I see the following claim made by Andrew Napolitano on the Fox News network:

"That opinion [that you can't charge a sitting president] is advisory, not mandatory. How do we know that? It came out October 16th, 2000. What happened in November 2000, a month later? The same Justice Department charged the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, with lying under oath and with obstruction of justice and what happened two months after that? He pleaded guilty."

However, despite my online searches, I was unable to find information corroborating this.
Everything I find seems to be about Bill Clinton's impeachment, not indictment.

Was Bill Clinton ever formally charged with a crime?

If so, what were the rules that allowed him to be charged, but purportedly don't allow Trump to be charged?

If not, then what is Napolitano referring to?


3 Answers 3


A contemporary NY Times Article described what happened succinctly and in detail.

No, fmr President Clinton does not have a criminal conviction. Nor was he charged with a crime. Napolitano is wrong on the facts of the deal to which he refers.

Independent Counsel Robert Ray made a deal with fmr President Clinton on Clinton's last day in office. The deal was that Clinton would admit wrongdoing and accept, without challenge, a few forms of punishment (including a 5-year disbarment in Arkansas... technically a suspension of license to practice rather than a disbarment). At the time the deal was made, Clinton was not charged, so he obviously also was not indicted (because one has to be charged before being indicted).

In exchange for agreeing to the penalties, fmr President Clinton would not be criminally charged after leaving office (remember he made the deal on the last day in office). Which means that even that with which Clinton was being threatened was not what Napolitano claimed. Clinton was not threatened with getting charged or indicted as a sitting President. Clinton avoided an almost certain indictment and a possible conviction which would have been initiated after leaving office.

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    I think the popular opinion at the time was that it was unlikely a jury would indict or convict Clinton. The court would have been in Washington, D.C., where he was tremendously popular. Clinton probably just didn't want to risk it, or felt even an acquittal would still involve a lot of unpleasantness along the way he'd rather just avoid. Probably easier to mend whatever could be mended with his wife if he just made the public spectacle go away. Jun 2, 2019 at 4:34
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    @zibadawatimmy fair enough. i'll change it to almost certain indictment and a possible conviction.
    – grovkin
    Jun 2, 2019 at 4:36
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    Robert Ray was an Independent Counsel and, like his predecessor Kenneth Starr, was appointed by a three-judge panel.
    – Rick Smith
    Jun 2, 2019 at 12:09
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    "one has to be charged before being indicted": this is not correct. See for example justice.gov/usao/justice-101/charging. The indictment is the grand jury's determination that charges are warranted. A defendant may be charged without an indictment only if the offense is not a felony.
    – phoog
    Mar 31, 2021 at 23:45

Did they ever indict and charge President Bill Clinton?

No. This was still against department policy at the time.

Did they ever indict and charge former President Bill Clinton?

Almost. Just before he completed his second term he struck a deal to avoid a potential indictment and charging, as well as a formal disbarment hearing, after he left office.

And that's the thing. Impeachment (whether later acquitted or convicted) does not immunize you from a criminal prosecution eventually. This is specifically mentioned by the constitution. DOJ policy has been that they can't charge and indict a sitting President. But once he's no longer President he is, in principle, fair game.

In Clinton's case, the prosecutor decided that the optics of bringing a former President to trial weren't good, and that his odds of victory were already small. Still, it was leverage enough against Clinton to pressure him into making a deal to avoid actual criminal and disbarment proceedings after leaving office.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court followed up by disbarring Mr. Clinton from presenting cases to it.
    – Jasper
    May 31, 2019 at 22:06
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    @Jasper: As I understand it, that is completely routine in cases where an attorney loses (or gives up, as in this case) their law license. Arguing before the Supreme Court is a privilege which is only granted to attorneys in good standing with their state bars.
    – Kevin
    Jun 1, 2019 at 15:53

Was Bill Clinton ever formally charged with a crime?

Yes, a grand jury is a formal process that produces a "charge sheet" also known as an "indictment", so yes. It is the only way Robert Ray could have proceeded with the remainder of the case.

No, The Justice Department never completed its formalities.

I think, technically, no; but he did plead guilty. [See below.]

