Updated: Jan 4
Feb. 13, 1999
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.
Feinstein quickly introduced her censure resolution, but the Senate had already dissolved into its routine disorder, freed from its antique desks and showing scant appetite for any further rebuke of the president. All were eager to go home. Feinstein's procedural motion garnered 56 votes, but the resolution will probably never come up again. It would have required a two-thirds vote to pass.
House prosecutor James Rogan, a San Francisco-born Republican who represents Glendale, said that despite their resounding defeat, he and his fellow Republican managers "feel vindicated."
Rogan said he cannot quarrel "with the Senate's ultimate conclusion, because they have the constitutional prerogative to decide whether removal is warranted, but when it comes to validating why the House acted as it did, that clearly has been done, and so from that constitutional sense, I'm satisfied."
SUMMARY OF THE ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT
PERJURY AND LYING BEFORE THE GRAND JURY
The first article of impeachment accused President Clinton of committing perjury by lying to the federal grand jury impaneled by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The article spelled out four areas where the president allegedly gave "perjurious, false and misleading testimony" when he appeared before the grand jury in his video appearance in August.
Clinton, the article alleged, lied about:
-- The nature and details of his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
-- Previous false testimony he gave in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him in federal court by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. Jones has accused Clinton of making an improper sexual advance toward her in 1991 while he was governor of Arkansas.
-- Previous false statements he allowed his attorney to make in the Paula Jones case.
-- Efforts to influence witnesses and undermine the discovery of evidence in the Paula Jones case.
OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE
The second article of impeachment alleged that Clinton "prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice" in the Paula Jones case. The article spelled out seven actions by Clinton in December 1997 and January of this year in an attempt to show a pattern of trying to "delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony" in the case.
Among the key actions named were encouraging witnesses, including Lewinsky and White House secretary Betty Currie, to lie in ways that would help the president. The article included charges that Clinton actively tried to find a good job for Lewinsky in an effort get her to lie about their past relationship, and that he enlisted the help of close friend Vernon Jordan in the job search.
The article also alleged that Clinton tried to conceal from investigators gifts exchanged between himself and Lewinsky.
IMPEACHMENT BY STATE . ARTICLE 1 Clinton "willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony" before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury on August 19 . Total: Yes 45 No 55 ARTICLE 2 Clinton "prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice and has to that end engaged personally, and through his subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or scheme designed to delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony" related to the Paula Jones lawsuit. Total: Yes 50 No 50
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead