Bob Franken


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“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” I hope someday those immortal words will be etched in stone somewhere, perhaps on the pedestal of a statue memorializing President William Jefferson Clinton.
For those who don’t recall the events 20 years back or who weren’t born, they were spoken Aug. 17, 1998, when President Clinton went before a grand jury.
The all-consuming story of the day, it involved his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It was quite the sleazy scandal, as we reporters chronicled the smutty investigation into what went down in the White House between the chief executive and the star-struck kid. President Clinton finally was facing a grand jury after months of our breathless broadcasting about every tawdry detail. I was among those who had to come up with a way of describing what was on Monica’s blue dress. Our choice was “genetic material,” which turned out to be Bill Clinton’s genetic material.
In any case, when the president was forced to appear before the grand jury — under oath, of course — he was confronted with his previous denials about the whatever-it-was with Lewinsky, and history was left with the “is-is” response. From the transcript:
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the — if he — if ‘is’ means ‘is and never has been,’ that is not — that is one thing. If it means ‘there is none,’ that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, ‘are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky,’ that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said ‘no.’ And it would have been completely true.”
The reason to traipse again down memory muck is to see how little things change. When it comes to “is-isms,” the Trumpsters of today are borrowing from the Clintonistas’ playbook of yesterday.

Various news media have repeatedly reported that President Trump’s lawyers have implied in numerous ways to those ensnared in special counsel Robert. Mueller’s Russia investigation that they might be pardoned by the president. The latest are the stories about Trump attorney John Dowd allegedly making such implied offers. Dowd has recently resigned. Whenever this comes up, another Trump lawyer, Ty Cobb, has the stock answer that he has “only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House.” That is simply another is-is response.
Here, however, the similarity ends. When Bill Clinton appeared before the grand jury, he was intellectually prepared.
Fast-forward two decades and the question is when, or whether, this president will be questioned under oath by Mueller and his team of legal sharpies. Donald Trump probably has never been described as “intellectually prepared.” By his own admission and the accounts of everyone who’s ever been around him, he’s a wing-it kinda guy. Whether it’s because he trusts his instincts or because he has an attention span measured in nanoseconds, this is not someone who has ever crammed for an exam. Instead he relies on bluster to see him through, playing fast and loose with the truth.
So, his legal team is very worried. Any interview worth its salt could be, would be, a “perjury trap.” Lawyers conducting depositions or the like are not nice people. They can be expected to try to trip up anyone. When it comes to language precision, Trump is a severe klutz. That happens also to describe his factual precision.
The prosecutors will be waiting to pounce on any semantic gamesmanship. Quite frankly, any verbal stunts that Trump pulls would be child’s play to them. All the tweets in the world haven’t inhibited the methodical Mueller investigation. And as it unfolds, it appears that the president has his own “is.” He clearly is in trouble.

© 2018 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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