October 25, 1998

The Impeachment Conspiracy

By Robert Parry

By now, the Republican Right’s goal should be obvious: a power grab of historic proportions, the ouster of a twice-elected president for lying about his sex life.

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis grasped some of what was afoot. On Sept. 29, he wrote, “There is an effort under way to bring about a fundamental change in the political direction of this country, effectively changing the results of our last two national elections. It would be a coup d’etat.”

But what is under way is more than a coup d’etat. It is a change not just in leadership but in the American system of government. If a well-organized conservative apparatus can engineer a presidential impeachment for an offense so common, then a kind of political veto has been asserted -- no one to the left of George W. Bush need apply.

Anyone who crosses the right's power structure -- now anchored in the Congress, the federal courts, well-funded attack groups, the conservative media and the special prosecutor apparatus -- can expect the same. The future of American democracy, as the right is sketching it, is more the stuff of Orwell and Kafka than Jefferson and Madison.

Indeed, in some ways, the triviality of Clinton’s offense makes the severity of the impeachment punishment all the more momentous. In that sense, the Clinton case is a demonstration.

It shows how smoothly the parts of this well-oiled political machine mesh together: ideologically driven civil suits, conservative media drumbeat, right-wing judges who pick partisan special prosecutors, Republicans in Congress mounting their own investigations.

Many Democrats hope that the destruction of this flawed president is just another case of Clinton exceptionalism. But the Clinton impeachment model can easily be replicated to fit any set of circumstances.

To highlight the point, Republicans have made clear that Vice President Al Gore could be next in line -- despite his Boy Scout reputation. Gore allegedly used the wrong phone to make some fund-raising calls.

Most pollsters expect the Republicans to notch gains in the Nov. 3 elections. But assuming the Republicans at least hold their own, House Speaker Newt Gingrich clearly plans to press for Clinton’s impeachment.

The House Judiciary Committee is almost sure to recommend Clinton's removal and the full House is nearly as certain to go along.

The real battle is expected in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed to oust a president. But even if Clinton can block his removal, he will go down in history as a disgraced figure -- and leave office with millions of dollars in legal bills.

Many of his supporters have suffered similar fates -- burdened with huge debts to personal lawyers -- and more will follow in the next two years.

Yet, while Washington focuses on Clinton’s denouement, little attention has gone to the recent evidence of an “impeachment conspiracy,” documentary support for Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

More of that conspiracy's outline came into view with the congressional release of thousands of documents intended to buttress the allegations against Clinton.

But there was another side to the disclosures. The documents and tape-recordings revealed that key anti-Clinton figures may have committed more serious crimes than Clinton, but won protection from conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

Linda Tripp, for instance, taped herself egging Monica Lewinsky into blackmailing the president for a high-paying job. The evidence further shows that Lewinsky made veiled extortion threats to the president.
Though a blackmail conspiracy would rank as a far more serious crime than Clinton's alleged perjury in a civil suit, Tripp and Lewinsky received immunity deals from Starr.

Tripp also was engaged in taping Lewinsky though aware -- at least near the end -- that secret phone recordings were illegal in Maryland.

Starr himself withheld details of his earlier role in the Paula Jones civil case when he sought Attorney General Janet Reno’s approval to expand his inquiry to include Clinton’s sex life.

As the evidence spills out, Starr appears to have been a kind of point man not only for Republicans who desire Clinton’s removal, but for conservative lawyers and jurists whose appointments to the bench depend on who occupies the Oval Office.

Though the media may focus on Gingrich and Hyde and Hatch, many of the key players in the Clinton drama have worn black robes. Indeed, Clinton’s impeachment could be viewed, in part, as a judicial coup.

One of President Reagan’s strategies for putting his conservative stamp on the government was to place right-wing judges on the federal courts in Washington, especially the U.S. Court of Appeals where many low-profile constitutional decisions are made.

The strategy served Reagan well when the two most prominent Iran-contra convictions -- of Reagan’s national security aides Oliver North and John Poindexter -- were on appeal.

The North case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1990 and the Poindexter case followed in 1991.
Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a Republican himself, encountered what he termed "a powerful band of Republican appointees [who] waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army."

Walsh recognized that many of the appeals judges held a "continuing political allegiance" to the conservative Federalist Society, an organization dedicated to purging liberalism from the federal courts.

"It reminded me of the communist front groups of the 1940s and 1950s, whose members were committed to the communist cause and subject to communist direction but were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party," Walsh wrote. [For details, see Walsh's Firewall.]

