The Impeachment Of A President: Political Capital Punishment - `You did lie and obstructed justice'

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WHEN - as now looks likely - President Bill Clinton stands trial in the Senate, it is the two Articles of Impeachment that were approved by the House of Representatives on Saturday that will constitute the indictment. For him to be removed from office, the 100 Senators who will make up the jury must be convinced that the charges are proved, and that they are sufficiently severe to warrant "political capital punishment". Lawyers for Mr Clinton have maintained that they are not worthy of conviction on either count.

The first Article accuses Mr Clinton of providing "perjurious, false and misleading testimony" to a grand jury on four themes, including the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The second accuses him of trying to obstruct the course of justice in seven areas, including encouraging Ms Lewinsky to sign a false affidavit denying a sexual relationship with him, trying to hide evidence of their relationship (by having his presents concealed) and misleading members of his staff about his relationship in the expectation that they would unwittingly give false evidence to the grand jury in the Lewinsky case.

What these charges do not encompass is the biggest and most memorable "whopper" Mr Clinton told: his finger-wagging January statement for the cameras when he insisted: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky." Lying so blatantly to the electorate might be thought a matter for resignation, but it is not part of the indictment against him, and is not regarded as "impeachable". This would be one for the electorate to judge, not for the House or the Senate.

The two articles of impeachment are more technical, and relate exclusively either to evidence that Mr Clinton gave under oath or to events that could relate specifically to the realm of legality - chiefly, the lawsuit brought by Paula Jones.

Anyone who has viewed Mr Clinton's grand jury testimony, which was shown on nationwide television in September, or the video-clips from his testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, and compared them with the sworn testimony of Ms Lewinsky and others recorded by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, can be in little doubt that Mr Clinton was less than truthful. One question for the "jury" will be whether he crossed the line from reticence to perjury.

As time has gone by, his lawyers have become increasingly frank about the extent of his culpability. Most recently, Gregory Craig, the White House special counsel, admitted that his replies were "evasive, incomplete, misleading, even maddening", but "not perjury".

The chief White House counsel, Charles Ruff, came close to admitting that a jury might be inclined to convict him of perjury, when he said that "reasonable people" might conclude that he had lied under oath (though Mr Ruff tried to prove that he had not).

The Clinton lawyers' case is that Mr Clinton never told a straight lie under oath. Mr Clinton himself said that he had been "not particularly helpful" and "blamed" the prosecutors for not being persistent enough in their questioning. The tapes and transcripts show, however, that the prosecutors did persist, but Mr Clinton persisted too - in being vague and forgetful. This makes the job of the "prosecution" extremely difficult (as it was intended to do).

During the House judiciary committee hearings and the full House debate, senior Democrats challenged the Republicans to produce examples of any sentence by Mr Clinton that was a lie. The lawyers among them argued that without words that were demonstrably false, the perjury charges would fail.

The further problem for the "prosecution" is whether the instances of lies and obstruction of justice, even if they can be proved beyond "reasonable" doubt, are serious enough to qualify as the "high crimes and misdemeanours" the Constitution defines as impeachable.

The view of Democrats and Mr Clinton's lawyers is that they do not, because they stem initially from an attempt to cover up an adulterous affair which was personal and private.

The Republican argument is that the effect would have been to deprive Paula Jones of her right to a fair hearing of her sexual harassment case, so they have judicial significance. They argue additionally that the oath of office requires the President, as the country's chief law officer, to uphold the law and any breach of the law is therefore a violation of his oath - and impeachable.