By MARTIN SCHRAM
At last, Washington is hearing convincing truth about perjury — Hate City’s crime of choice, now playing with a familiar plot but all-new cast in a federal courtroom.
Over-burdened Bush-Cheney defenders offer a convincing argument about why a perjury prosecution such as the case against ex-vice presidential chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby should never have made it to trial.
But what these conservative ideologues may not realize is that their argument is most convincing not about the current White House perjury case, but about the last one.
Yes, the one in which Republican activists schemed to turn a special prosecutor’s probe of a real estate deal that unearthed no provable wrongdoing into an effort to impeach and convict a Democratic president for lying about private consensual sex under oath.
The logic that applied to the impeachment and Senate trial of Bill Clinton was never spoken — but was compellingly clear — last weekend during a colloquy of pundits on Fox News Sunday. When host Chris Wallace asked about the Libby perjury trial, Fox News bureau chief Brit Hume said: “…This vaunted prosecutor … labored long … after he knew who the original leaker was … and brought forth a mouse.”
(A mouse named Scooter: Libby is charged with perjury and obstructing justice in special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s probe to find out who leaked the identity of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame. Her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had discredited President Bush’s assertion that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. Libby told a grand jury that it was journalists who told him Plame was Wilson’s wife. But a parade of witnesses contradicted him and Libby has since said it was an innocent mistake. Libby is being tried for making false statements, but not for leaking Plame’s identity. At the time Libby apparently was following Cheney’s instruction: Convince journalists Wilson wasn’t credible.)
“We are in the midst of a not-very-serious case,” Hume went on. “What we’re in the midst of is charges brought against somebody for crimes alleged to have been committed after the investigation began and in the course of the investigation. The investigation produced no crime.”
Hume’s argument was compelling the first time we heard it. That was back when Clinton defenders made the same claim and Republicans ignored it — impeaching a Democratic president for perjury unconnected to official duties and unrelated to the prosecutor’s original probe that produced no crime.
Mara Liasson of National Public Radio interjected: “Perjury is a crime.” Hume countered: “… Prosecutors every day are presented an array of instances in which they can see a crime. They prosecute a few of them. It is what is called prosecutorial discretion… . Here, clearly, when you look at the scope of what he was supposed to be investigating, is a case where he brought forth something not very major.”
Yes, “scope” is crucial now — and was in Clinton’s case, too. When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that President Clinton could be compelled to testify another sex-based case, a suit brought by Paula Jones, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that the Arkansas district court must carefully manage the case — including the “scope of discovery.”
In 1999, I wrote a column about that, explaining how Clinton could have and should have avoided impeachment. It was when Jones’ attorneys (tipped off by anti-Clinton activists) departed from questions about Jones and asked if he’d “sexual relations” with one Monica Lewinsky that Clinton uttered his infamous denial, under oath. Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr gleefully executed a jump shift and made a federal case of Clinton’s denial.
Clinton should have cited the court’s concern about limiting the “scope” of discovery, and said he would answer every question about Jones — but neither he nor any president should be compelled to answer questions about private sexual matters involving others. Especially questions crafted by political enemies. Clinton should told the district court that he would never answer such questions — and if the court ruled him in contempt of the court, he was prepared to go on national television and tell the nation that the court was in contempt of the American presidency. And detail why. No judge would seek to jail a sitting president over a matter so trivial. Call it the Don’t Lie Option — or Don’t Lie Under Oath Option. It would have served Clinton well in the last century. And it would have served Scooter Libby and even his boss in recent years. For Dick Cheney could have given a speech openly making just about every talking point that Scooter and his Mousekateers were whispering to chosen reporters to make their case surreptitiously.
Sadly, the openness card never seems to be in the deck when the options are shuffled and dealt in Official Washington.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)