Press "Enter" to skip to content

Clinton Impeachment: Statement By Senator Jay Rockefeller

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 Jay Rockefeller was a Democratic senator from West Virginia. He served from 1985 until 2015.

Statement by Senator Jay Rockefeller (Democrat – West Virginia)

Mr. Chief Justice, I rise today to announce, or simply declare, that I will vote not guilty on both articles of impeachment and to urge my colleagues to spare the country the injustice of removing a President who has been twice elected to his office by the American people, and whom they continue to trust to lead them.

As a Senator, I have taken my trial oath very, very seriously. For my part, I have listened intently to the presentations, carefully considered the evidence, read everything that I could get my hands on, and thought about those matters carefully. I have read, and reread, the key language of our Constitution, and thought long and hard about the words of our Founding Fathers. In fact, the Constitution, in many ways, came alive for me for the first time.

I am humbled by the wisdom and foresight of our founders as I struggle through some of the most profound questions that our democracy can present to us. What is the balance of power between the three branches of Government? How do we measure public trust, and under what circumstances may the Senate exercise its most devastating power–the power to overturn a popular election, and a power, therefore, to remove a President from office?

As I confront these questions, I am acutely conscious of the terrible disappointment of our Nation in the personal and public behavior of our President. No one of us would defend his actions. No one of us would say that he is free of serious fault.

I have condemned in the strongest possible terms that I know how to do–and I have done it to him directly–the conduct of the President in the Lewinsky matter. And I share the sense of outrage that so many of my constituents from West Virginia have shared with me.

When first confronted with this shameful affair, the President deliberately misled his family, his friends, and his staff. He went on national television, and, as far as I am concerned, lied to the American people, and he walked a troubling line between truth and deception in his sworn testimony, all in an effort to keep this scandal out of the humiliating glare of public scrutiny.

It is without question a very serious moral matter. But the ultimate power of the U.S. Senate–the power to convict and remove the President for high crimes and misdemeanors–is not a power to pass moral judgment or render moral punishment. It is not even a power to render a judicial conviction or judicial punishment. The power of the Senate is drawn carefully and narrowly by the Constitution of the United States, and it is a power to sit in judgment of a President only as a means of protecting our Nation from great harm. It is a power to remove a President only if he has committed treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors against the state.

As U.S. Senators, the Constitution must be our predominant guidepost. It must be the compass we come back to at every point of hesitation or ambiguity or doubt. ‘Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’–these words are powerful, extraordinary, and carefully crafted. We know how very grave treason and bribery are, and we know that they involve a fundamental corruption of public office. But what about high crimes and misdemeanors? The words, ‘or other high crimes and misdemeanors,’ on its face means high crimes and high misdemeanors.

Borrowing from my good friend, Senator Biden, the word, ‘treason,’ was defined in the Constitution itself. The word, ‘bribery,’ was not. It was a definition fixed at common law. These are both relatively definite terms. But ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ are indefinite.

In this setting, two rules of construction led us to add the word–Madison and Mason to add the word–‘or other,’ in their famous colloquy. The word, ‘other,’ is, to me, fascinating, because what it does is essentially return us to the previous clause, which is ‘treason and bribery.’ It says that ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ must necessarily be interpreted at the same level of, even though less definite than, ‘bribery and treason.’

I think that is clear. I think that is uncontested.

As U.S. Senators, the Constitution must be, as I said, our guidepost. We know from the statements of our founders that the phrase was intended in a very careful way–‘high crimes and misdemeanors’–to cover only very grave and threatening abuses of Presidential duty and public office.

The House managers contend, as did Independent Counsel Ken Starr before them, that in the course of hiding his illicit affair from the world, the President committed perjury, obstruction of justice, and those crimes are so serious that they constitute, by definition, high crimes and misdemeanors, demanding conviction and immediate removal from office, something that has never happened before in the history of our Nation.

Most of this body are lawyers. And I think that most would agree–all of us would agree–the questions that must be answered by all of us in this Senate are:

First, did the President commit perjury or obstruction of justice as charged by the articles of impeachment?

Second, did the President’s conduct rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors requiring removal?

The answer to both of these questions must be yes in order for the President to be removed from office. If either one of these questions fails, then by definition the Constitution demands that the President be acquitted.

On the basis of the case presented over the last several weeks, on the basis of the evidence and the deposition testimony, which I reviewed carefully and in full, and on the basis of the constitutional arguments made by each side, I have concluded unequivocally that the answer to both questions is no, and that the articles of impeachment are not well founded and must be rejected.

First and foremost, the House managers have utterly failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the President committed perjury or obstructed justice. Their case is speculative, circumstantial, and contradicted by facts.

Admittedly, the burden of proof on the House managers is a very heavy one.

We have a presumption in this country of innocence until proven guilty. And we have a presumption that national elections should be upheld.

With the fate of a twice-elected President before us in this Senate, I believe that the evidence must be the universally accepted standard of proof that is applied to other criminal cases. It must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

What does that mean, to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt? It means that it is proven to a moral certainty, that the case is clear, that the case is concise. It means that, if there are doubts about the evidence, about the case, then he must be acquitted.

In the case presented by the House managers in the managers’ version of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, there are many, many reasonable doubts.

There are the doubts about the articles themselves, which are ambiguous, and what conduct actually purported to be criminal. There are serious doubts about the perjury charge in which the President openly acknowledges his inappropriate behavior–and his effort to keep it secret from the Nation. There are doubts about the obstruction charges in which the President is accused of a vast conspiratorial scheme to influence witnesses and testimony, even though everyone involved has denied that any such effort occurred. No person, regardless of the stature or position, could, or should be, convicted on evidence that is so ambiguous and so questionable, and to my way of thinking ultimately, weak.

