Monica Lewinsky scandal

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While working as an intern at the White House, Monica Lewinsky had a short-term sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton. The news of this extra-marital affair, and the resulting investigation and impeachment, became known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Monicagate, or the more tongue-in-cheek Zippergate.

Contents

Background

In 1995, Monica Lewinsky, a graduate of Lewis and Clark College, was hired to work as an intern at the White House during Clinton's first term. She had long admired President Clinton, and fantasized about him romantically. After much flirting, the two became engaged sexually, and secretly performed sexual acts on Clinton in closed quarters of the White House, including approximately nine incidents of oral sex, more than a dozen incidents of phone sex, and President Clinton allegedly putting a cigar between Lewinsky's legs.

As Lewinsky's relationship with the President became more distant, Lewinsky confided details of her feelings and the President's behavior to her presumed friend Linda Tripp. Unbeknownst to Lewinsky, Tripp was recording their telephone conversations, and eventually delivered the tapes to Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed by Congress to investigate the president on various other matters.

News of the scandal first broke on January 17, 1998 on the Drudge Report website, which reported that Newsweek editors were sitting on a story by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff exposing the affair. The story broke in the mainstream press on January 21 when it hit the Washington Post. The story swirled for several days and despite swift denials from President Clinton, the clamor for answers from the White House grew louder. On January 26, an agitated President Clinton addressed the public in a White House press conference and issued a forceful denial:

"Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time — never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people."

Pundits debated whether or not President Clinton would address the allegations in his State of the Union Address. Ultimately, he chose not to, which helped his image with the American people as such puerile issues where not legitimate business of the United States Government. First Lady Hillary Clinton publicly stood by her husband throughout the scandal. On January 27, in an appearance on NBC's The Today Show she famously said, "The great story here for anybody willing to find it, write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

On May 22, 1998 a federal judge ruled that United States Secret Service agents could be compelled to testify before a grand jury] concerning the scandal.

Lewinsky was offered and received transactional immunity on July 28, 1998 in exchange for her grand jury testimony over the false charges in the Paula Jones case, concerning her relationship with President Clinton. That was summarily dismissed when it reached the court, as groundless.

Under oath she admitted that her relationship with President Clinton involved performing oral sex on him, as documented in the Starr report, which eventually led to President Clinton's impeachment, on the basis of alleged perjury and obstruction of justice regarding the affair.

When called to testify before the grand jury, President Clinton in his taped testimony on August 17, 1998 stated that he had an "improper physical relationship" with Lewinsky. On the same day he admitted before the nation that he "misled people" about his relationship.

Allegations of perjury

In his deposition for the Jones lawsuit, President Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Based on the evidence provided by Tripp, Starr concluded that this sworn testimony was false and perjurious.

The issue was greatly confused in the media by an unusual definition for sexual contact that was ordered during the initial questioning which led to the perjury allegations.

During the Paula Jones deposition, President Clinton was asked if he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. But before the questioning began, the Jones’ lawyers produced the following legal definition of sexual relations:

"For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in sexual relations when the person knowingly engages in or causes:
1. Contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person;
2. Contact between any part of the person's body or an object and the genitals or anus of another person; or
3. Contact between the genitals or anus of the person and any part of another person's body.
Contact means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing."

A lengthy debate followed between the two teams of lawyers. It turned out points 2 and 3 were too broad: anyone accidentally brushing their hips against another person could be accused of having "sex." Judge Susan Webber Wright therefore eliminated points 2 and 3. However, notice that point 3 would have clearly included oral sex performed on Clinton. Its removal set the stage for the controversy to follow.

The Jones’ lawyers then asked President Clinton if he had sex with Monica Lewinsky based on the remaining definition.

Unfortunately, the definition still contained ambiguities. Who are the "persons" mentioned in the definition? President Clinton interpreted it this way:

"For the purposes of this deposition, a person [the deponent, in this case, Clinton] engages in sexual relations when the person [Clinton] knowingly engages in or causes:
1. Contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person [that is, any other person, in this case, Monica Lewinsky] with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person [Lewinsky];
Contact means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing."

Given that understanding, the definition clearly does not include oral sex performed on Clinton. Why? Because oral sex is performed with the mouth, and "mouth" is not listed among the other body parts in point 1. Furthermore, a man receiving oral sex is generally considered to be receiving pleasure rather than giving it, and so fails the criterion "to arouse or gratify the sexual desire" of Ms. Lewinsky. Which may make Clinton sexually selfish, but that is not illegal.

Some have argued that President Clinton’s interpretation of "person" is wrong, and that makes him guilty of perjury. But his interpretation is reasonable at most, and arguable at least. Even if President Clinton did misinterpret the most obvious meaning, it is up to prosecutors to prove that he intended to lie about it rather than he was mistaken, something that is impossible to prove. And in any case, it is up the to the prosecution to agree to definitions that are not ambiguous. The Jones’ lawyers could have easily eliminated any confusion by replacing the term "person" with "deponent and any second party," but they did not. They could have also asked follow-up questions to clarify anything – indeed, they were invited to by President Clinton’s lawyers – but they did not. The whole incident is a classic case of prosecutorial incompetence.

