When Is a Lie Not a Lie?
President Clinton has acknowledged misleading the public, the grand jury, and his family. But is he a perjurer?
According to Mr. Clinton, his many misleading statements about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky were a clumsy attempt to protect himself against the embarrassment of his own conduct. They concerned a private matter - and none of them, technically, were illegal.
But independent counsel Kenneth Starr says the president told at least five whoppers after he raised his hand in a legal setting and swore to tell the truth. That would be perjury - a serious crime if committed by any citizen, particularly the highest elected official in the land.
Mr. Starr's report to Congress on possibly impeachable acts by the president is far from a rock-solid legal document. Some charges, such as abuse of the powers of the office of the presidency, are light on documentation, say many legal experts.
But its perjury charges are well-documented, say these experts. Alone, they may persuade the House to launch impeachment hearings. "Look, Starr has a pretty good case on perjury," says a prominent Washington lawyer who is providing advice to Capitol Hill Democrats.
The reason: It's not just a he-said, she-said situation, with Ms. Lewinsky and Clinton providing differing accounts on key points. Starr's long, grinding investigation has produced coroborating circumstantial evidence, such as phone logs, to back up Lewinsky's description of events. And it has produced a number of witnesses who say Ms. Lewinsky described her affair with the president to them while the alleged events were unfolding. Consider just one of Starr's perjury charges against the president: that when questioned under oath by Paula Jones's lawyers on Jan. 17, he said he could not remember ever being alone with Lewinsky.
Here's an actual exchange from the deposition:
Q: At any time were you and Monica Lewinsky together alone in the Oval Office?
A: I don't recall, but as I said, when she worked at the legislative affairs office ... it seems to me she brought things to me once or twice on the weekends.
Q: At any time have you and Monica Lewinsky ever been alone together in any room in the White House?
A: ... I have no specific recollection ....
Ms. Lewinsky, in her subsequent testimony to the Starr grand jury, testified that she was alone with the president at least 10 times for sexual encounters, with most of those occurring on the weekend. Many of the dates and times she provided were matched by Secret Service logs detailing her entry and exit into the White House complex. Logs tracking Clinton's movements often noted that he went to the Oval Office around the time Lewinsky arrived and left soon after she left.
Among the people Lewinsky told of the affair while it was going on were one friend from college, two friends from high school, two therapists, her mother, and her aunt, according to Starr report testimony. Not to mention coworker Linda Tripp.
Confronted by Starr's prosecutors in his videotaped testimony before the grand jury on Aug. 17, President Clinton backtracked. He admitted that he had been alone with Lewinsky.
But Clinton struggled to avoid saying he had lied in his earlier testimony. He never saw Lewinsky unless his secretary, Betty Currie, was at her station outside the Oval Office, he pointed out.
This logic is reflected in a passage from a Starr report appendix:
With respect to the word "alone," the President also stated that "it depends on how you define alone" and "there were a lot of times when we were alone, but I never really thought we were."
Clinton's lawyers continue to deny that he lied in his Jones deposition. The president never told Ms. Jones's lawyers flat out that he had never been alone with Lewinsky, they point out.
The "I don't recall" approach was simply the way Clinton - a lawyer himself - hazily deflected the dangerous question.
"Even if an answer doesn't directly answer the question asked, it is not perjury if it is [strictly speaking] true," says a rebuttal prepared by Clinton's legal team.
Starr's response? It is simply "not credible" that Clinton did not remember his time alone with Lewinsky - and thus, he was committing perjury.
Four of the five charges of perjury that Starr makes against the president deal with alleged lies made in the Jones deposition. The Jones case was a civil, not a criminal matter, and it was subsequently dismissed by a federal judge, though it could be revived on appeal.
Furthermore, Lewinsky was only of peripheral concern in the Jones case. Thus a court might consider any lies about a Clinton-Lewinsky relationship to not be "material" to the case - and hence, not perjury.
"Not all lies are perjury," says Stanley Brand, former House general counsel. "That is important to remember."
The fifth charge of perjury, however, concerns Clinton's August testimony to Starr's grand jury about the sexual nature of his relationship with Lewinsky. It is on this charge that the Clinton presidency could turn.
That's because lying to a federal grand jury is something the US legal system regards far more seriously than stretching the truth in front of a few attorneys investigating a civil complaint.
"It would be a potential injury to the rule of law in this country to allow the president of the United States to lie in a judicial proceeding," says Carl Bogus, a law professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.
Clinton's defense on this charge depends on a parsing of details about sex. His somewhat narrow view of sexual relations hangs on who touches whom. He contends, in effect, he never touched her for sexual purposes. She touched him.
The argument is similar to that about whether Clinton lied about never being alone with Lewinsky. It depends on hairsplitting legalisms, and a somewhat torturous interpretation of words. Starr's case rests on what Lewinsky says about their relationship, and what other witnesses say she told them at the time.
Starr's perjury charges represent perhaps the gravest threat of impeachment that Clinton faces. Congress is dominated by lawyers. Many lawmakers say perjury alone, if proved, would sway their vote.
"If it's perjury, I would vote to impeach," says Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi.
Whether the public feels that way is less clear. Polls are mixed as to whether voters consider lying about a sexual relationship under oath to be an impeachable offense.