On This Day

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Susan Walsh/AP
President Clinton makes a statement at the White House after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him, Dec. 19, 1998.

On This Day: Senate Opens Hearings on the Impeachment of President Clinton

January 07, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 7, 1999, the Senate began hearings on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from President Bill Clinton’s affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Senate Holds Clinton Impeachment Trial

Clinton had been impeached by the House of Representatives in December 1998, following an investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr into Clinton’s sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. According to Starr, Clinton had perjured himself when he denied the relationship in deposition for a lawsuit filed against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones.

The House charged Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice, necessitating a Senate trial to determine whether Clinton should be removed from office. With Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presiding, the trial began on the afternoon of Jan. 7, 1999 with the reading of charges against Clinton and the swearing in of all 100 senators of the jury.

There was confusion as to how the trial would proceed, as there had not been a presidential impeachment trial since 1868. “Yet even as the trial formally began, the rules for how it would be conducted, how long it would last and how it would end remained unwritten,” wrote The Washington Post.

Thirteen House Republicans, led by Henry Hyde of Illinois, served as the prosecution, while Clinton was defended by a standard team of defense attorneys. During the early hearings, the “Senate voted to adopt a series of motions to limit evidence primarily to the previously video-taped depositions, affidavits and other documents previously introduced, and also voted to close its final deliberations to the public,” explains the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

A two-thirds majority was required to find Clinton guilty; with the solid support of the Senate’s 45 Democrats, Clinton was never likely to be convicted. On Feb. 12, the Senate held its deciding poll, voting 55-45 to acquit Clinton on the perjury charge and 50-50 on the obstruction of justice charge.

Clinton spoke in the White House Rose Garden after the vote and apologized: “Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional response bringing this process to a conclusion, 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 the American people.”

Background: The Lewinsky Scandal

Starr had at first focused on a Clinton land deal that became known as Whitewater. But he turned his attention to allegations of sexual impropriety as a result of a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee.

Jones had accused Clinton of propositioning her for sex and her lawyers set out to prove that Clinton had a history of sexual impropriety with other women, including White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky in a deposition, and Lewinsky submitted an affidavit in January 1998 denying a sexual relationship.

However, Lewinsky had confided in co-worker Linda Tripp that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton. Tripp recorded telephone conversations and gave them to Starr, who began to investigate whether Clinton perjured himself in the Jones case.

The story became public when it was broken by the Drudge Report on Jan. 18 and by The Washington Post on Jan. 21. Clinton held a press conference on Jan. 26 to deny the allegations, stating, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

Starr continued to investigate and Lewinsky admitted to the affair in July. On Aug. 17, Clinton testified to Starr's grand jury that he had an “inappropriate” relationship with Lewinsky. However, he denied that he perjured himself in the Jones case, questioning the meaning of the term “sexual relations” and the word “is.”

That night, he apologized in a televised address and asked the nation to move on. “Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God,” he said. “It's nobody's business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives.”

On Sept. 9, Starr submitted 36 boxes of evidence to Congress, and presented 11 grounds for impeachment. The Starr report was published on the Internet two days later, revealing to the public all the lurid details of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky.

The House Judiciary Committee recommended that Clinton be impeached on two charges of perjury, one charge of obstruction of justice and one charge of abuse of power. On Dec. 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted largely across party lines to impeach Clinton on one charge of perjury and one charge of obstruction of justice. Three weeks later, the Senate began just the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history.

Historical Context: Presidential Impeachments

Clinton was just the second president in U.S. history to be impeached. The first, Andrew Johnson, was impeached in 1968 for removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office without Senate approval. Johnson, an enormously unpopular president for his Reconstruction policies, was acquitted in the Senate hearings by just one vote.

A second president, Richard Nixon, faced the possibility of impeachment in 1973, but he resigned before charges were brought against him. Nixon was accused of conspiring to cover-up the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s office at the Watergate Hotel by Nixon campaign members.

Reference: Clinton Impeachment In-Depth

The Washington Post has an archive of its new stories from the Clinton impeachment, plus a Q&A on the trial, bios of important figures, and audio and video links.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law site contains a detailed account of how the impeachment came about, asks pertinent questions and provides pertinent answers about the legal status of the charges against Clinton. The site also includes a series of handwritten and typed notes from Lewinsky to “Handsome” and “Mr. P,” as well as a number of photographs of the two together.

The BBC looks back on the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s impeachment with an archive of news articles, profiles on prominent figures and a detailed look of the trial. It also features transcripts and videos of important documents and testimony.

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