A leader of this partisan faction was Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a bombastic character known for his decidedly injudicious temperament. Silberman had served as a foreign policy advisor to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign and had joined in a controversial contact with an emissary from Iran behind President Carter's back. [See Robert Parry's Trick or Treason.]

On the appeals court, Silberman took hardline conservative positions and demonstrated an animosity toward Walsh during a hearing on the constitutionality of independent counsels.

Silberman also lashed out publicly at U.S. Appeals Court Judge George MacKinnon, an old-school Republican who ran the three-judge panel which had picked Walsh to investigate the Iran-contra affair in 1986.

"At a D.C. circuit conference, he [Silberman] had gotten into a shouting match about independent counsel with Judge George MacKinnon," Walsh wrote. "Silberman not only had hostile views but seemed to hold them in anger."

To Walsh's dismay, Silberman and another conservative judge, David Sentelle, were two of the three judges to hear the appeal of North's conviction.

A North Carolina protege of Sen. Jesse Helms, Sentelle was not as obstreperous as Silberman. But Sentelle carried with him a pugnacious pride in his Republican conservatism.

Sentelle had served as chairman of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party and had been a Reagan delegate at the 1984 GOP convention. He named his daughter, Reagan, after the president.

Though normally law-and-order judges, Silberman and Sentelle overturned North's conviction by expanding the protections that a witness receives from a grant of limited immunity.

In 1991, Sentelle again served with another Republican judge as the majority on the Poindexter appeal. This time, the GOP judges overturned the convictions by applying a novel argument: that lying to Congress did not constitute the crime of obstruction.

Ironically, by expanding the rights of defendants, Sentelle became a conservative judicial hero. Sentelle also wasn’t shy about joining the ideological battle against the left.

In the winter 1991 issue of the conservative Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Sentelle praised the writings of right-wing jurist Robert Bork.

"Leftist heretics perceive our system of separated and federated powers as a stumbling block to their goal of remaking the Republic into a collectivist, egalitarian, materialistic, race-conscious, hyper-secular, and socially permissive state," Sentelle wrote.

Sentelle and Bork shared the view that the American left was riding roughshod over the nation. "Modern liberalism," according to Bork's 1996 book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah, "is what fascism looks like when it has captured significant institutions, most notably the universities, but has no possibility of becoming a mass movement."

Only "the rise of an energetic, optimistic and politically sophisticated religious conservatism" can counter "the extremists of modern liberalism," Bork argued. [For an examination of the intellectual underpinnings of the new religious conservatism, see The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 11, 1998.]

Unlike Bork, however, Sentelle had the opportunity to do more than fume about a domineering left.

After the North and Poindexter reversals, Sentelle caught the eye of another Reagan appointee, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Amid mounting Republican anger over Walsh’s Iran-contra probe, Rehnquist removed MacKinnon, the judge who had picked and protected Walsh.

In an interview, Walsh told me that he received a call from MacKinnon in early 1992. MacKinnon, who like Walsh was an Eisenhower-type Republican, had troubling news: Rehnquist was appointing Sentelle to head the three-judge panel that chooses and oversees special prosecutors.

"He was giving me a heads up," Walsh said, adding that it was clear that MacKinnon would have liked to continue in the post. "He really loved that job."

MacKinnon died in 1995, but his widow, Elizabeth, confirmed Walsh's account that her husband did not want to be replaced. "If Rehnquist had asked him to stay on, he probably would have," she told me.

Rehnquist has never explained publicly why he replaced MacKinnon with Sentelle. But the Sentelle choice was unusual in several respects.

First, the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, which created the independent counsel apparatus, specifically stated that "priority shall be given to senior circuit judges and retired judges," a stipulation that was meant to minimize partisanship and careerism.

Unlike the senior judges who had filled the slots since 1978, Sentelle was relatively young, in his 40s. Sentelle also had a reputation as an active Republican, while most of the judges on the panel were known as relatively non-partisan. "They were reformers first and party members second," commented Walsh.

Sentelle's choice reversed that pattern. Ted Arrington, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said Sentelle "takes politics seriously enough that he would do what it takes to make sure his party comes out on top." [Legal Times, March 24, 1997]

In the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary for 1998, lawyers described Sentelle as a staunch conservative. Sentelle "has a very conservative outlook," said one lawyer. "He is conservative and very opinionated," commented another.

