1995: The year the future began
The impeachment case against President Donald Trump seems ominous in its outsize claims but is still quite thin on evidence. That, of course, hasn’t prevented Trump’s foes from pronouncing him guilty of impeachable offenses in dealings with Ukraine.
NBC’s Chuck Todd ruminated the other day on his MSNBC program that impeaching Trump could end in his acquittal — much like, he said, the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles in 1995.
“I’m having a quick flashback to the O.J. trial,” Todd said on MTP Daily, “frankly, where the facts were damning, but it didn’t matter. And yet, he was innocent, but everybody knew he was guilty. Are we about to head into a situation like that, where’s he’s going to get acquitted and yet everybody knew he’s guilty?” Todd there was referring to Trump.
The analogy was misguided and even misleading.
Todd failed to note that Simpson, a former star football player and so-so film actor, beat the rap in 1995 because the prosecution so utterly bungled the case against him — and because his defense team so thoroughly impugned the state’s strongest evidence. That was forensic DNA evidence linking Simpson to the victims, his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. They were stabbed to death outside her condominium in west Los Angeles.
Simpson’s lawyers challenged the way authorities collected, handled, stored, and evaluated the DNA evidence. As I noted in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Los Angeles police criminalists “had placed DNA evidence inside plastic bags where they were prone to degradation. DNA samples were placed in a police evidence van that lacked air-conditioning. Crucial blood evidence was collected [near the murder scene] three weeks after the killings. A portion of a reference sample of O.J. Simpson’s blood was spilled at the police laboratory where DNA evidence samples were tested.”
I further wrote:
“The missteps and the evidence-gathering irregularities allowed Simpson’s lawyers not only to impugn and neutralize the prosecution’s best evidence; it allowed them to claim that the evidence had been tampered with in a brazen attempt to frame the defendant. Such claims seemed far-fetched and were unsubstantiated by any direct evidence. But they were not altogether implausible, given the extent of police bungling. In any case, the DNA evidence collected in the Simpson case was too suspect and unreliable to support a conviction; guilty verdicts became all the more improbable.”
Simpson did not win acquittal on a technicality. It was more profound than that: The prosecutors failed to make their case and, inevitably, Simpson was found not guilty, although he certainly wasn’t exonerated. At a civil trial in 1997, Simpson was found liable for the killings of Nicole Simpson and Goldman, and ordered to pay the estates of the victims more than $33.5 million. The penalty has gone almost entirely unpaid.
For Todd, a more apt and revealing analogy would have been President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and acquittal, in a sex-and-lies scandal that roiled the country in the late 1990s. Beginning in November 1995, Clinton engaged in an intermittent clandestine affair with Monica Lewinsky, then a 22-year-old unpaid White House intern.
She was 27 years Clinton’s junior. The tawdry relationship’s imbalance in age and power was striking, and Clinton kept seeing her for consensual oral sex until March 1997.
In January 1998, Clinton was asked about Lewinsky during a deposition in a sexual harassment case stemming from his encounter at a Little Rock hotel with Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee while he was the governor. Presiding at the deposition was Susan Webber Wright, a federal judge.
Under oath, Clinton dissembled about his intimacy with Lewinsky. He denied having ever been alone with her.
He also lied under oath in testifying about the affair in August 1998 to a federal grand jury.
He brazenly lied to the American public in a finger-wagging denial in late January 1998.
He also encouraged Lewinsky to submit a false affidavit about their furtive dalliance.
The “facts,” as Todd might say, “were damning.” Clinton clearly was guilty of perjury and of obstructing justice. And “everybody knew he was guilty.”
In December 1998, the House of Representative impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. He was acquitted on both articles of impeachment at trial before the U.S. Senate. Neither article of impeachment received majority support.
Clinton beat the rap but was hardly exonerated. These days he is something of a pariah.
Moreover, as I wrote in 1995, Clinton “succeeded in beating back the impeachment charges, but his mendacity did not go unpunished.”
Two months after his acquittal by the Senate, Wright, the federal judge who presided Clinton’s deposition in January 1998, found the president in contempt of court, saying the “record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence” that Clinton gave “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”
Simply stated, Wright wrote, “the President’s deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false ….”
The penalty the judge imposed was without precedent: No court had held a sitting president in contempt. Wright also ordered the president to pay nearly $90,000 to cover legal fees and other expenses that lawyers for Paula Jones had incurred as a result of falsehoods he told under oath. (The lawyers had sought nearly $500,000.)
In November 1998 — as the House of Representatives was preparing to consider articles of impeachment — Clinton agreed to pay $850,000 to settle the Jones case. In settling the case, Clinton did not apologize to Jones, who said he exposed himself to her.
On the last full day of his presidency in 2001, Clinton acknowledged having given false testimony at the deposition in January 1998 and surrendered for five years his license to practice law in Arkansas, his home state.
Clinton also agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Bar Association.
Impeaching Clinton was never especially popular with the American public. The case for removing him from the presidency, as I noted in 1995, “fell well short” of an effective standard for impeachment set in the Watergate scandal that led in 1974 to Richard Nixon’s resigning the presidency. White House audiotapes clearly showed Nixon approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the seminal crime of Watergate, the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
As I wrote in 1995, “Clinton’s falsehoods, evasions, and dishonest efforts to conceal his dalliance with Lewinsky scarcely rivaled the crimes of Watergate, a political scandal unique in the depths of wrongdoing it plumbed.”
If held to the Watergate standard, Trump, too, stands to be acquitted by the Senate. If, or when, the House impeaches him.
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