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How Rick Santorum Torpedoed Clinton's Impeachment

Excerpts from “Catching Our Flag: Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Impeachment” From the Diaries of Congressman James E. Rogan, House Manager, Clinton Impeachment Trial

Published May 2011

[After the House impeached Clinton, the House Managers brought the case to try before the U.S. Senate.  Once they arrived to prosecute Clinton, Trent Lott and Rick Santorum did everything they could behind the scenes to destroy the House Managers’ case and guarantee Clinton would never face a fair trial.  Under Lott and Santorum’s plan, the Managers were denied the right to call a single witness or place before the Senate any trial evidence to show why the House impeached the president.  When outgoing Speaker Gingrich learned of this perfidy, he grew furious]

[Pages 272-274]

Diary, Telephone Call, Speaker Newt Gingrich, December 30, 1998

Newt said he was livid with Lott and asked what I thought about the Senate leader’s idea.  I tore into the suggestion and said I would not be a party to him tossing out our case.  I said we should show up in their chamber on the day appointed and demand to present our case.  If they refused, we would walk out.  Under no circumstance would we give Lott or any other pantywaist Republican senator cover.  We would make them commit this betrayal in public.

Newt agreed strongly: “The Managers must be firm on this. Henry Hyde cannot give in. This is about much more than his reputation and his legacy. It is about the Constitution and the defense of it.”  

Newt said that if Lott pushes this, he will destroy his Republican majority in the Senate. I told Newt that I thought our conservative base would torch Lott if he forced this idea. Newt agreed that Lott risked losing his leadership position if he tried.  Newt volunteered to help fire up our troops, suggesting we “unleash” Majority Whip Tom DeLay [called “The Hammer” for his political hardball instincts] and get this story out to conservative editors, columnists, and talk radio hosts.  Newt then caught himself and wondered aloud whether he should be involved, saying, “I’m not there anymore.” I reminded him he was still there: technically Newt remained as Speaker and a Member of Congress until he resigned his seat formally.

“By the way,” I added, “we may need to swear you in to the new Congress so you can vote with us on reappointing House Managers. We’ve heard some of our anti-impeachment Republicans might not stand with us.” When I told him that passing a reappointment resolution might be a problem with some Republicans, Newt blew his stack:

“This is so fundamental that nobody—nobody—gets a free vote on this,” he shouted. “If any member of our conference won’t vote to reappoint Managers, we should drum them out of the Republican Party. Let them become Democrats, and let Dick Gephardt become Speaker. Let him then try to govern the House with a one-vote majority. This is traitorous. We must enforce a party line vote….” Newt said, “Let these guys become Democrats if that is their game and make them show their true colors.”

After this call, I took heart when a staffer handed me a message that Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) wanted to speak with me. Elected to the Senate just two years earlier, Santorum had been a conservative House stalwart who appeared to be the rare exception to my senatorial hypothesis about new members breathing the ether in The Other Body. I felt sure that if anyone might go to bat for us with Trent Lott, it was Rick.

Diary, Telephone Conversation with Senator Rick Santorum, December 31, 1998

I told Rick that Trent Lott was trying to sell all of us out and dump the impeachment case against Clinton. I said Lott was acting out of expediency in wanting to make a political headache just go away, despite the evidence.

“Oh, the Leader would never do that,” Rick said defensively.

“The Leader” would never do that? The more Rick defended Lott, the deeper my heart sank in realizing another good guy drank the Senate’s collegiality Kool-Aid. I told Rick I would recommend to Henry Hyde that we flatly reject participating in anything that resembled a one-day submission on the record so the Senate could sidestep a public trial. I also made clear that I would vigorously and publicly object to any attempt by Lott to define impeachable offenses as a predicate to the Senate deciding whether to let us to try our case.

Rick said Lott was concerned about the upcoming 2000 Senate elections, and Lott’s fear he might lose Republican seats over this unpopular cause. As one facing defeat myself, I told him I understood, but our obligation was to the Constitution and not worrying about elections two years away….

“I wonder what kind of man we have in the Oval Office?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you what kind of man we have in the Oval Office, Rick,” I replied. “We have an impeached man in the Oval Office. And we need you guys to let us come over and show you why.”

[Note: near the end of this conversation, Santorum started backing off on his defense of Lott. However, it was a short-lived shot of courage. A few days later, he was planted firmly in Lott’s hip pocket, as the following excerpts show]

[Pages 292-293]

Diary, Telephone Call with Senator Rick Santorum, January 7, 1999, 5:00 p.m.

Santorum said that Lott is proposing the senators have a bipartisan caucus tomorrow morning to adopt his latest proposal: have the House Managers and the President’s attorneys argue their respective cases for four weeks, and then the Senate will vote on whether to allow a trial with witnesses. However, the Senate will also entertain a White House motion to dismiss the case outright.

Santorum confessed that under Lott’s plans, the House Managers should “assume that you will get no witnesses.” Trent Lott apparently stood nearby when Santorum told me this, because as my colorful response blared from Santorum’s telephone receiver, Lott took the phone from him and came on the line with me: Lott said he wanted to meet with all the House Managers at 6:00 p.m. tonight.

“Jim, we want to give you your trial and let you call your witnesses,” he told me. “So let’s all get together with your Managers tonight and show you that we aren’t out to be the enemy. I should have just done this myself the first time instead of using intermediaries.”

Did I just hear him correctly? After presuming Lott to be the boogeyman wanting to scuttle our case before we could present it, had all this been a misunderstanding from the start? With this personal assurance, I felt a sudden ray of hope. Our staff rounded up the other House Managers for the meeting in our Judiciary Committee conference room. Before Lott arrived, I related my conversation to the group, along with Lott’s assurance that he wants to make sure we call live witnesses.

