Clinton Impeachment: Statement By Senator Susan Collins

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 Susan Collins is a Republican senator from Maine. She has served since 1997.

Statement by Senator Susan Collins (Republican – Maine)

Mr. Chief Justice, my colleagues, the issue now before the Senate may well be the most significant of our public careers. Other than declaring war, it is difficult to imagine a weightier decision that could come before us than whether to remove the President of the United States from office.

Our Founders designed impeachment to protect our system of government against officials who lose their moorings in the law or who endanger our most basic institutions. They designed it neither as a popular referendum nor as a mechanism by which–as in parliamentary systems–the legislature can remove the head of government based on nothing more than a policy difference. Instead, this process is a check upon rogue chief executives, designed equally to remove the politically popular malefactor and to protect the innocent, but unpopular, official. It is a vital, but extraordinary, remedy that should neither be shunned out of political expediency nor invoked for political gain.

The question before us is not whether President Clinton’s conduct was contemptible or utterly unworthy of the great office he holds. It was. The question before us is whether the President has committed an impeachable offense for which he should be removed from that office.

The Framers thought carefully about where to vest the ultimate power to remove a president. They chose the United States Senate. This was not an obvious choice. The power to convict and remove could as easily have been assigned to a court of law, where a jury would apply the law to the facts in the ordinary way.

But the Framers gave the power to try impeachments to the Senate. They did so because they recognized that an impeachment trial should not be an ordinary trial, requiring an ordinary application of law to fact. The Framers wanted the Senate to make not only a determination of guilt, but also a judgment about what is best for our nation and its institutions.

Throughout this impeachment trial, in order to lessen the ambiguity in this process, I have sought to find a way to allow the Senate to express its view of the facts we have so carefully considered for the past month. The vote we now approach is to convict or acquit. It is a blunt instrument that does not allow me to express clearly my belief that President Clinton willfully lied to a federal grand jury, and that he wrongfully tried to influence testimony and to conceal evidence related to Paula Jones’ lawsuit.

As this case has been argued in this chamber, I have become convinced that the perjury charges of Article I are not fully substantiated by the record. The President’s grand jury testimony is replete with lies, half-truths, and evasions. But significantly, not all evasion is lying, and not all lying is perjury. Even blatantly misleading testimony that all fair-minded people would consider dishonest may not actually constitute perjury, as the law defines it.

Time and time again, the attorneys questioning President Clinton before the grand jury–perhaps out of a misguided sense of deference–neglected to pin him down as he gave nonresponsive, evasive, confusing, or simply absurd responses. The only remedy for imprecise answers is more precise questioning. Unfortunately, this did not occur, and consequently, the record is too murky to require the President’s removal based on Article I.

The evidence supporting Article II is more convincing. Indeed, the case presented by the House Managers proves to my satisfaction that the President did, in fact, obstruct justice in Paula Jones’ civil rights case. While the circumstances surrounding Monica Lewinsky’s filing of a false affidavit are unclear, there is no doubt in my mind that the frantic efforts to find Ms. Lewinsky a job, the retrieval and concealment of gifts under the bed of the President’s secretary, and, most egregious, the President’s blatant coaching of Betty Currie–not once, but twice–were clear attempts to tamper with witnesses and obstruct justice. Indeed, if I were a juror in an ordinary criminal case, I might very well vote to convict faced with these facts.

Nevertheless, I do not think that the President’s actions constitute a `high crime’ or `misdemeanor’ as contemplated by Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution. This is, I readily acknowledge, a judgment that can neither be made nor explained with anything approaching scientific precision. But I can point to two factors that influence my conclusion.

First, obstruction of justice is generally more serious in a criminal case, as opposed to a civil case, as it interferes with the effective enforcement of our nation’s laws and not solely with the adjudication of private disputes. Consistent with this conclusion, the vast majority of obstruction prosecutions involve underlying criminal actions, and the statutory penalties are more severe in the context of criminal trials. This is not to suggest for a moment that we should tolerate obstruction of justice in civil cases, but only to observe that our legal system treats it as a less serious offense.

Second, I believe that for impeachment purposes, obstruction of justice has more ominous implications when the conduct concealed, or the method used to conceal it, poses a threat to our governmental institutions. Neither occurred in this case.

Therefore, I will cast my vote not for the current President, but for the presidency. I believe that in order to convict, we must conclude from the evidence presented to us with no room for doubt that our Constitution will be injured and our democracy suffer should the President remain in office one moment more.

In this instance, the claims against the President fail to reach this very high standard. Therefore, albeit reluctantly, I will vote to acquit William Jefferson Clinton on both counts.

In voting to acquit the President, I do so with grave misgivings for I do not mean in any way to exonerate this man. He lied under oath; he sought to interfere with the evidence; he tried to influence the testimony of key witnesses. And, while it may not be a crime, he exploited a very young, star-struck employee whom he then proceeded to smear in an attempt to destroy her credibility, her reputation, her life. The President’s actions were chillingly similar to the White House’s campaign to discredit Kathleen Willey.

As much as it troubles me to acquit this President, I cannot do otherwise and remain true to my role as a Senator. To remove a popularly elected president for the first time in our nation’s history is an extraordinary action that should be undertaken only when the President’s misconduct so injures the fabric of democracy that the Senate is left with no option but to oust the offender from the office the people have entrusted to him.

President Clinton has written a shameful and permanent chapter of American history. He alone is responsible for this year of agony that the American people have endured. I do not, however, take solace in the prospect of a censure, nor do I take comfort in the possibility that the President may be prosecuted for his wrongdoing after he leaves office. Rather, I look to the verdict of history to provide the ultimate punishment for this president, a verdict that no public relations gloss or smear campaign can obscure. As Maine’s great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in 1874, `Whatever hath been written shall remain, nor be erased, nor written o’er again.’ When the history of the Clinton presidency is written, every book will begin with the fact that William Jefferson Clinton was impeached, and that will be not only the ultimate censure but also the final verdict on this sad chapter in our nation’s history.

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