The elevation of Sentelle to be chief of the independent-counsel panel effectively gave the Republican Right control over who would get to investigate crimes in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Not surprisingly, Sentelle's panel has steered nearly all sensitive investigations into the hands of reliable Republicans. When the Bush administration was caught searching Bill Clinton's passport file in 1992, Sentelle gave the job to Republican stalwart Joseph diGenova, who found no wrongdoing.

Yet, after Clinton took office, alleged Democratic miscreants found themselves pursued by aggressive Republican prosecutors, even for relatively minor offenses.

When Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros was accused of understating how much he paid a mistress, Sentelle picked David Barrett, who had run Lawyers for Reagan in 1980. Barrett racheted the alleged false statements into an 18-count felony indictment.

The Whitewater investigation began in 1994 during a lapse in the special prosecutor law, so Reno named Republican Robert Fiske to investigate. Fiske, however, offended Sentelle's ally, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., by concluding that White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster had committed suicide. Faircloth suspected foul play.

After the special prosecutor law was reinstated in summer 1994, Sentelle lunched with Faircloth and Helms. Sentelle then fired Fiske and replaced him with Starr, considered a far more conservative Republican. The three North Carolina Republicans denied that they discussed Whitewater over lunch.

Nevertheless, the Starr appointment raised eyebrows. Besides political differences with Clinton, Starr had been working on a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who had filed a conservative-backed civil suit against Clinton for alleged sexual harassment.

At the time, however, Starr's defenders argued that the Jones matter was separate from the questions about Clinton's personal finances raised by the Whitewater controversy.

Only in January 1998, after Starr pushed his way into the Monica Lewinsky case -- which arose from the Paula Jones suit -- were questions asked about Starr's potential conflicts of interest. Those questions sharpened in October with release of more Lewinsky evidence.

In mid-October, National Public Radio brought attention to Starr's larger role in the Paula Jones case in 1994. NPR reported that Starr met the Jones lawyers half a dozen times.

But Starr did not disclose these contacts when he approached Reno in 1988. "It just did not occur that it was relevant," said Starr spokesman Charles G. Bakaly III. [WP, Oct. 17, 1998]

Starr also kept out of his impeachment report to Congress the fact that friendly conservative lawyers close to the Jones legal team tipped him off to the Lewinsky case in early January. Starr said he first learned about Lewinsky when Tripp called on Jan. 12, 1998.

The New York Times reported that three conservative lawyers with close ties to Starr played "the role of go-between" connecting Tripp to Starr.

All three lawyers -- including Richard W. Porter, a partner of Starr's at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis -- were members of the Federalist Society, which is closely allied with both Starr and Sentelle. [NYT, Oct. 4, 1998]
Porter's role was particularly sensitive because of the law partnership with Starr and Porter's involvement in prior investigations into Clinton's private life.

The Times quoted Tripp's conservative literary agent Lucianne Goldberg as saying that another conservative lawyer, Jerome M. Marcus, was used as "a cutout" to conceal Porter's hand in the operation.

Goldberg, who was a dirty trickster for Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign, said she relished the covert shenanigans. "It was cloak and dagger," she laughed, "just like the old Nixon years."

Journalist Murray Waas later explained that a reason for the secrecy around Porter was his "opposition research" on Clinton's sex life for the 1992 Bush campaign. That investigation was privately financed by Peter W. Smith, a Chicago financier and a major fund-raiser for Speaker Gingrich. [Salon, Oct. 6, 1998/ www.salon1999.com/]

According to American Spectator writer David Brock, Smith pressed Brock into writing an article about Clinton's personal life which appeared in December 1993. The story mentioned Clinton's alleged liaison with a "Paula." Reacting to the article, Paula Jones came forward and filed suit against Clinton with advice from conservative lawyers.

Starr’s partner, Porter, therefore, connects the Paula Jones case to the Monica Lewinsky case.

Also suggestive of a prosecutorial bias was Starr's grant of immunity to Lewinsky and Tripp despite evidence that they had committed potentially more serious crimes than Clinton.

In her grand jury testimony, Lewinsky admitted writing the so-called "talking points" which coached Tripp how to dodge expected questions about the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship. Lewinsky gave the three pages to Tripp on Jan. 14, and they quickly became a centerpiece of Starr's investigation.

Based on leaks, the media speculated that Clinton or his aide Bruce Lindsey had drafted the “talking points.” Newsweek termed the papers a possible "smoking gun" proving Clinton's complicity in an obstruction of justice.

