Clinton’s Impeachment Compared to the Trump Proceedings: Conversation with Sol Wisenberg, former Deputy Independent Counsel during the Starr Investigation
With the Trump impeachment proceedings getting ready to start this week in the House of Representatives, we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the Clinton Impeachment. The catalyst for President Clinton’s impeachment was the Starr Report. Independent Counsel Ken Starr presented to the House of Representatives a case for impeaching President Bill Clinton on 11 grounds, including perjury, obstruction of justice, witness-tampering and abuse of power. The sexual relationship between the president and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky formed the basis of the lying under oath and obstruction of justice charges. The lying under oath charge stemmed from the Clinton v. Jones civil lawsuit, which included President Clinton’s inaccurate grand jury testimony about a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Solomon L. Wisenberg played a pivotal role in the Clinton Impeachment as a Deputy Independent Counsel during the Starr investigation. Mr. Wisenberg’s grand jury questioning of President Bill Clinton was submitted by independent counsel Kenneth Starr with his report to the House of Representatives as part of the Clinton impeachment proceedings.
Mr. Wisenberg has more than two decades of experience with complex federal white-collar crime investigations and jury trials and is currently the co-chair of Nelson Mullins White Collar Defense and Government Investigations practice. He is a sought after analyst and routinely appears in a variety of media providing commentary and answering questions on federal white-collar investigations, impeachment, public corruption under the Hobbs Act, bribery and fraud, Foreign Corrupt Practice Act violations and other intricate legal issues.
Mr. Wisenberg was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to talk with the National Law Review on the upcoming Trump impeachment proceedings and how they are similar and different from the Clinton impeachment.
The Starr Report played a central role in the Clinton impeachment proceedings; producing the perjury and obstruction of justice charges stemming from the Clinton v. Jones civil action.
In the Clinton v. Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, Ms. Jones’ attorneys included questions about Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton’s behavior with other women to show a pattern of improper behavior with women by Clinton to bolster Ms. Jones' sexual harassment claims.
Additionally, Ms. Jones' attorneys sought to show a pattern concerning President Clinton’s actions in covering up various inappropriate interactions with women.
Do you think the impeachment prosecutors for President Trump will introduce elements from the Mueller report to show a pattern of behavior to bolster any criminal acts and any obstruction of justice case related to the withholding of aid to Ukraine?
Mr. Wisenberg: I think there's no doubt that they will. I've heard some Democratic Congressmen talking about it and it's very clear that they feel the obstruction portion of the Mueller report has not been given sufficient attention. So I'd be shocked if it does not constitute one of the articles of impeachment.
The Supreme Court in Clinton v. Jones held that a sitting president is subject to civil suits in federal court, this lead to President Clinton being deposed and perjuring himself and being impeached by the House of Representatives, on grounds of perjury to a grand jury and for obstruction of justice.
If President Clinton was able to be deposed while in office, why are President Trump and other members of his administration, such as Mick Mulvaney, claiming immunity?
Mr. Wisenberg: Trump didn't ever formally claim immunity, because Mueller never pressed the point. Keep in mind, Clinton vs Jones just said the president is not immune from suits while he is in office. Even President Clinton didn't take the position that he could never be sued. President Clinton’s position was just that he didn't have to answer lawsuits brought while he was the president, and the Supreme Court ended up saying yes you do, you don’t have that absolute immunity. But the Court also said that there needs to be respect and accommodations for the responsibilities of the office, for the president’s schedule, time, privacy, all of that kind of stuff.
However, in the Lewinsky criminal investigation where we sent President Clinton a grand jury subpoena after he ignored six of our requests to appear, we ended up withdrawing the subpoena. We did this because President Clinton’s attorney said if you withdraw the subpoena, he’ll sit for grand jury testimony. Clinton’s inquiry involved grand jury testimony, not just a deposition. So the constitutional issue involving the President’s right to defy a grand jury subpoena for testimony alone was never tested there. I think it would've been an interesting issue, because Clinton did not want to be in a position where the president is being subpoenaed or responding to a subpoena, and he certainly didn't want to be in a position of going to federal court to block the Lewinsky Grand Jury’s subpoena.
So that's how it was worked out, and we don't know what would have happened if he would have challenged our subpoena in court. There's actually a case that came out in 1997. It's the controlling law in the DC Circuit. The Office of Independent Counsel that was investigating Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy wasn't asking for testimony in that case. In the In Re Sealed Case, 121 F 3d 729 (1997). the issue was asking for documents and it's actually a fairly high standard to be able to force the president to respond to a grand jury subpoena. I believe it's quite possible that Mueller didn't press the point because he might not have won under the test laid out for Mike Espy, even if he was just seeking testimony. Every case is dependent upon the particular facts. And because Mueller already had been given a tremendous amount of relevant information, he may have not wanted to push it, as it's not at all certain that he would’ve won. So not only would it have been a lengthy process that would have delayed the Mueller investigation, but Mueller may not have won on the issue. It's not that President Trump was behaving inconsistently with the ruling in Clinton vs Jones. It’s that Mueller never forced Trump to make a choice.
