Clinton on Trial

The Managers Murder the Genie

Yesterday, the Senate behaved like the Senate. Today it behaves like the House. Individual grandstanding (a Senate trademark) is supplanted by partisan power politics (a House specialty). Yesterday, the Democrats thought they could defeat the motion to subpoena witnesses, shortening the trial. They thought they had six “soft Republicans,” enough to knock down the witness motion.

By mid-afternoon today, however, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is declaring that witnesses are “inevitable … I think those soft Republicans have turned hard.” Senators are falling neatly into party camps. The motion to dismiss is also supposed to fail on a party-line vote, and the rift between the House managers and Senate Republicans, which had been growing wider every hour, is suddenly healing.

The rift heals for one reason: The House managers submit their witness list, and it contains only three names–Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, and Sidney Blumenthal. No Betty Currie. No Kathleen Willey. No Jane Doe No. 5. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s spokesman calls the list “reasonable, narrow, and focused.” Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., announces that the short list seals his vote for the witness motion.

Though the motion’s passage is all but certain, the House managers and the president’s lawyers still must spend four hours arguing the motion before the Senate. The House managers win the day, more on style than substance. Their substantive arguments about why they need witnesses are flaccid. They point out a few discrepancies that the three witnesses could resolve, but these areas of inquiry hardly seem worth the effort. (Did Jordan see Lewinsky’s draft affidavit while he was trying to find her a job? Does anyone care?)

The managers’ emotional claims are stronger. For most of the trial they have pleaded aggressively for witnesses. Today, they’re gentle and accommodating. They remind the Senate that they have obligingly cut their list of witnesses from 15 to three–“a pitiful three,” as Manager Henry Hyde, R-Ill., puts it. When they describe the need for witnesses, managers sound like they’re running a dating service. At least three managers say, “I want you to look into the eyes of these witnesses.” Manager Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., asks: “Wouldn’t it be nice to hear that from Miss Lewinsky? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear Miss Lewinsky’s version of this?” The managers also insist that all this listening and gazing meaningfully into the witnesses’ eyes won’t take long: just two to four hours for Lewinsky.

(The sublime moment of the day belongs to Manager James Rogan, R-Calif., explaining why Blumenthal must testify. Rogan reads a passage in Blumenthal’s grand jury testimony in which the presidential aide describes what the first lady told him that the president told her. According to Blumenthal, the president told his wife that he was only “ministering to a troubled young person,” and that he had “ministered” to “hundreds” of such people over the years. I bet he has! This is my favorite moment in the Flytrap testimony, the place where the president’s mendacity, grandiosity, and capacity to sucker his loved ones come together in one preposterous package. There are snorts in the press gallery–notably mine–as Rogan recites the testimony, but senators remain stony. Kudos to Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who do allow themselves to grin.)

The White House counters the soft sell of the managers with fear. There is no need for witnesses, begins David Kendall, because the testimony is exhaustive. The president is the most investigated man in the world, and Ken Starr has spent “five years and $50 million” pursuing him. (“Five and 50” is the 1999 line, apparently, up from the “four years and $40 million” of 1998.) The managers, Kendall scoffs, are just “hoping something will come up.”

If the Senate does permit witnesses, Kendall warns, the White House will demand full discovery: He and his colleagues will need to examine the 54,000 pages of unreleased testimony held by the managers, read the 320 interviews conducted by Starr, page through the boxes and boxes of documents kept by the independent counsel, and depose all prosecution witnesses, defense witnesses, and potential defense witnesses. “The genie of discovery will be out of the bottle.”

But the White House’s massive-retaliation threat seems mostly bluff, and the Republicans sense it. Manager Bill McCollum, R-Fla., calls the genie gambit “an idle threat.” Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, grins ear to ear when I ask him about it during a break: “They threaten they are going to call all these witnesses and do all this discovery. They won’t.” The threats also carry little weight because the Republican majority can write the procedural rules: According to Chafee, Republicans are planning to limit each deposition to six hours. I hear half a dozen Republican senators declare that the depositions can be finished by this weekend. Depending on how the depositions go, witnesses may never even testify live in the Senate chamber.

As for the White House lawyers, losing a party-line vote on witnesses and a procedural fight for full discovery won’t hurt as much as they pretend it will. The Clintonites know they are going to win the only vote that matters, regardless of how the witnesses testify. The tight schedule for the witnesses won’t delay the trial much. And the White House can use the witness defeat to declaim yet again about unfair, partisan Republicans.

I think there may be an even better solution to the witness squabble. After the managers and presidential lawyers finish their presentations, the Senate retreats into closed session to debate the witness motion. Whenever the Senate closes up like this, the TV cameras go off and reporters melt away. And when senators emerge from the private session, they don’t talk much: The Ethics Committee advised yesterday that senators should not publicly discuss what goes on in closed session.

So, an inspiration: Shove the whole trial behind closed doors. The media, which can’t cover the trial without footage and quotes, will move on–just as the American people want them to. The Senate, which has the constitutional duty to try the case, can follow proper procedure without worrying about what the public thinks–because the public won’t be thinking about it at all. They can subpoena John Podesta, Currie, and Jane Doe No. 5. Heck, they can subpoena Jane Doe Nos. 6 through 346 for all anyone will care. To be sure, the Senate’s other business will suffer. But I’m sure the American people will bravely accept that loss if it means they don’t have to hear another word out of Bill McCollum’s mouth.