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Terence Jeffrey / Dec. 18, 2019

The Schumer Principle: Lying Under Oath Is Not Impeachable

Twenty-one years ago, then-Rep. Charles Schumer worked to establish the precedent that a president could lie under oath.

Twenty-one years ago, then-Rep. Charles Schumer worked to establish the precedent that a president could lie under oath.

The question for Schumer was not whether the president was lying but what he was lying about.

The ultimate question underlying then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment was this: Did Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee, have a right to fair and honest proceedings when she brought a federal civil suit against the former governor of Arkansas who had gone on to become the president?

“She claimed the Governor made boorish and offensive sexual advances that she rejected, and that her superiors at work subsequently dealt with her in a hostile manner and punished her in a tangible way for rejecting those advances,” Judge Susan Webber Wright would eventually write in a 1999 opinion in which she held Clinton in contempt.

Clinton, as Wright summarized the case, fought all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent Jones’ suit from proceeding while he was president. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled against Clinton, and he had to give a deposition addressing Jones’ suit in Wright’s court.

“In addition, the Court travelled to Washington, D.C. at the request of the President to preside over his civil deposition on January 17, 1998,” Wright wrote.

In her contempt opinion, the judge said Clinton made “intentionally false” statements in that deposition.

Her realization that Clinton might be in contempt of her court occurred the day Clinton testified before the grand jury convened by independent counsel Ken Starr.

“On August, 17, 1998, the President appeared before a grand jury in Washington, D.C., as part of OIC’s criminal investigation and testified about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky and his actions during the lawsuit,” Wright wrote.

“That evening, the President discussed the matter in a televised address to the Nation,” she wrote. “In his address, the President stated that although his answers at his January 17th deposition were ‘legally accurate,’ he did not volunteer information and that he did indeed have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was inappropriate and wrong.”

“It was during the President’s televised address that the Court first learned the President may be in contempt,” she wrote.

Wright explained what was wrong with Clinton’s testimony.

“On two separate occasions, this Court ruled in clear and reasonably specific terms that plaintiff was entitled to information regarding any individuals with whom the President had sexual relations or proposed or sought to have sexual relations and who were during the relevant time frame state or federal employees,” wrote Wright.

“Notwithstanding these Orders,” she wrote, “the record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the President responded to plaintiff’s questions by giving false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”

Wright pointed particularly to Clinton’s answers regarding his relationship with Lewinsky, who had started work as a White House intern in July 1995.

“Although there are a number of aspects of the President’s conduct in this case that might be characterized as contemptuous,” Wright wrote, “the Court addresses at this time only those matters which no reasonable person would seriously dispute were violations of this Court’s discovery Orders and which do not require a hearing, namely the President’s sworn statements concerning whether he and Ms. Lewinsky had ever been alone together and whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky.”

“Simply put,” the judge concluded, “the President’s deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false, notwithstanding tortured definitions and interpretatios of the term ‘sexual relations.’”

In November 1998, Schumer was elected to the Senate, he but served as a lame-duck member of the House Judiciary Committee in December of that year when its Republican majority approved four articles of impeachment against Clinton. Articles I and II alleged perjury in the grand jury and the civil case. Article III alleged obstruction of justice. Article IV alleged abuse of power.

Schumer did not believe the evidence supported Articles III and IV. “Neither case is supported by the evidence,” he said.

But when independent counsel Ken Starr testified before the committee on Nov. 19, 1998, Schumer told him, “To me, as I have said, and you have stated in your report, it is clear that the President lied when he testified before the grand jury not to cover a crime, but to cover embarrassing personal behavior.”

“So this case, this impeachment, boils down to two perjury charges,” Schumer said in the committee on Dec. 10, 1998.

“I agree that the President’s testimony was misleading, maddening, evasive, prevaricating, and designed to shed as little light as possible on his embarrassing personal behavior,” Schumer said.

“I have said so since September, that the President lied in his testimony and to the American people, but that he did so about a sexual relationship, not about matters of governance,” said Schumer.

“The Republicans want the American people, or most Republicans want the American people to equate lying under oath about sex with lying under oath about matters of State,” he said.

“While the President may not have committed perjury,” Schumer said, “he misled in such an artful way that I can see why people, liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, men and women, would be angered and disappointed in the President.”

Schumer argued that impeaching Clinton in this instance might lead to frequent future impeachments. So he argued that a “strong censure motion” was “the appropriate punishment.”

“If we vote articles of impeachment, I fear that we will be setting a precedent that could seriously weaken the office of the presidency, whether the President is removed from office or not,” said Schumer.

“In my judgment,” he said, “we will be substantially lowering the bar for removing a sitting precedent so that we will be in danger of all too frequently investigating presidents and seeking to remove them from office.”

Schumer’s argument applies to the baseless impeachment his party is pursuing today, not the well-founded impeachment he resisted in 1998.


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