subject to appellate scrutiny.

A vaguely worded censure is most likely to find bipartisan support.

Whether Mr. Clinton committed a felony is for the courts to determine. The legal consensus is that Mr. Clinton could be indicted and tried after leaving office. An indictment before then would be constitutionally problematic.

Of all the sins of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, unattributed opinion in a New York Times article Sunday about the timing of a criminal indictment is not one. He is not a newspaper editor.

More questionable was his indictment of a peripheral grand-jury witness, Julie Hiatt Steele, for obstruction and lying, days before the Senate trial. That had the appearance of intimidation.

As for Monica Lewinsky, the public does have an interest in her live testimony, if only a prurient one. A Senate appearance would put her testimony in the public domain.

It would, however, have nothing to do with the proper business of the Senate -- unless senators are still truly considering removing President Clinton.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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