Clinton on Trial

The Rush to Judgment

Toward the end of today’s trial session, a spectator in the gallery stands up and screams at the senators: “God almighty! Take the vote and get it over with!” Police hustle him out of the chamber before he can give any more sound advice.

The outburst does capture the day’s impatient mood. The tolerance of the Senate has clearly vanished over the past week. Perhaps the banality of the depositions has made senators realize the futility of the trial. Perhaps they’re just sick of the whole pointless spectacle. (For the first two weeks of the trial, the rack of press releases in the press gallery overflowed with senatorial statements in favor of censure or witnesses or adjournment. Today the releases are all wonkery: Social Security, tax cuts, disability rights.) Whatever the cause for the senatorial ennui, today is spent trying to rush to judgment.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who has always preached the “let-the-trial-run-its-course” gospel, foreshadows the mood swing at a noon press conference. He speaks, and then even repeats, the favorite Democratic mantra: Move on. “I think it’s important to get a vote and move on.”

The Senate resumes the trial at 1 p.m. The business of the day: Figure out what to do next. Should they 1) call Monica Lewinsky to testify; 2) allow the videotaped depositions into evidence; or 3) schedule a day for the lawyers to show the depositions to the Senate? The White House and the House managers spend the first two hours debating these questions. The House managers, perhaps recognizing the Senate’s impatience, speak at an insanely fast pace. They seem, well, desperate. Manager Ed Bryant tries, futilely, to make the case that the Lewinsky deposition uncovered important new information. Managers Asa Hutchinson and James Rogan try the same impossible trick for the Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal deps. The managers alternately grovel and hector. Rogan advises that any senator who doesn’t watch all three depositions “is not fit” to vote on the articles, a warning that Democratic senators, at least the few who are listening, greet with annoyed smirks.

In the White House reply, Greg Craig mixes the common-sensical and the preposterous. The common sense: Craig notes that Lewinsky has already testified 23 times, and it’s impossible to imagine that a 24th time would make a difference. “It would be a massive waste of time.” The preposterous: Craig says the videotaped depositions should not be released for the sake of the “children.” The depositions would be “forced hour after hour unbidden into the living rooms and family rooms of the nation.” Forced? We will be “forced” to watch them?

Not that what either side says matters, because senators seem to be paying no attention at all. They have dispensed with the good trial manners of the past two weeks. Most don’t even make the pretense of listening. They whisper, nap, disappear outside for half an hour.

They are marking time for the votes. Senators, in a rush to recess, skip debate on various amendments and motions and go straight to votes. Twenty-five Republicans–including all the moderates and quite a few conservatives–join all the Democrats in opposing Monica’s live testimony, sending that to a 70-30 defeat. A dozen Democrats join virtually all the Republicans in voting to allow the managers to spend a day showing snippets of the videotaped depositions on the floor of the Senate (the full depositions won’t be released till later, if at all). The results seem a clever compromise: They avoid the Monica spectacle, they give a sop to the managers and, most important, they clear a path to the finish line.

At day’s end, you can hear the relief in senators’ voices, especially among Democrats. The video evidence will be presented Saturday. Both sides will make closing arguments Monday. The Senate will begin final deliberations Tuesday and vote on the articles no later than Friday morning. Then it’s over.

One matter remains unsettled, and that is the subject of the day’s running battle: Will there be “findings of fact” or censure or something else or nothing? This morning Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Pete Domenici circulated their draft findings of fact. These findings would be voted on before a final vote on the articles. (The draft is three whole sentences long. Some facts!) Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Diane Feinstein, meanwhile, are polishing a censure resolution. The principal difference: The findings of facts are a legal condemnation, the censure a moral one.

Both camps, of course, have spent much of the past few days deriding the other’s proposal as “unconstitutional.” Legal scholars have been recruited. Briefs have been issued. This is getting tiresome. I propose a moratorium on anyone calling censure or findings of fact “unconstitutional.” Let us review: The Constitution doesn’t talk about either censure or findings of fact. Our sacred framers did not spend one second discussing censure or findings of fact. The senators deliberating Andrew Johnson’s fate never considered censure or findings of fact. No British impeachment trial from the 13th, 14th, 15th, or 16th century addressed censure or findings of fact. Roman law doesn’t mention censure or findings of fact. Even the great Code of Hammurabi is strangely silent on the subjects of censure and findings of fact. They are, like so many matters in Flytrap, notions that we have devoted far more time and energy to examining than all our constitutional predecessors did put together. So please call censure or findings of fact good ideas or bad ideas, and please tell us the six compelling reasons why, but stop calling them “unconstitutional.” It’s cheap.

So how will the censure-findings squabble be settled? Probably with the most complicated possible compromise. Democrats are refusing to sign on to the findings, which probably dooms them: Republicans have said they won’t introduce them unless they can win five or more Democratic votes. Republicans, meanwhile, are skeptical of a post-impeachment censure. Moynihan may have found the middle ground. He is apparently proposing that before the Senate votes on the articles, it convene in regular legislative session. During that session, senators will pass a harsh censure resolution. Then the Senate will reconvene as an impeachment court and vote on the articles. Whatever it takes to get to yes, I say.