Special Counsel Mueller declined to subpoena President Trump, as Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee that it looked highly unlikely that they would obtain an in-person interview with Trump and because of the perceived need to wrap up the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
Do you think Mr. Mueller’s strategy of not forcing President Trump to either testify, fight the subpoena in the courts or defy the subpoena will weaken the prosecutor’s ability to use the Mueller report in the impeachment process?
Mr. Wisenberg: Oh God, no. I mean, not at all. The report is what it is. The obstruction portion of the report (I should say alleged obstruction, because even Mueller doesn't say that Trump criminally obstructed justice) is what it is. The obstruction portion of the Mueller report is based on witness testimony. I don't think there's going to be much dispute about what happened. And apparently now the House of Representatives has the grand jury backup for the Mueller report’s witness testimony. President Trump has questioned some of Don McGahn’s factual statements, but McGahn was hardly alone in detailing the President’s efforts to stymie Mueller.
The dispute would be on the suggestion that the President criminally obstructed justice. I don’t think he did on the known facts, and the only episode that is even a close call on this was when President Trump allegedly asked Don McGahn to sign a document for the White House’s records denying he'd been told to fire Mueller. I think from the Democrats’ perspective they were waiting and waiting and waiting for the Mueller report and it was a dud. The Democrats blamed Bill Barr, I think, unfairly. The Democrats tried to hold testimony on the Mueller report and, it didn't get anywhere, again, because of all of the claims of executive privilege and related doctrines. Now that they've got impeachment authority in Congress the Democrats are in a much stronger position. They can say now, any area of inquiry is allowed under our Constitutional power to conduct an impeachment inquiry.
Based on President Clinton’s conflicting testimony, Mr. Starr presented a case that President Clinton had committed perjury. Do you think President Trump’s frequent public statements, though not under oath about the Russian interference in the 2016 election and the alleged quid pro quo in the withholding of aid to Ukraine will be used in the impeachment proceedings?
Mr. Wisenberg: The Democrats can use anything they want if they think it is valuable to them. The Democrats might say President Trump’s frequent commentaries can be construed as non-hearsay party admissions under the Federal Rules of Evidence in any proceeding brought against President Trump. Also, where somebody is accused of criminal wrongdoing and says something about the specific accusation that turns out to be false, this can be used against him as a false exculpatory statement. So, I see no reason why they can't consider anything they want to consider.
To answer your specific questions about President Clinton, President Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones civil rights lawsuit deposition thereby obstructing justice. The federal district judge presiding held President Clinton in contempt of court. President Clinton is the only U.S president ever held in contempt by a federal judge. Additionally, President Clinton had his secretary retrieve and remove gifts Monika Lewinsky had in her possession, when the gifts were subpoenaed in the Jones civil suit. President Clinton used a White House employee, his secretary Betty Currie to obstruct justice in a civil rights lawsuit.
There are some people who say private conduct, even if it’s criminal, should never be impeachable and that we should not be concerned with private conduct. And there is some historical support for this position in writings by the framers and stuff like that. But President Clinton did more than that. He used a White House employee in order to hide items under subpoena. That’s textbook obstruction.
If President Trump's impeachment prosecutors are able to demonstrate that alleged withholding of aid to Ukraine is a criminal act, do you think it will be easier to prove intent in an obstruction of justice case?
Mr. Wisenberg: No, I don't think so. I don't think that helps them on obstruction of justice unless something new related to the Ukraine business comes out, but all he did was to say it’s a perfect call. Right? I think that if you were to somehow prove that this was a campaign finance violation or, or some kind of a crime, it might be a little bit easier to get a few more votes, but I don't see anything yet that gets them the votes they need to convict President Trump in the Senate. I understand some people believe that putting the phone call transcript on a separate server was obstruction, but that sounds weak to me.
GOP Senators will point out that President Trump was elected, and we're a representative democracy. We're going to hold an election in one year. They will say it’s not right to remove him because of Ukraine. Even if they think, as Senators, that it was a mistake.
I think it is going to take something really dramatic for there to be a shift. Either a dramatic shift in public opinion based on the live testimony or just something new coming out, some new scandal to move the needle on that.
To answer your question, if somebody were to somehow to prove without question that President Trump knew he was violating the law when he made the call, that may be meaningful. And that revelation again moves the needle maybe, but you can't ignore the politics.
Take a look at the situation with President Clinton. There was no real question in anybody's mind that he perjured himself and that he obstructed justice, but that didn't all of a sudden make the Democrats in the Senate vote for removal. I don’t think any of them did. The Democrats during the Clinton impeachment and removal proceedings acted very similarly to how the Republicans are acting now. You can’t ignore the politics.
Many thanks to Mr. Wisenberg for his time and answers to our questions. For more insight from Mr. Wisenberg concerning Executive Privilege, Immunity and Separation of Powers concerning the Trump Impeachment proceedings - click here.