Perjury about being alone with Monica Lewinsky

The first time President Clinton testified under oath about Monica Lewinsky was the Paula Jones deposition (January 17, 1998). During questioning, he was asked if he was ever "alone" with her. The answers Clinton provided have supplied his opponents with their strongest arguments of perjury.

Because this is so important, it helps to read the actual transcript. In retrospect, it's clear from the testimony below that Clinton is concealing his affair. That is his constitutional right -- as long as he gives accurate answers. The courts have ruled that it is up to prosecutors to root out the truth with specific, follow-up questions. The only issue here is: were Clinton's answers technically accurate?

Two things stand out in the above testimony. The first is that Clinton does not deny the possibility that he was ever alone with Ms. Lewinsky. If this seems surprising, reread the testimony. The questioner even admits as much. The second thing is that Clinton said "I don't remember" several times, which is not the same thing as outright denying that they were alone. (It does raise the question of how he could forget an affair, however. More on this in a moment.)

Of course, when Starr’s Grand Jury met later that year, on August 17, 1998, Ms. Lewinsky recalled numerous times that she was alone with Clinton in the Oval Office complex. This was confirmed by the President’s secretary, Betty Currie, six Secret Service members and a White House steward. Even Clinton himself, in his later Grand Jury testimony, admitted that he had been alone with Ms. Lewinsky several times. Indeed, since he now admitted to "inappropriate intimate conduct" with her on numerous occasions, it seems nearly impossible that he could not have remembered being alone with her.

Critics charge that the President’s own conflicting testimony proves that he lied during the January 17 deposition. But does the President's testimony really conflict?

In his Grand Jury testimony, Clinton explained that he understood "alone" to mean "alone in the Oval Office complex," which includes not just the Oval Office but also the secretary's area, the study, the kitchen, the dining room, etc. And these were usually occupied with secretaries, stewards and Secret Service Agents. Clinton explained:

If this is indeed what the president thought "alone" meant, then it explains every apparent discrepancy between his two testimonies. A perfectly empty Oval Office complex would have been rare, which explains why he thought it was possible they had been alone only "a few times." And such rare instances would be hard to remember, hence all his failure to recall statements. Certainly he did not forget about their affair; he simply couldn't recall when no one else was in the complex.

Republicans criticize his definition of "alone" as "parsing words." But this issue is hardly as clear cut as they would like to think. Consider a few examples familiar to everybody. A master bedroom has both a bedroom and a bathroom. If a husband is sleeping in bed while his wife is in the bathroom, then is the husband alone in the bedroom? The answer can go either way. Likewise, you might say that you are "alone" in your house. But what about the tenant in your guest room who has a door to your hallway but never uses it, instead always leaving out his own back door? If both of you are there, are you alone in your house? The answer can go either way.

Most Americans think the Oval Office is the one room featuring the president's desk, but to those who work at the White House, "Oval Office" refers to the entire Oval Office complex, much like the "East Wing" and "West Wing" are collective entities. To prove perjury, prosecutors must give evidence that Clinton lied, not that he took the wrong half of a reasonably ambiguous definition. Furthermore, even if Clinton intentionally took the wrong half of an ambiguous definition, it would still not be perjury, because it is up to prosecutors to clarify ambiguities.

Clinton's lawyers pointed this out in their rebuttal to the Starr Report:

Again, it’s an open question how Clinton would have responded if the Jones lawyers had asked more specific follow-up questions.

A second line of defense is that this perjury charge, even if true, cannot be prosecuted because it is immaterial (irrelevant) to the deposition. Clinton’s affair with Ms. Lewinsky was legal and consensual, and bore no relevance to the sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones. True, investigators have a legal right to investigate office affairs to establish a pattern suggesting sexual harassment, but in this case it turned out to be irrelevant, because Lewinsky was not harassed. At any rate, there are profound questions about the materiality of bringing criminal perjury charges from this dismissed civil suit.

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