Manager Chris Cannon interrupted me:

“I just spoke to [Utah Republican Senator] Bob Bennett,” Cannon said. “Bennett told me, ‘You guys just lost. The Senate plans to kill off your hope of calling any witnesses.’”

Manager Bill McCollum shared that he just received the same message from Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH).

Fuming over Lott’s apparent smoke blowing over the telephone, I renewed my motion that we should refuse to participate in any proceeding where the senators block us from calling witnesses. Bob Barr agreed, and made a motion to give Chairman Hyde authority to tell Lott we would refuse to proceed without witnesses.

Henry took the middle ground, saying we should take two days in the Senate to make our case as to why we need witnesses. “Otherwise,” he feared, “we might appear to be sore losers.”

Trent Lott and Rick Santorum interrupted our discussion when they arrived together at 6:15 p.m.

After expressing his love for the House and claiming fond memories of his own days there, Lott lamented that the Senate is a more complicated body to lead:

“I want you to have a chance to put on your case,” Lott told us. “But ‘putting on your case’ means opening statements and maybe some evidence. There is no guarantee that you will get any witnesses. Maybe you can get some witnesses later, but keep in mind you always face a motion to adjourn the trial from the Democrats.”

Some of the Managers didn’t wait for Lott to finish speaking before weighing in: Chris Cannon accused Lott of trying to get us to participate in a sham trial.

Bob Barr snapped at Lott, “We don’t hear you guys on TV telling everyone you are fighting for us to be able to call witnesses. All we hear is you Senate Republicans saying we need to convince you that we need witnesses.”

Growing defensive, Lott shot back, “I’m not prepared to agree to fight for your right to call witnesses without justification. I’m doing my best to hold the line on our moderate Republican senators. They may vote against the Articles of Impeachment themselves if you keep pushing this witness issue!”

“Without witnesses,” Bill McCollum interrupted, “Clinton stands no chance of ever being convicted and removed.”

“At least you’ll stand a chance to have your side heard,” Lott replied.

When my turn came, I ridiculed his position, given that the Senate routinely spends months on judicial impeachments, and reminded him that in Judge Alcee Hastings’ recent impeachment trial, the Senate heard from fifty-five witnesses. I accused Lott of wanting us to come and argue why we should have a trial, and then he wants to call that argument the “trial.”

Next, I said the White House and the Senate Democrats fought so hard against having any live witnesses called: with witnesses, the Democrats have no control over an otherwise preordained verdict of acquittal.

“The Managers understand why the Democratic senators don’t want witnesses,” I goaded, “but why on earth are you Republican senators afraid of them?”

Finally, I told Lott that if he really was fearful that moderate Republicans would vote against impeachment articles out of revenge if we asked for witnesses, then Lott should reverse the order of his proposal: have us argue to the Senate why we needed witnesses for a trial, and then let the Senate vote. If the Senate refuses our request, we should announce that the Senate has rendered us unable to proceed and walk out.

Lott and Santorum shared a panic-stricken look. Santorum blurted, “If we did that, then you guys could leave and say you never got a trial!” With that comment, both Lott and Santorum tipped their hand.

Here, ultimately, was their plan: call their charade a trial, and then let the history books record Clinton’s acquittal after an impeachment “trial.” Lott distributed copies of his final “no-witness” trial plan. He asked us to review it, and then he and Santorum stepped out of the room to await our decision.

A glum-looking Henry Hyde said he was willing to go along with Lott’s plan. Bob Barr spoke against it vociferously. I joined Barr in suggesting we return to the Senate to argue for our right to have a trial, but refuse to cooperate with this plan. Henry summoned Lott and Santorum back to the room.

“I’m getting great resistance to your plan from my team,” Henry told them, and repeated our willingness to come and argue for our right to have a full trial. Lott then reiterated Santorum’s earlier concern that if they agreed to this, and if the Senate later refused to give us witnesses, “you guys might later say there never was a trial.” There it was again.

Stripped bare were all the earlier winks and nods about calling witnesses later in the trial. Lott and Santorum stalked out of the room amid hostile comments from our team.

[Pages 385-387]

Diary, U.S. Senate Floor During Impeachment Proceedings against President Clinton, Saturday, February 6, 1999

[After a long day of being battered by hostile senators who made sure the House Managers could not present evidence to convict Clinton, the House Managers gathered off the Senate floor for a quick strategy session]

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) interrupted our meeting. When he said he wanted to give us “advice,” some of us started grumbling. We all liked Rick, but he was there to do Trent Lott’s bidding.

“You guys did a great job…,” Santorum gushed at Asa [Hutchinson] and me. “For the first time, our Republican senators are listening to the facts and thinking that having witnesses is valuable . . .”

I interrupted Santorum: “Rick, if your colleagues now find the testimony so enlightening and valuable, why don’t you go back and tell them there’s much more where that came from. Go back and make a motion to open this up to live witnesses, and to have a real trial.”

Suddenly, Rick’s demeanor turned dour. “Oh, that will never do,” he replied.

Wrong answer; I remember vividly taking out some pent-up exasperation on my friend Rick: “If you won’t make that motion,” I snapped at him, “then get the f___ out of here.”

Some Managers laughed and jeered at Rick, who grew quite flustered.

“I was just trying to be helpful,” he said. “If you don’t want my advice, then I’ll leave.”

Henry tried to assuage Rick’s feelings as other Managers continued heckling him [as he stormed out of the room]. Senate Republicans led the sell-out of our case.

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