WASHINGTON -- In a tense finale to the first presidential impeachment hearing since Watergate, Kenneth W. Starr squared off last night with President Clinton's personal lawyer, defending his sprawling four-year investigation against blistering questions aimed at discrediting the drive to impeach the president.
The high-stakes showdown between Starr and David E. Kendall -- who have jousted bitterly for years -- culminated a more than 12-hour hearing in which the independent counsel methodically laid out the case that Clinton marshaled "the machinery of government and the powers of his office" to subvert the rule of law.
All day, Starr calmly parried a Democratic attack but broke little new ground on matters on which he has already submitted a written report to Congress. Not until late in the evening, when Kendall rattled Starr over grand jury leaks and allegations of witness intimidation, did Starr flash any anger or frustration.
"You talk of fairness," Starr snapped, his voice rising. "It's time for some fairness with respect to all of these charges that keep getting bandied about."
The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee began under a cloud of partisan acrimony. But Starr defused much of the tension, striving to project the image of a fair-minded public servant.
Indeed, his public persona yesterday was strikingly at variance with the obsessed, demonic prosecutor that Democrats have long portrayed him to be. Before Starr had uttered a word, the Judiciary Committee's lead Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, labeled Starr "a federally paid sex policeman" who has "crossed the line into obsession," "spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse."
But the Democrats did not seem to land any knockout punches, and Starr's supporters in the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of the daylong session.
For weeks, the Democrats had been hoping to trip up Starr by forcing him to answer the criticism against him -- namely, that he has been hell-bent on examining a private sexual matter and that his investigation itself was guilty of its own abuses.
Starr contended that he was merely a devoted law enforcement officer intent on the truth, quizzically smiling at the Democrats as they hurled a barrage of barbed questions at him.
Perhaps the worst that Democrats could say of Starr's performance was that he came off as something of a Boy Scout, doggedly pursuing his case without heed to the consequences for the nation.
"We fought to a draw," conceded a committee Democratic attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity.
That said, even Republicans acknowledged that Starr's straight-faced performance was unlikely to sway many opinions, either on the sharply divided Judiciary Committee or in the House, where some Republicans fear that a vote for impeachment could amount to political suicide. Starr's presentation yesterday did little to advance the charges he presented in September: that the president lied under oath, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses and abused the power of his office in a concerted effort to hide his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Exoneration in 3 matters
If anything, Starr may have further slowed the drive toward impeachment by exonerating the president of any wrongdoing in the handling of FBI personnel files, the firing of the White House travel office and some aspects of the original Whitewater land deal. Republicans said those exonerations proved the fairness of Starr's investigation, though Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a committee Democrat, questioned why Starr had not publicly cleared Clinton of the charges until now.
Some Republicans had been hoping that Starr would strike pay dirt on the FBI and travel office matters -- which revolve around charges of abuse of presidential power and have nothing to do with sex. Since the Lewinsky matter exploded in January, opinion polls have reflected a public resolutely opposed to impeachment over the sex scandal. And Republican losses in the elections Nov. 3 have been attributed, at least in part, to the party's mishandling of the Lewinsky affair.
Conservative Republicans, such as Rep. Mark E. Souder of Indiana, have asked the committee to delay any vote on articles of impeachment until the Whitewater, FBI files and travel office matters have been resolved. Now, apparently, they largely have been.
"Without public outrage, impeachment is hard to do, and it should be hard to do," conceded committee member Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "And the truth of the matter is, we may never get public outrage on behalf of what the president did because some of the things that are Watergate-like we can't lay at the feet of the president."
Another committee Republican, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, said of Starr's impact: "It all will depend on what the American people think, because a lot of members are swayed on where the public is."
The committee, however, seemed buoyed by Starr's appearance. This week, the chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, signaled that he was expanding the inquiry beyond the Lewinsky matter to examine allegations that the president lied under oath and obstructed justice to hide an alleged sexual advance on Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer.
In the next two weeks, Republicans hope to depose one of the president's lawyers, Robert S. Bennett; Willey's lawyer, Daniel Gecker; and Nathan Landow, a wealthy Democratic donor from Maryland.
The panel could soon stray into accusations that the president and his allies steered more than $500,000 in "hush money" to Webster L. Hubbell, a Clinton friend and former No. 3 official in the Justice Department, to buy his silence on the Whitewater land deal.
"Judge Starr has set forth a clear, documented, compelling case against the president," Hyde declared yesterday. "He has provided a road map for us to see how and when the president chose deception rather than the truth at many important crossroads in the judicial system's search for the truth. I remain committed to completing the committee's work by year's end, ** but not before we build a reliable factual record of the remaining allegations pending against the president."
Democrats seemed just as confident. In his showdown with Starr, Kendall swaggered, "My task is to respond to the two hours of uninterrupted testimony from the independent counsel, well as to his four-year, $45 million investigation, which has included at least 28 attorneys, 78 FBI agents, and an undisclosed number of private investigators. It's a daunting exercise, but let me begin with the simple but powerful truth that nothing in this overkill of investigation amounts to a justification for the impeachment of the president of the United States."
In his first extended public defense of the wide-ranging investigation, Starr expressed no regret for his tactics and deep pride in his results.
Abbe Lowell, the lead Democratic investigator, grilled Starr on his questionable contacts with the attorneys of Paula Corbin Jones; on his failure to disclose those contacts when he asked the Justice Department to expand his inquiry into the Lewinsky matter, which directly intersected with the Jones civil suit; on his office's treatment of Lewinsky when she was apprehended in January at a Northern Virginia mall; and on his alleged overlooking of exculpatory evidence.
Starr said he had not seen "the foggiest connection" between a half-dozen consultations with Jones' lawyers and his investigation of Lewinsky. He said his investigators tried to prevent Lewinsky from contacting her attorney at the time, Frank Carter, because Carter had already helped Lewinsky file a false affidavit denying that she had had sex with the president. (Carter was never implicated in any wrongdoing.)
When presented with Lewinsky's testimony that she felt threatened and bullied by Starr's office, Starr said, "I think her perception was incorrect."
Asked why his investigators had threatened to prosecute Lewinsky's mother, Starr replied that "her mother may have been involved in serious criminal activity" -- that is, aiding her daughter covering up her presidential affair.
When reminded of Lewinsky's testimony that nobody had asked her to lie and nobody had offered her a job for her silence, Starr denied that he had omitted the exculpatory statement out of his impeachment report to ensure that the document would be as damaging as possible.
Lewinsky's denial, Starr said, "was utterly incomplete and grossly misleading."
'Facts are as we have found'
"The facts are as we have found them to be," Starr told Lowell, "and not one of the ones you have raised have suggested the president was not involved in substantial wrongdoing."
Indeed, Democrats applied a concerted strategy to turn the spotlight away from the president's conduct and onto Starr's in a torrent of pointed questions, grand-standing one-liners and rapid-fire retorts.
"It is not acceptable to force mothers to testify against their daughters, to make lawyers testify against their clients, to require Secret Service agents to testify against the people they protect, or to make bookstores tell what books people read," Conyers said in a recitation of Starr's alleged overreaching.
They questioned why Starr had released his Lewinsky-related impeachment report before the mid-term elections but waited until now to exonerate the president from other matters, even though those conclusions had been reached months ago. Starr replied that the investigation of those matters continued regarding people other than Clinton.
"Don't have anything to say unless you have something bad to say," Frank quipped.
Pub Date: 11/20/98