WASHINGTON -- Breaking his relative silence on the independent counsel's investigation of President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Monday night blasted President Clinton and White House staffers who he said were engaged in unfair attacks on Kenneth Starr. "If he doesn't want to fire Ken Starr, he should tell his staff to shut up," Gingrich told a Republican political group. "I am sickened by how unpatriotically they undermine the Constitution of the United States on behalf of their client."
Signaling his intention to step up the political rhetoric, Gingrich added, "I will never again, as long as I am Speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic."
President Clinton, at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House Tuesday, said he would not "waste my time" responding to Gingrich's remarks, but White House press spokesman Mike McCurry labeled them "a rank partisan political attack."
Why the Speaker chose to launch his major verbal attack at this time is not clear. Some observers believe -- despite the skepticism that even some Republicans have expressed -- that Gingrich may be laying the groundwork for possible impeachment proceedings against the president.
The belief gained some currency when veteran Washington journalist and author Elizabeth Drew said on "Meet The Press" on Sunday that Gingrich has quietly spoken with his closest associates about the possibility of impeaching not only President Clinton but Vice President Al Gore, after Starr delivers his report on his investigations to Congress. Gingrich's spokeswoman, Christina Martin, dismissed Drew's comments as "fantasies."
Salon spoke with Drew, the New Yorker's former Washington bureau chief and the author of three respected books on Washington politics, including "Whatever it Takes" (Penguin 1998).
Share with us what you've learned about Gingrich's discussions on the impeachment question.
Speaker Gingrich is talking to, and has been talking to over a period of time, close associates about the idea of impeaching both Clinton and Gore. It goes as follows: Gingrich expects that the Starr report will be very tough and that the House will have no choice but to proceed with hearings looking toward an impeachment.
Gingrich believes that the report will be so tough that Clinton will be impeached. The thinking then goes that Gore, as his successor, will pardon Clinton. This, of course, leaves Gore in place as the incumbent president, which is not something the Republicans wish to have happen. So once Gore has pardoned Clinton, Gingrich's thinking goes, the Congress will impeach Gore for having pardoned Clinton. As one of these close associates of Gingrich said to me, "You can't have a Clinton strategy without a Gore strategy."
When you first told the story on "Meet the Press," other panelists burst out laughing. One of the panelists said it was the most bizarre scenario she had heard yet.
I know this seems wild. But let's not forget that after Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, there was a huge uproar and some talk of impeaching Ford. I'm not for a minute saying all this is going to happen. Nor am I saying that the Clinton episode, from anything that we know, resembles the enormity of the issues in Watergate. I'm simply reporting what the Speaker of the House has been talking about.
Roger Simon of the Chicago Tribune said on MSNBC Monday night that after he heard this story, he wondered what you were sipping.
Frankly, I was very puzzled by that. Surely, any reporter with any experience knows that when we report something, we're not necessarily endorsing what we're reporting. Remember when Gingrich said that women shouldn't serve in combat because if they stayed in the trenches too long they'd get infections? When reporters reported that, they weren't endorsing that position. So I don't know what Roger Simon was thinking.
With whom is Gingrich discussing this scenario? Other members of the House?
I can't go further than identifying these people as Gingrich's close associates. I don't have a complete roster of all the people he has spoken to about this. But I know some people he has talked to about it. I talked to them firsthand. I would not have gone with it if it were any more remote than that. I'm reporting conversations with the people he talked to. These are people in whom he confides.
Tim Russert noted on "Meet the Press" that if both Clinton and Gore were gone, the next in line for the presidency is -- the Speaker of the House.
Some people have noted that. But in Gingrich's thinking, after Clinton has left office, the Congress would install a new vice president, just as they installed Gerald Ford when Vice President Spiro Agnew had to resign. Therefore there would be another figure in front of the House Speaker. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we get to that point. That person would not likely be anyone with his own presidential ambitions since so many other people, including Gingrich himself, have their own. In this imagined scenario, it would probably be someone who is a unifying figure to get the country to the year 2000.
You've been reporting on Washington since 1959. What do you make of all this?
The important point is not how likely is it that this will happen. The important point is that this is the thinking of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. And there are two important assumptions, without which he would not have been talking about this whole thing. One is his assumption that the Starr report is going to be very, very rough on Clinton and that Congress will have to proceed with impeachment. The second is a completely political calculation that there is no point in impeaching Clinton and installing Gore as the incumbent president going into the 2000 election year. So that's where the whole Gore scenario, however far-fetched, comes from.
It also depends on Clinton resigning, which, given what we know of the man, seems almost as far-fetched as impeaching Gore.
Gingrich believes that if Clinton were impeached, the Democrats would ask him to leave office, and he would without it coming to a trial. As you say, that conviction has to be placed against the fact that Clinton is one of the toughest and most resilient fighters we have ever seen in high public office. When he was once asked if there was any situation in which he would conceive of resigning, he said "Never!" So we're talking more here about process than what may realistically be expected.
But for the sake of argument, let's say Clinton is impeached and he does leave office. He is then subject to being tried for these crimes in regular criminal court. That was the position that Nixon was in after he left office. To spare him that, Gerald Ford pardoned him. Gingrich is planning for the possibility that Gore would also pardon Clinton.
Why do you think Gingrich is thinking like this, especially when even fellow Republicans have said the likelihood of impeachment is remote?
He has to think about the question of impeachment. The independent counsel's report is coming to the House, and he's Speaker of the House. But Gingrich also thinks of himself as a long-range strategist. So it's inevitable that he's going to be discussing scenarios with his closest associates. If you recall, when the whole Monica Lewinsky story broke, there were an awful lot of people saying that Clinton was going to be out of office within weeks. It wasn't very long afterward that the Republicans, especially Gingrich, said, "Wait a minute. Do we really want to install Al Gore as president?" It was also decided that they would stay very quiet on this. So it was inevitable that Gingrich would try to think through a strategy.
Also, remember that Gingrich is the man who thought through the strategy for the Republicans to take over the House in 1994. Just about nobody else thought it could be done. Whether or not this is something he would actually try to impose if he got the chance, whether or not it has any basis in political reality, is a totally different set of questions.