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Abuse of Power: Gravest But Weakest Charge

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Presidents of the United States have awesome powers. They can move armies across continents, direct the vast domestic machinery of government, command the attention of millions of citizens with almost every utterance.

Misuse of that unique executive authority would be a grave offense against the nation. And that is exactly what President Clinton has done, according to independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The last charge Mr. Starr makes in his report to Congress is that the president has repeatedly abused his constitutional authority since allegations about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky became public knowledge in January.

In some ways, it is the most fateful of the charges the Starr report makes. That's because abuse of power is an impeachable act by almost anyone's standard.

But it may also be the weakest of Starr's grounds for possible removal of the president from office. The abuses alleged - lying and misuse of executive legal privilege - are much different in scope from the conspiracy of officials directed by Richard Nixon during Watergate.

"It is a novel allegation," says Michael Gerhardt, a specialist in the impeachment process at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "It doesn't really fit within the kinds of abuses of powers that we have recognized in the past."

This does not mean that abuse of constitutional authority is a well-plowed area of the law. No precise definition of such an act exists. Instead, say constitutional scholars, abuse of power is something akin to pornography - you can't define it, but you know it when you see it. It would have to be an act that damages the effectiveness of the office itself, something that would make it virtually impossible for the president in question to function in the job.

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