CLINTON ACQUITTED / Neither impeach article receives a majority vote

Updated: Aug 27

Carolyn Lochhead

Feb. 13, 1999

1999-02-13 Washington -- A somber and exhausted Senate acquitted President Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice yesterday, closing the second presidential impeachment trial in the nation's history with a sad but resounding "not guilty."

The Senate voted 50 to 50 on the count charging Clinton with obstruction of justice, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president from office, as five Republicans joined all 45 Democrats for acquittal. Ten Republicans broke party ranks to send the perjury charge to a 45-to-55 defeat.

As Chief Justice William Rehnquist gaveled the trial to an end, an almost palpable sense of relief could be felt in the Senate. "I'm glad this nightmare is over," said Florida Democrat Bob Graham as he left.

Shortly after the result was announced, Clinton walked into the White House Rose Garden to make one of his briefest public statements ever.

"I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people," Clinton said in his address, which lasted only 80 seconds.

Expressing gratitude for the public support he received over the past year, Clinton called for "a time of reconciliation and renewal for America."

As he turned to leave, a reporter shouted, "In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?" Clinton replied, "I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it," and then strode away.

Only the final count was ever in doubt; as the Senate trial neared its end, it appeared that both impeachment articles would fail to secure even a majority, much less the 67 votes required by the Constitution for conviction.

Clinton conveyed no sense of vindication or celebration, and neither did the senators who decided his fate. Democrats and Republicans alike described the five-week trial as an ordeal, much of it spent in silence, listening to endless days of arguments and evidence from House prosecutors and White House lawyers.

Whether in formal written statements or ad hoc comments, senators from both parties made it clear that the trial's damage to Clinton, if not the presidency itself, was profound.

"There's no way to look at this and say damage has not been done," said Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat whose efforts to push through a censure resolution were derailed by Texas Republican Phil Gramm. "You can't hide this thing under a fig leaf. It's happened. He's been impeached, that's going to stand for all time.

"I've learned over the years that the most important thing you have is your word," she added. "I think the hardest thing about it is the deception. That's the hardest thing for those of us in his party to accept. . . . I stand by every word in that (censure resolution). It's the way I feel, and it's the way I will always feel about what this president has done."

Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, a staunch Clinton defender, agreed."I don't think the president should take solace in this vote," he said. "Nearly every member of the Senate -- in fact, I suspect every member of the Senate -- feels strongly about the president's conduct."

The presidential impeachment trial of Clinton was the first since 1868, when President Andrew Johnson was acquitted by just one vote. This time around, the margin was not nearly as close, and Republicans who voted for conviction said they could not understand why many of their Democratic colleagues agreed that Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice but did not think that those two offenses were impeachable.

"The idea that obstruction of justice by the chief law enforcement officer of the nation is not a high crime is an idea that stretches even the most liberal imagination," said New Hampshire's Judd Gregg.

"Popularity is not a defense in an impeachment trial," said Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico. "The president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, in violation of his oath of office. He lied under oath. He obstructed justice."

But while the senators were in disagreement about whether Clinton's misconduct in the Monica Lewinksy investigation was worthy of the ultimate and still unexercised constitutional sanction -- removal from office -- there was no dispute about its effect on his credibility.

"The president came perilously close to committing an impeachable offense, " said Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold in a statement, the only Democrat who voted against an attempt to dismiss the case against Clinton last month. House managers failed to prove their case "beyond a reasonable doubt," Feingold said, but he added: "It pains me to say, however, that the president apparently just barely avoided committing obstruction of justice."

Republican Susan Collins of Maine voted to acquit on both charges, but "with grave misgivings."

"I do not mean in any way to exonerate this man," Collins said in a statement. "He lied under oath; he sought to interfere with the evidence; he tried to influence the testimony of key witnesses. And while it may not be a crime, he exploited a very young, star-struck employee who he then proceeded to smear in an attempt to destroy her credibility, her reputation, her life."

But while she might have voted to convict in an ordinary criminal trial, Collins said she could not convict on impeachment.

Arizona's John McCain, a GOP maverick who often thwarts his party but now is contemplating a run for its presidential nomination, looked as if he were awaiting the executioner as the roll was called.

McCain slumped in his chair and fidgeted with his pen, frowning deeply. As the names starting with "L" were called, he put down the pen, seeming visibly pained. "Lott," the clerk called out. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., called out "guilty." Indiana's Richard Lugar and Florida's Connie Mack did the same when their names were called.

McCain stood up and buttoned his jacket. As his name was called, he answered, his voice level and low, "Guilty."

The House prosecutors and the White House lawyers sat for the last time at their tables to hear the final outcome.

House Judiciary Committee chairman and chief prosecutor Henry Hyde, R-Ill., turned his heavy frame sideways in his chair, gazing with open, fixed eyes at the clerk who read out the impeachment articles for a final time.

One of his fiercest committee opponents, Los Angeles Democrat Maxine Waters, sat behind the Democratic side of the room in a bright red suit, legs and arms crossed in defiance and vindication, staring at each senator who rose to vote.

Within an hour, it was all over. Relieved laughter erupted as Rehnquist asked "to make a brief statement, without objection, I trust," a joking reference to the requisite phrase of the Senate's arcane procedures.

Rehnquist, by a strange twist of fate the author of "Grand Inquests," a once-obscure book on presidential impeachments, said he came to the Senate as "a stranger" who "underwent the sort of culture shock that naturally occurs when one moves from the very structured environment of the Supreme Court to what I shall call, for want of a better phrase, the more free-form environment of the Senate."

"I leave you now a wiser, but not a sadder, man," Rehnquist said, noting that he was impressed by how the Senate's Democratic and Republican leaders, Lott and South Dakota's Tom Daschle, found a procedural path despite their substantive differences. Rehnquist said he was also "impressed by the quality of debate" in the Senate's final closed deliberations, which Lott later called "magnificent."

Lott and Daschle presented Rehnquist with a "golden gavel" plaque and thanked him for his service. "You have brought to our proceedings a gentle dignity and an unfailing sense of purpose and sometimes a sense of humor," Lott said. "As you return to your work on the court, in the great marble temple of the law right across the lawn from this Capitol, we salute you sir, with renewed appreciation and esteem for a good friend and a good neighbor."

There was a sharp irony as Lott then commanded "the sergeant at arms to escort the House managers out of the chamber." The White House lawyers sat unnoticed, until Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison asked that they be provided an escort too.