Second, and equally important, no matter how deplorable the President’s conduct, the charges clearly do not meet the constitutional test for conviction. They simply do not rise to the level of treason, bribery or other high crimes and high misdemeanors, as I would put it. Any other conduct, any other charges, are left to the judgment of the people in casting of their votes, and to the judgment of the courts once the President has left office.

Despite the anger that we feel at the President, despite misgivings that we have about his honesty, despite his lies to the American people, we cannot allow emotions–or, I might say, homilies–or partisanship to interfere with our judgment. The Constitution alone puts us in the box from which we dare not venture.

On impeachment, our constitutional history is well established. And we in the Senate and across the Nation must abide by it, and abide by it strictly. We may remove a President only for using his great office to commit high crimes against the Nation, against the state, and against the people. There is no question in my mind that the President has not done this. We would be derelict in our duties as Senators if we removed him for anything less.

So, given the weakness of the evidence supporting the charges made by the House, given the serious doubt in the Senate that the charges rise to the level of demanding removal from office, how do we find ourselves so far down this dangerous constitutional path?

How do we in the Senate find ourselves so close to the brink of removing a President from office without clear and compelling evidence that crimes against the state were committed?

How was an independent counsel investigation allowed to turn into a five-year, $50 million crusade against the President?

And, why have we not been able to debate the real issues for the future of our nation–strengthening Medicare, reforming Social Security, ending the steel import crisis so West Virginia steelworkers can get their jobs back?

It is clear that, in the end, justice will be done, and the Constitution will have protected the nation. I have been dismayed by growing partisanship, but the bottom line is that the President should not be removed from office, and he will not be removed from office.

With the greatest respect for each of my colleagues, I must say there is something very wrong with the fact that we have been forced to take this so far, and that the Senate has been rendered impotent for so long. Even in the face of unceasing calls to end this investigation–from people in every state, from every background and political party–it has marched on relentlessly.

I do not believe that it was ever the will of the House of Representatives or the Senate to pursue these charges against the President to such great and absurd lengths. Yet we have–and in the process, a growing crack in the civil and moral foundation of our government has been revealed.

It has become clear to me that a destructive momentum has taken hold, and supplanted the better judgement of some in this Congress and in this country.

From the start, there has been a core of political interests that has sought every opportunity and pursued every tactic to attack this Presidency. Every President faces critics who will go to great lengths to fight his policies. But this President has faced unprecedented and unyielding attempts by a small group of determined activists to destroy him, his family, and his work.

Unfortunately, these efforts at destruction have been aided by a media inside the beltway that has accepted nearly every rumor–proven or unproven–and splash it across the front page or put it at the top of the evening newscast. Ratings and revenues too often have taken priority over sound and judicious coverage of the news. Far from serving the public interest, this has only fueled the efforts of those who have sought to undermine the reasoned pursuit of truth and justice.

As I made clear earlier, none of this diminishes my belief that the President’s actions were wrong and indefensible. His personal failures in this matter deserve our condemnation.

But his failures do not deserve–and have never deserved–the relentless attempts at political and personal destruction that he has been subject to. His failures do not deserve–and have never deserved–the triggering of a constitutional process that our Founding Fathers reserved for the most serious crimes against the nation.

I do not say this to fan the flames of partisan division. After all, each of us–Republican or Democrat–has and will make mistakes, and each of us must be held accountable for our mistakes. But no member of the Senate, no member of the House, no elected official who serves this country to his or her best ability deserves the sort of insidious venom that has become such a common part of our political discourse.

Let me also be clear that I say this not solely in defense of President Clinton–but principally in defense of civility and fairness in our political society. I say this with sincere hope that we can bring to an end the destructive momentum that has gripped this nation and this city. Because, as disturbing as the President’s actions are, I am far more concerned by the fanaticism of those who have driven our great nation so close to the precipice.

For our system of Democracy to be successful for another two centuries, it must be driven by people’s best instincts–not their worst. It must be founded in moral strength and guided by civil discourse. We must, as Minority Leader Gephardt has so eloquently stated, end the politics of personal destruction.

I have great hope that we can do this, because as I look around, I see a vast majority of Americans who are tired of good leaders being destroyed by a vindictive minority. I see a majority of Americans who understand clearly that President Clinton should not be removed from office for his deep personal failings. I see a majority of Americans who know better than to believe everything and anything they hear in the media.

The American people want us to seek the truth–they, in fact, demand it. But with equal vigor, they demand that we cast fair judgement; and they demand that in seeking the truth, we do not seek to destroy lives and careers.

I believe that this Senate is prepared to cast a fair judgment on the President. We have been through a trying time in our nation’s history–a time that not one of us has relished or gained the least bit of satisfaction from. We have all done our best to seek impartial justice, and I am certain that history will judge us well in this pursuit.

But history will cast a very severe judgement if we do not go forward with the purpose of healing the wounds that this episode has caused, and restoring the moral and civil foundation of our political society.

I leave my colleagues with the wisdom of James Madison in Federalist Paper 62 when he addressed the important role of the Senate in tempering the actions of the House. ‘. . . a senate,’ he wrote, ‘as a second branch of the legislative assembly, distinct from, and dividing the power with, a first, must be in all cases a salutary check on the government.’

By dismissing these charges against the President, we will have done our duty to provide that salutary check, and we will have taken the first step in restoring the trust and faith of the people of this nation. It is time to do as the American people have asked: end this sad episode and get back to work.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024