Others have charged that President Clinton lied because there was another form of sexual activity – namely, the infamous "Cigar incident." This was when Clinton allegedly inserted a cigar between Ms. Lewinsky’s legs. But this fails the definition too. It defines "contact" as "touching, either directly or through clothing." "Direct" means skin-on-skin. "Through clothing" means skin-on-clothing or clothing-on-clothing. The Cigar incident was cigar-on-skin, which fails the definition.

Critics have yet another argument that they claim proves perjury. For President Clinton’s legalistic answers to be true, he would have had to remain "hands off" during the many intimate encounters he had with Ms. Lewinsky. This is extremely unlikely, especially since Lewinsky testified that President Clinton frequently touched her breasts and genitals, which is within the legal definition. In fact, the reason why Starr included so much graphic detail of Lewinsky’s testimony in his report was to show that President Clinton did touch her sexually. The sheer volume of the testimony is damaging.

There are several defenses: Lewinsky may have exaggerated her testimony, or Starr may have coerced it. Another possibility, implied by President Clinton himself, is that he did not touch her with "an intent to arouse or gratify." He may have been "hands on," but it might have been for his pleasure, not hers. In that case, his answers are still legally accurate. Again, this may make him sexually selfish, but that is not illegal. For critics to prove perjury, they must somehow enter President Clinton’s head and prove that he did not intend to sexually gratify Ms. Lewinsky. Which, of course, is clearly impossible. President Clinton may have even made a mistake by interpreting the definition too narrowly, but that is not the same thing as lying.

The bottom line is that the definition crafted by the Jones’ team was deeply flawed, and allowed President Clinton to make legally accurate answers in spite of what most of his critics claim.

Impeachment

Under the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives issues Articles of Impeachment, which the Senate must then consider as a panel of judges. Impeachment is a means of quickly removing dangerously criminal officials from high office. The Constitution provides for impeachment in cases of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." A "high" crime in eighteenth century parlance is a crime against the sovereign, which in United States law is taken to mean against the United States as a whole. Examples of "high" crimes include attempting to undermine United States power for political gain, staging a military coup, accepting bribes, plundering the treasury, fixing elections, and making policy decisions to the detriment of the United States for the benefit of cronies.

Republicans argued that by committing perjury while in the office of President, Bill Clinton taught the youth of the nation disrespect for the nation's laws, which would in time lead to the complete downfall of the United States legal system and government: thus, simple perjury was an impeachable high crime.

As part of the impeachment inquiry, House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde sent a list of 81 questions to Clinton on November 5, 1998. Formal impeachment hearings began on November 19. After receiving Clinton's answers, the Judiciary Committee commended four articles of impeachment to the full House. In summary, they were the following:

  • Article I: Perjury before grand jury on August 17, 1998
  • Article II: Perjury in Paula Jones case on December 23, 1997 and January 17, 1998
  • Article III: Obstruction of justice related to Paula Jones case
  • Article IV: Abuse of high office

Article I was passed by a vote of 228-206. Article III was approved by a vote of 221-212. Article II failed by a vote of 205-229. Article IV was rejected by a vote of 148-285. On December 19, the House of Representatives forwarded articles I and III of impeachment (perjury and obstruction of justice) to the Senate. The two articles that were passed made Clinton the first elected president in U.S. history to be impeached. The only previous impeachment was the unelected President Andrew Johnson (who had succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln) in 1868. President Richard Nixon had resigned under the threat of impeachment in 1974.

The charges quickly passed through the House and this speed allowed the so-called "lame-duck" Republican and Democratic congressmen to participate. By the time the charges reached the Senate, the charges had been updated, and this allowed the Prosecution in the Senate impeachment proceedings to read into the record lurid details from the Lewinsky testimony that would have been irrelevant to the charges recommended in the Starr report.

The Senate trial began on January 7, 1999. The prosecution relied on two basic forms of argument: "The President must have been thinking about topic X at the time that he testifies that he was thinking about topic Y" and simply lying about the order and facts of events thus committing perjury.

During what amounted to a "discovery phase" of the trail, several issues of fact were resolved and on Friday, February 12, 1999, the Senate rejected both of the articles of impeachment. The perjury charges were rejected with 55 not-guilty votes and 45 guilty votes, and on the obstruction of justice charges the vote was 50-50. A two-thirds majority (67 guilty votes) was required for a conviction on either charge. The vote fell largely along party lines. For the perjury vote, 10 Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in voting not-guilty. On the obstruction of justice charge, 5 Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in voting not-guilty.

Contrary to a popular public misconception, Clinton was successfully impeached (that is, the House did successfully send him to be tried by the Senate). He was not, however, successfully convicted of any of the charges, nor was he given any penalty (beyond the censure of the House of Representatives).

The perjury allegations provoked the Arkansas Supreme Court to suspend Clinton's law license in April 2000. Clinton agreed to the 5-year suspension and to pay a $25,000 fine on January 19, 2001. The following October, the U.S. Supreme Court once again suspended Clinton's law license and gave him 40 days to convince them that he should not be disbarred permanently. Clinton surrendered his law license in response to these actions. Clinton has since made a living as an author and speaker, and arguably is no more than symbolically affected by the loss of his license.


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