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President Clinton Strikes a Deal, Avoids Indictment

Aired January 19, 2001 - 4:14 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: On his last full day in office, President Clinton has finally shed the scandals that plagued his years in the White House. Mr. Clinton has made a deal with the independent counsel. And though it does comes at a price, he will not face charges for trying to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The agreement ends the last of the Clinton investigations, the first of which began seven years ago tomorrow. Also today, the administration has fired Linda Tripp, who of course is the woman whose tape recordings helped make the case for Mr. Clinton's impeachment. A White House spokesman says Tripp refused to resign as required of certain employees during the change in administrations. Tripp's lawyer calls the firing "vindictive."

CNN's Bob Franken is standing by in Washington, where William Jefferson Clinton has grabbed the spotlight one more today -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And one more time like he would rather not have done. Probably the dominant story of his administration, like it or not, is the scandal investigations that plagued almost the entire administration: seven years involved in the Whitewater matter, which grew out of the real estate deal, an obscure real estate deal in the late '70s in Arkansas, through the Monica Lewinsky matter.

That was outgrowth also of the Paula Jones case -- a very tangled web, but it is one that the president waited until his last day in office to finally untangle. By acknowledging that he -- quote -- "knowingly" -- and this is an important word -- "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" during a Paula Jones deposition in January of 1998, and that it was -- quote - "prejudicial to the administration of justice."

Investigators for the Independent Counsel's Office are known to believe that the president has admitted -- implicitly admitted -- law- breaking. The White House of course takes the position that that was not the case at all, that he was simply trying to put this behind him. What he got, of course, was an absence of any chance of an indictment. That had been considered a possibility. The independent counsel said he was pursuing an indictment for charges that would be pressed after the president left office.

There's more to the deal. He accepts, President Clinton does, a five-year suspension of his law license in Arkansas. He was facing disbarment procedures. He also accepts a $25,000 fine. Again, the independent counsel has made it clear that the case is now closed. Even the announcement was carefully negotiated. It started with the White House.


JAKE SIEWERT, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: "I have had occasion frequently to reflect on the Jones case. In this consent order, I acknowledge having knowingly violated Judge Wright's discovery orders in my deposition in that case. I tried to walk a fine line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely. But I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false."

ROBERT RAY, INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: President Clinton has acknowledged responsibility for his actions. He has admitted that he knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers to questions in the Jones deposition and that his conduct was prejudicial to the administration of justice. He has acknowledged that some of his answers were false.

He has agreed to a five-year suspension of his Arkansas bar license. And he has agreed not to seek attorney's fees in connection with this matter. The nation's interests have been served. And therefore, I decline prosecution.


FRANKEN: As part of this deal, the president had to make this announcement while he was still president. So the last act of his administration will probably be remembered as the one that had to do with the scandals -- Joie.

CHEN: All right, Bob Franken for us from the nation's capital.

And joining us also from Washington is CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

Bill, this isn't exactly the same thing as what we talked about with Watergate: the pardon of Richard Nixon. What does all this mean to you?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this certainly isn't a pardon. I think that this is an attempt to resolve the matter in a way that the public will accept. The pardon, certainly, in 1975 was not in a way that the public accepted. And there was a political firestorm.

I think there are going to be complaints that he got away with something, but no political firestorm over this. Look, there was never any appetite for driving the president out of office. Even when he was impeached, Americans never thought he should be subject to criminal penalties. But when he was acquitted, there was a sense -- by the Senate in 1999 -- there was a sense that somehow the president needed to undergo some form of public shaming. And, in fact, we found over the last couple of years more and more people say it was right to impeach the president, but not to remove him from office. I think we should see this as a form of final -- in his last day in office, final public shaming.

CHEN: But there are people who are going to say: Look, it's unsatisfactory that he got away with this without actually having the pardon, because a pardon would have meant a greater admission, in a sense.

SCHNEIDER: Well, it would have. And that probably would have caused the firestorm. There was some effort to get President Bush, when he takes office, to pardon the president. But here, he has acknowledged implicitly breaking the law. He doesn't say he lied under oath. He said he knowingly misled and gave evasive answers, which I would say is the equivalent of lying under oath.

But it is his last public act as president, to make this acknowledgment. And it will be forever be on his record. And it's an indelible part of his legacy. That is the kind of public shaming I think most Americans feel that the president deserves.

CHEN: Is it, though, substantially different what he said today from what he has said previously about his statements in the grand jury testimony?

SCHNEIDER: Well, in the past, he has said categorically he did not lie under oath. And he had various technical, evasive reasons that he used to justify that. But this time he said he knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers. "Knowingly," as Bob Franken reported, is the key word there. It means he deliberately misled the investigators. And that could be taken as a crime.

The reason why the independent counsel decided not to pursue it is that, if you go after an indictment, you have to believe there is a reasonable chance you will get a conviction. And he obviously did not believe he could find a jury that would convict the president. But the president has acknowledged serious wrongdoing in this case.

CHEN: Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider, reporting to us from Washington -- thanks, Bill.



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