But the speculation was wrong, according to Lewinsky's testimony. "Ms. Lewinsky testified that she wrote the document herself, although some of the ideas may have been inspired by conversations with Ms. Tripp," Starr said in his impeachment report to Congress.

When the media’s speculation bubble burst, the press barely mentioned the "talking points" again.

Possibly the most serious crime revealed by the evidence in Starr’s report was the apparent Lewinsky-Tripp conspiracy to blackmail the president into granting Lewinsky a cushy job.

The clumsy plot -- sounding like "Fargo" in Valley Girl talk -- began with Lewinsky’s demand for another job at the White House in summer 1997.

On July 3, Lewinsky wrote Clinton a "dear sir" letter with a clear warning that she would start talking if he did not grant her wishes. Unless a White House job was arranged, she would "need to explain to my parents exactly why that wasn't happening."

In her testimony, Lewinsky added that she wanted to remind Clinton that she had "left the White House like a good girl in April of '96" while others might have used a disclosure threat then to avoid the transfer.

Clinton and Lewinsky both understood the suggestion of blackmail. Clinton met with her on July 4 and, according to Lewinsky, he scolded her that "it's illegal to threaten the President of the United States."

By then, Clinton knew Lewinsky's anger was a threat. In his grand jury testimony, he stated that "she got angry when she didn't get in sometimes. I knew that that might make her more likely to speak, and I still did it because I had to limit the contact."

On Oct, 6, 1997, with a tape-recorder rolling, Tripp prodded Lewinsky with an Iago-like message: that the White House was full of negative rumors about Lewinsky and that she would never work there again.

Tripp mocked Lewinsky’s modest demands. "Oh, Monica, Monica, Monica," Tripp said. "For people who are not even in any situation, they can do better."

Lewinsky's response indicated that Tripp has pushed her toward trading on her personal secrets before. "Oh, Linda, please don't start with me on that," Lewinsky grumbled.

"He would want to do better, so don't limit him is what I'm saying," Tripp continued.

Lewinsky rehearsed the job pitch she would give Clinton: "This is what I am making. This is what I should be making. This is what I'd like to make."

Tripp urged Lewinsky to push for a high salary. "New York," Tripp said, "the cost of living is even higher than here." Then, in a reference to the idea of pressuring Clinton, Tripp added, "What I'm saying is this is done routinely."

"But," Lewinsky said, "the reason it's done is not routine. I think that's going to scare the [deleted] out of him."

"Well, no," added Tripp, "because actually, he doesn't have to establish the [pay] grade. That's, that's out of his hands. ... I would just say let's not limit yourself."

Lewinsky announced that she wanted two things from Clinton. First, he had to "acknowledge ... that he helped fuck up my life," and secondly, he would have to deliver a job that she would not otherwise get.

"I don't want to have to work for this position," Lewinsky declared. "I just want it to be given to me."

Lewinsky said she would write to Clinton proposing a meeting to "work on some way that I can come out of this situation not feeling the way I do.

In the Oct. 7 letter, Lewinsky wrote, "I'd like to ask you to help me secure a position in NY beginning 1 December. I would be very grateful, and I am hoping this is a solution for both of us."

On Oct. 10, Clinton exploded. In a phone call, he alluded again to her threatening behavior. Lewinsky quoted him as saying, "If I had known what kind of person you really were, I wouldn't have gotten involved with you."

Tripp urged Lewinsky to take other actions that would later be used to incriminate Clinton. Tripp proposed enlisting Clinton’s friend, Vernon Jordan, to help in the job search.

Tripp urged Lewinsky, too, to save the semen-stained dress so it could be evidence against Clinton if he denied the affair. "It could be your only insurance policy down the road," Tripp said.

Normally, explicit statements of an extortion plot and a plan to save evidence to enforce the blackmail would make a prima facie case against Lewinsky and Tripp. But Starr granted immunity to the plotters and went after Clinton for dissembling about a sexual affair in a civil lawsuit.

Clinton’s deceptive testimony before the Jones lawyers in January and his tortured testimony before Starr’s grand jury in August were enough for Starr to conclude that an impeachable offense had been committed.

The findings handed the impeachment baton off to Gingrich and the congressional Republicans. But if the GOP House performs as expected, another black-robed Republican then would step in for the final lap.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, who got the impeachment race started by appointing Sentelle, would preside over Clinton’s trial in the Senate.

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