Thursday, July 05, 2007

Slick Willie vs. Scooter Libby

On today's Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, one of Chris' guests was Mr. David Rivkin, a former official in the Department of Justice under President George H.W. Bush (a.k.a. "41"). Chris Matthews was trying to pin down his guests on the comparison between the impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice and the conviction of Scooter Libby for similar crimes. Mr. Rivkin, though, came out with a bizarrely contorted argument, beginning by redefining impeachment. It is astonishing that a former official of the Justice Department — under any President other than Bush-43, at least — could be so completely wrong about the Constitution of the United States.

Here is the relevant passage:

Chris Matthews: Mr. Rivkin, do you think the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, should have been impeached — as he was — for perjury and obstruction of justice?

David Rivkin: No, as a matter of fact I do not. I want to clarify something, because I appreciate your question. The impeachment actually was complete in the House, if you look at the Constitution. So, in effect, what happened to Mr. Clinton is tantamount to what the jury found with regard to Scooter; it's just that the Senate — which really was playing the same function, conceptually, as Judge Walton — decided not to punish him. I personally think that the kind of punishment in the court of history that President Clinton received was sufficient.

I do believe that this perjury and obstruction of justice are serious crimes. The reason I personally support the commutation and even a pardon here is I do not believe this was a fair and just prosecution; I think it was politicized. I think the mistake was not made by the jury, the mistake was made by the vindictive and out-of-control prosecutor who aligned the facts in such a way that the jury had no choice but to convict Mr. Libby.
Okay, first the Constitutional lie. I say "lie" because Mr. Rivkin certainly ought to know better, and he was giving this information to "clarify." Yes, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives. That much, Mr. Rivkin got right. However, impeachment is by no stretch of the imagination "tantamount" to conviction in an ordinary criminal case. Impeachment is precisely analogous to indictment. I'm not splitting hairs with that distinction, either. Bill Clinton was charged but not convicted in the impeachment trial. (If the impeachment itself is tantamount to a jury verdict, then why does the Senate go on to have a "trial" and vote "guilty" or "not guilty" at the conclusion?) In this analogy, no one functioned in the impeachment process in the role that Judge Walton had of sentencing Scooter after the jury found him guilty. That's not only because Clinton was not found guilty, but also because the punishment in an impeachment case is automatic: if Clinton had been found guilty, he would have been removed and barred from ever holding office again — no more, no less. Any further punishment would have required a separate criminal trial.

On then to the remainder of Mr. Rivkin's remarks. He says that he believes that perjury and obstruction of justice are serious crimes, but he undermines himself in the very next breath. The investigation which Scooter Libby hindered was into a matter of paramount importance to the governance of our nation. This wasn't some hair-splitting legalistic fudging about a blowjob in the Oval Office in relation to a civil lawsuit over alleged sexual harassment, it was an investigation of the intentional compromising of a national security asset for purely partisan political purposes. The Bush Administration endangered our national security, and endangered dozens or perhaps even hundreds of lives, all for the sake of slamming someone who criticized their political viewpoint. The prosecution was entirely just and fair; indeed, it would have been pure partisan politics not to prosecute such a clear-cut case. Of course the prosecutor presented the facts in a manner that would support a conviction; that's his job. To claim (as Mr. Rivkin did a bit later in the broadcast) that there was "nothing the defense could do" to counter Mr. Fitzgerald's "narrative" is laughably absurd. In fact, Mr. Rivkin even said, "it's not a question of being incorrect as a matter of law" — in other words, yes, Scooter did it, but because the backdrop was politics instead of direct personal financial gain, he shouldn't be prosecuted.

Of course, finding someone who will go on television to defend the Bush Administration already means you're scraping through the bottom of the barrel, so I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised at a Justice Department official who hasn't even bothered to read the Constitution before making fatuous remarks about it.

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