Clinton Impeachment: Statement By Senator Bob Graham

The following is a statement from the Senate’s closed deliberations on the Articles of Impeachment against President Clinton, excerpts of which senators were allowed to publish in the Congressional Record for Friday, February 12, 1999.

Senator Bob Graham was a Democratic senator from Florida. He served from 1987 until 2005. He previously served two terms as Governor of Florida.

Statement by Senator Bob Graham (Republican – Florida)

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

Those words were a radical declaration when spoken in 1776. Never before had it been asserted that the purpose of government was to secure the individual freedoms and liberties of its citizens. To the contrary, previous governments existed for the opposite purpose; to control the people and suppress their aspirations.

Eleven years after the Continental Congress approved these revolutionary sentiments–and after a violent war which severed the colonies’ tie to King George III–many of the same individuals who had declared independence gathered again in Philadelphia to secure those rights so recently and tenuously won.

The governmental structure they constructed during those weeks in the oppressive summer heat was far from simple. But its complexity wasn’t an accident, or simply a result of the diverse geographical and economic interests represented at the Constitutional Convention. As our colleague Senator Patrick Moynihan has so aptly observed, our government was the first to insert conflict as a conscious element, to achieve inefficiency by design.

Our nation’s founders had personal knowledge of and experience with English history, in which both Kings and Parliaments had at times exerted excessive power over the people. They realized that liberty would be enhanced if political power was divided instead of centralized.

Unlike other forms of democracy, where a no confidence vote of the national legislature can bring down a government at any time, the Framers took great pains to establish a delicate balance of powers–and a careful system of checks and balances–between the nation and the states and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. They created a structure in which every branch would have the strength needed to keep excessive power from flowing into the hands of any other branch and thus threatening the liberties of the people.

This determination to achieve balance is reflected in the discussion of impeachment and removal from office in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution. By requiring action from both houses of Congress, and mandating a two-thirds Senate majority for removal, the Framers purposely made it difficult for Congress to undo the results of a properly constituted Presidential election–one of the most disruptive acts imaginable in a democracy–and relieve a President of his or her constitutional duties. The Framers wisely recognized that impeachment, when improvidently used, could create an overbearing Congress from the ruins of a destabilized and delegitimized Presidency.

But the Framers’ attention to balance was not limited to the procedures of impeachment. They also made clear their belief that impeachment and removal from office should only be an option in situations in which a President becomes a threat to the government and the people it serves. We see this in their small number of enumerated offenses–Treason, Bribery, other High Crimes and Misdemeanors–and in their commentary.

For example, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, George Mason said that the term ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ referred to ‘great and dangerous offenses’ and ‘attempts to subvert the Constitution.’

Mr. Chief Justice, the President’s self-indulgent actions were immoral. Disgraceful. Reprehensible. History should–and, I suspect, will–judge that William Jefferson Clinton dishonored himself and the highest office in our American democracy.

But despite their disreputable nature, President Clinton’s actions should not result in his conviction and removal from office. After careful objective study of each article presented by the House of Representatives, I have concluded that the charges against the President do not meet the high constitutional standards established by the Framers. Removal of this President on the grounds established by the House Managers would upset the delicate balance of powers so meticulously established 212 years ago.

Mr. Chief Justice, the Framers set high standards for removal because they understood that the office of the Presidency would be held by imperfect human beings. They assembled a government that could withstand personal failings.

We should be outraged that William Jefferson Clinton’s personal failings debased himself and his office. But they did not cause permanent injury to the proper functioning of our government. He did not upset the constitutional balance of powers.

I hope that the Chief Justice, my colleagues, and the American people will not misinterpret my comments. While it has not been proven that President William Jefferson Clinton committed the high crimes and misdemeanors required for removal from office, he is not above the law. His acquittal in this impeachment trial is not exoneration.

The framers made this clear in Article I of the Constitution. They established that an impeached President, even if convicted and removed from office, would still ‘be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgement, and Punishment, according to law.’ When this President leaves office, he could face sanction or conviction for his actions.

Mr. Chief Justice, during the questioning phase of this trial, I sought assurances from the President, through White House Counsel Mr. Charles Ruff, that he would not attempt to circumvent this judicial process by seeking a pardon for his actions. Counsel Ruff responded as follows:

“I have stated formally on behalf of the President in response to a very specific question by the House Judiciary Committee that he would not, and, indeed, we have said in this Chamber, and we have said in other places, that the President is subject to the rule of law like any other citizen and would continue to be on January 21, 2001, and that he would submit himself to whatever law and whatever prosecution the law would impose on him. He is prepared to defend himself in that forum at any time following the end of his tenure. And I committed on his behalf, and I have no doubt that he would so state himself, that he would not seek or accept a pardon.”

I take Counsel Mr. Charles Ruff at his words. Once the President leaves office, he will be subject to the same prosecutorial and judicial review that all Americans face.

Mr. Chief Justice, now that we are at the end of this divisive and unpleasant experience, what have we learned?

We have learned that the Constitution works. The Framers made it clear that the President should only be impeached and removed from office in cases where he becomes a threat to the government and the governed. The President’s acquittal will uphold the sanctity of the office and prevent a weakening of the balance of powers that protects our individual rights and liberties.

We have reaffirmed the principle that no man is above the law. While I believe that the President is not guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors in this court of impeachment, he will be subject to legal sanction in other forums when he becomes a private citizen.

Mr. Chief Justice, the President’s misdeeds will affect his standing in history. But they do not justify the first removal of a President of the United States from the office to which he was elected by the American people. When my name is called on the roll, I will vote ‘not guilty’ on both articles of impeachment.

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