Next President may face predictament if Clinton indicted

Monday, September 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – Even before he's fully settled into the White House, the nation's next president may be forced to confront a question rife with political and legal implications: what to do if Bill Clinton is indicted.

To pardon or not to pardon? Although the question is speculative and may not come to pass, the debate is not merely academic.

Independent counsel Robert Ray is awaiting Mr. Clinton's departure from office Jan. 20 before announcing whether he will seek an indictment stemming from comments the president made regarding an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

President Clinton's troubles in the Lewinsky scandal didn't end with his impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate a year and a half ago. A federal judge in Arkansas fined him $90,000 for civil contempt, ruling that he gave false and misleading answers concerning the affair during a deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit.

And an Arkansas bar committee this spring recommended disbarment proceedings against Mr. Clinton, with the matter headed to trial at year's end or next year. The president's defenders argue that loss of his law license would be an unduly harsh sanction.

While some expected the six-year independent counsel investigation to wane with last year's departure of Kenneth Starr, his replacement has beefed up his staff and in July impaneled a new federal grand jury to consider whether Mr. Clinton should be prosecuted on charges of lying about the affair.

The president could face charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, making false statements or conspiracy stemming from his sworn testimony – in the Jones deposition and before a federal grand jury – regarding his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

Mr. Clinton, who dismisses the impeachment proceedings and independent counsel investigation as a partisan vendetta, has said he is not interested in a pardon, which presidents can grant under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

"I don't want one, and I am prepared to stand before any bar of justice I have to stand before," he told newspaper editors earlier this year. "I wouldn't ask for one."

Left unanswered is the question of whether he would accept a pardon if his successor – confronted with the possibility of a protracted, polarizing trial and the possible conviction of a former president – would grant one.

Not dwelling on issue

Mr. Clinton's would-be successors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, are treating the issue gingerly.

Appearing before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April, Vice President Gore was asked about a possible pardon.

"President Clinton is way ahead of you on this," Mr. Gore said. "He said publicly some time ago that he would neither request nor accept a pardon."

The Gore campaign declined to elaborate further, referring back to the vice president's April comment.

The Bush camp is similarly laconic.

"President Clinton has said that he would not seek a pardon," Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan said last week. "And we take him at his word on that."

As to whether Mr. Bush, as president, might offer a pardon unbidden if indictment comes to pass, Mr. Sullivan said: "It's highly speculative at this point."

Analysts suggest a President Bush would have a far easier time pardoning Mr. Clinton than a President Gore.

"With Bush, it would be an act of magnanimity rather than a personal payoff," said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "If Gore were to do it, Republicans would attack him for protecting his patron."

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., agreed.

"It would be the easiest thing in the world for President Bush to do it, much easier than for Gore to do it," the presidential scholar said. "Bush can do it as a truly magnanimous gesture."

Public fatigue over the much-investigated Lewinsky affair, which played out in tawdry detail day after day, could push either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore to a pardon, Mr. Hess and others say.

Indictment and the prospect of a trial "would basically be like taking a scab that was starting to heal, and when you were almost forgetting it was around anymore, putting a piece of steel wool on it and rubbing it hard," said Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Only one president – Richard Nixon – has received a presidential pardon.

Thirty days after the Watergate crisis prompted Mr. Nixon's resignation, President Gerald Ford gave his predecessor a "full, free and absolute pardon" for any Watergate crimes.

Mr. Ford explained his reasoning in a televised speech to the nation Sept. 8, 1974. Referring to the Nixon family, he said: "Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.

"It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."

What a Dallas Morning News series giving the candidates' views on issues that could face the next president.