President Clinton admits he lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky in 2001, JAN 19, 2016 (Originally published by the Daily News on January 20, 2001.):

President Clinton escaped indictment yesterday by surrendering his Arkansas law license for five years and admitting that he made false statements under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

News of the deal with independent counsel Robert Ray ...

Robert Ray was the independent counsel investigating the Whitewater Scandal.

Ray's chances of securing an indictment - let alone a conviction - from a Washington jury were widely considered slim to none.

The deal, which wraps up the two last loose ends - Clinton's possible perjury indictment and the Arkansas Bar's pending disbarment proceeding - was hammered out by Ray and Kendall amid a growing political consensus that nothing would be gained from seeing a former President dragged into court.

Judicial Watch, the conservative legal group that has filed dozens of fruitless lawsuits against the Clinton White House, responded with the gut rage that many Clinton haters felt as they watched their last hope of seeing him jailed evaporate.

The group slammed Ray, saying the deal was "an abuse of his office."

From a comment:

Would you have any clue what Napolitano was referring to then?

Using the exact search "Clinton" "2001" "Robert Ray" "indictment" -whitewater provided several (more that 3000) "hits" concerning "plea deal" and "Avoid(s) Indictment"; but none, that I read, show that an an indictment was filed with a court. [The same search with "2000" did not reveal anything I found significant.] Had an indictment been filed, it would have been in the news. I speculate, since that all I have to go on at the moment, that a Grand Jury returned an indictment (against Bill Clinton, signed by the foreperson and given to Robert Ray) and that Robert Ray delayed filing the indictment with the court. Ray then used that indictment to "convince" Bill Clinton to accept a deal.

The title of the cited news article is Robert Mueller's conclusion disputed by Judge Napolitano: Yes, a sitting president can be indicted. Napolitano appears to be referring to an indictment, in November 2000 that caused Bill Clinton to plead guilty to charges misconduct in January, 2001. That is, if Bill Clinton was indicted, than any "sitting President" can be indicted. This is a disagreement with the idea that a "sitting President" cannot be indicted per the OLC memo.

Did Bill Clinton plead guilty?

The word "guilty" was not used; but "admits and acknowledges" is an equivalent. One that was necessary for Robert Ray to close the Federal investigation. So, yes.

Bill Clinton was not facing charges, but, rather disciplinary action.

Page 7-1: Page 7-1 2 Hogue v. Neal, 12 S.W.3d 186 (Ark. 27 Jan 2000).

Following are snips of a PDF providing an introduction and some contents of the Agreed Order of Discipline.

Page 7: Page 7 Page 8: Page 8

From the Chicago Tribune IT TAKES A PLEA AGREEMENT, January 23, 2001:

The agreement also includes an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing, with Clinton acknowledging that he gave false answers in his Jones deposition. As part of the deal, he was compelled to sign an "Agreed Order of Discipline" which states that he "knowingly" engaged in "conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice." That is the disciplinary equivalent of pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.

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    Your citation suggests that Robert Ray was using the possibility of an indictment (which would have been counter to the DOJ OLC opinion) to induce Clinton admit that he had lied under oath. My question would be: As an independent council, was Ray constrained by the DOJ "practices"
    – BobE
    May 31, 2019 at 14:53
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    Also potentially relevant is the difference between how Ray and Muller were appointed.
    – Bobson
    May 31, 2019 at 15:56
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    @RickSmith - My reading of that (and Ray's page) implies that because he was appointed before the expiration, he was an independent counsel for his whole term. Only people appointed afterwards would be special counsels. But Wikipedia is not a primary source, and I haven't done any independent verification. Probably be a good topic for a new question...
    – Bobson
    May 31, 2019 at 16:53
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    It would be extremely important to note the use of the word former. Clinton was no longer President at this point; his terms ended at pretty much the same time he admitted to lying. May 31, 2019 at 18:54
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    @Mehrdad I personally suspect he was conflating the threat of a potential indictment post-Presidency with an actual indictment during the Presidency. It is a curious area to muck about in when the President is nearing the end of his term limit, but on a strictly formal level they're distinct items and a post-Presidency indictment is not covered by the policy. Jun 1, 2019 at 7:59

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