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THE STARR REPORT | THE CASE

Do the Points Merit a Call to Impeach?

September 12, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE and ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Eight months ago, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr set out to determine whether President Clinton lied under oath about an alleged sexual affair with a former White House intern and encouraged others to lie or "obstruct justice" in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case.

Starr's findings--a firm and fervent "yes"--caught few people by surprise when they were revealed Friday. In his 445-page report to Congress, Starr all but called the president a serial liar.

His second charge was to determine whether the president's offense calls for removing him from office. Again, the independent counsel answered with a resounding "yes"--ticking off 11 grounds for impeachment.

But on this score, Starr's case seems far less convincing.

While the Constitution says that the chief executive can be impeached for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors," Starr recounts a low and tawdry tale of sex and lies.

If lying under oath or to the American public qualifies as an impeachable offense, Clinton would be in grave danger of losing the presidency.

Several legal experts said that the alleged crimes detailed in Starr's report could give Congress grounds to remove the president if lawmakers were inclined to do so. But, said Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein, "it would be pushing the envelope a bit."

While Clinton's actions were "not minor," Rothstein said in an interview, "impeachable offenses traditionally have been things that affect the ability of the government to function or attempts by the president to interfere with the constitutional functions of government."

The independent counsel concluded that Clinton told a string of lies, beginning with his claim under oath that he could not recall ever being alone with Monica S. Lewinsky, despite sharing at least 10 "sexual encounters" with her in or near the Oval Office.

After the scandal became public in January, Starr reported, Clinton lied to aides so they would testify falsely before the grand jury, and he lied to the American people to avoid public humiliation.

Appearing before the grand jury Aug. 17, Clinton again wiggled away from the truth, Starr said. And Clinton tried to cover up the initial lies by trying to get Lewinsky an out-of-town job and by telling his secretary to hide gifts that he had given the former intern, according to the report.

But legal historians said that Congress was given the impeachment power only to remove high officials who had engaged in corruption or grossly abused their power. This was the case in the early 1970s when President Nixon used the power of his office to thwart an FBI investigation of the Watergate scandal.

However, the lurid details in the Starr report could drive Clinton out of office, said George Washington University law professor Steven Saltzburg, a former associate independent counsel.

"The facts are devastating. This is probably the most embarrassing report ever released on an American president," Saltzburg said.

Clinton's lawyers argued Friday that Starr's report is a "one-sided" account that was meant to harm the president politically by delving unnecessarily into detailed accounts of the president's sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

"The president has acknowledged his personal wrongdoing and sought forgiveness from his family, Ms. Lewinsky, the Cabinet, the Congress and the country," said David E. Kendall, Clinton's private attorney. "In light of that acknowledgment, the salacious allegations in this referral are simply intended to humiliate, embarrass and politically damage the president."

"In short, this is personal and not impeachable."

Starr's report appears strongest in detailing Clinton's false and misleading statements in the Jones case.

Having sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God," Clinton lied on major points and minor ones during his Jan. 17 deposition, according to Starr's report.

For example, when asked whether he had talked with Lewinsky about her sworn statement denying a sexual relationship, Clinton said: "I'm not sure."

In fact, the president had spoken with her three times in the month before, including a Sunday morning meeting in the Oval Office two weeks before his testimony, the report says.

The report appears weaker in claiming that the president "obstructed justice" and "abused his constitutional authority" by, among other things, refusing to testify for seven months before the grand jury.

In his report, Starr concluded that Clinton's "refusals [to testify sooner] substantially delayed this office's investigation."

In no other instance would a defendant's refusal to appear before a grand jury be charged as an obstruction of justice, legal experts said. Starr, however, cites it as the basis for one of his 11 impeachment counts.

Here is a look at the highlights of the grounds for impeachment as cited in the report:

PERJURY

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