Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Tuesday that Congress need not prove that President Clinton committed a crime to impeach him.
“I think bad conduct is enough, frankly, for impeachment,” said Lott, who has provided guidance to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as the House grapples with perjury and other allegations against Clinton.
But that is a far different standard from what Lott advocated during the Watergate hearings in 1974, when he was one of President Nixon’s staunchest congressional defenders.
Lott and nine other Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee argued then that even proof of criminal conduct by a president was not necessarily enough to proceed with impeachment--precisely the position now taken by the White House and Clinton’s Democratic defenders.
“It is our judgment . . . that the framers of the United States Constitution intended that the president should be removable by the legislative branch only for serious misconduct dangerous to the system of government established by the Constitution,” Lott and the other Republicans wrote in a minority report.
Lott declined to respond to questions submitted for this story. However, his spokesman, John Czwartacki, said that--although the Nixon and Clinton cases are different--Lott “has consistently applied the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution” to his comments now and in 1974.
Democrats seized on Lott’s changing standards to support their claim that Republicans are proceeding unfairly and using the impeachment process to inflict as much political damage as possible on Clinton and his party.
Lott’s turnabout shows “that there is an unfortunate partisan political calculation that is taking place,” said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). “It is not right to adjust the standard of impeachment because of the personality or the political affiliation of an incumbent president.”
Democrats contend the allegations that Clinton lied under oath and otherwise sought to hide an illicit affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky are less grave than the charges against Nixon.
These included lying to investigators, using the Internal Revenue Service to investigate political opponents, attempting to use the CIA to impede the investigation of the Watergate burglary and illegally wiretapping aides and journalists.
Lott, a lawyer who was first elected to the Senate in 1988 after 16 years in the House, will not play a formal role in impeachment proceedings unless the House votes to impeach Clinton and sends the matter to the Senate for trial. But he is involved in helping House Republican leaders as they prepare to stage possible impeachment hearings, Gingrich said in an interview with The Times last week.
“Lott was on the Judiciary Committee,” Gingrich said. “Lott put together a two-inch-thick backgrounder on thinking about this. Trent and I have talked about it at some length.”
Czwartacki and Gingrich’s spokeswoman, Christina Martin, said that any discussion between Lott and Gingrich about impeachment would remain private.
Lott said Tuesday that, based on his experience 25 years ago and “a lot of reading” on the standards for impeachment, “I don’t think it is just a legal standard, although I think clearly . . . perjury is an impeachable offense. So is obstruction of justice. . . .
“If you have brought disrepute on the office, that is sufficient. . . . It doesn’t necessarily have to be a legal violation.”
Lott noted that, in 1974, he eventually said that he “would have voted for one article of impeachment, obstruction of justice.”
He did not add that he voted against this count in the committee and changed his position only days before Nixon was forced to resign from office.
Overall, Lott and his nine GOP colleagues set a higher standard during Watergate in defining the constitutional criteria of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” necessary to impeach a president.
Absent “a requirement of criminal acts or at least criminal intent,” they said in the minority report, “such a use of the impeachment power was never intended by the framers, is not supported by the language of our Constitution, and if history is to guide us would be seriously unwise as well.”
In commenting last month that sufficient grounds for impeachment would be “abuse of the public trust,” Lott cited his experience on the Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.).
Lott was referring to an abuse-of-power charge--which he voted against. This count alleged that Nixon attempted to use the IRS to initiate tax audits or obtain confidential data for political purposes and authorized a secret, privately financed investigative “plumbers” unit in the White House that engaged in illegal activities. It passed with bipartisan support, 28 to 10.
Even had Nixon directed “abusive” acts or only been aware of them, Lott and the other dissenters said, those acts did not “impress us as being offenses for which Richard Nixon, or any president, should be impeached or removed from office.”
Lott and his colleagues in 1974 maintained--in another position echoed by anti-impeachment proponents today--that removing a president too readily would push the United States toward a parliamentary system of government.
“Absent the element of danger to the state, we believe the delegates to the federal convention in 1787, in providing that the president should serve for a fixed elective term rather than during good behavior or popularity, struck the balance in favor of stability of the executive branch,” the 10 Nixon loyalists wrote.
Lott and colleagues voted against the three articles of impeachment in late July 1974.
On Aug. 5, newly disclosed transcripts of three taped White House conversations left no doubt about Nixon’s participation in the White House cover-up of the Watergate burglary. Lott then announced that he hoped Nixon would resign and had no choice but to vote for impeachment.
On Aug. 8, faced with certain impeachment, Nixon told the nation he was resigning.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Then . . . and Now
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is taking a far different position on the standards for impeachment today than when he was one of Richard Nixon’s backers in the House.
IN 1974, OPPOSING IMPEACHMENT
“It is our judgment . . . that the framers of the United States Constitution intended that the president should be removable by the legislative branch only for serious misconduct dangerous to the system of government established by the Constitution.”
--Lott and nine other House Republicans who opposed all counts of impeachment against Nixon
IN 1998, BACKING IMPEACHMENT
“I think bad conduct is enough for impeachment. . . . It doesn’t necessarily have to be a legal violation.”
--Lott on Tuesday while discussing the prospect of impeaching President Clinton