Thursday 20 December 2018

Bill Clinton impeachment 20 years on: The parallels with Trump, and the differences

Clinton was only second US president to be impeached

It has been 20 years since Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, on grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice, becoming only the second president in US history – the first being Andrew Johnson in 1868 – to undergo such censure.

Other than a handful of names, those of former intern Monica Lewinsky and independent counsel Kenneth Starr, along with a few of the more sordid details, it can be hard to remember many of the specifics.

But at the time it was a relentless, frenzied matter, as complex and arcane in its outer reaches as it was both basic and simple at its core: the president lied under oath about having an illicit affair with a government employee and was punished for having done so.

He could have lost his job, but full impeachment requires confirmation by two-thirds of the upper chamber of congress, and not a single Democratic senator voted to censure the president.

Two decades on, with many in the country urging Democrats to launch impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, it is instructive to consider the similarities and differences between their circumstances. It may also be worth reflecting on the fallout from Clinton’s impeachment, not just for him and his family, but for those Republicans who led it and then suffered a backlash from voters at the midterm elections.

What were origins of Clinton’s impeachment?
It would take a book, and many have been written, to detail the Byzantine twists and 90-degree turns that resulted in the 42nd president’s impeachment.

Its origins began in the investigation of an alleged real estate scam said to have involved Bill and Hillary Clinton and their associates, Jim and Susan McDougal, during the 1970s and 1980s. While no evidence of wrongdoing was ever found against the Clintons, the attorney general Janet Reno, appointed a special counsel, Kenneth Starr, to look into the matter. Starr’s three-year probe eventually came to look at a host of matters linked to the Clintons – including the firing of White House travel agents and the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster.

With the permission of Reno, Starr also decided to press ahead and speak to people involved in another case targeting Clinton, the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who accused the president of harassment while he was the state governor. Clinton denied the allegations.

Paula Jones
As part of an attempt to show Clinton’s alleged harassment of her was part of a broader pattern, Jones learned through Linda Tripp, a one-time friend of Lewinsky who believed Clinton had abused the office of the president, that Clinton had secretly enjoyed a sexual relationship with the one-time intern. Pretending to be her friend, Tripp had taped Lewinsky, tried to get her to incriminate Clinton and advised her not to send to the cleaners a blue dress that contained the president’s DNA.

On 17 January 1998, Clinton gave a sworn deposition in which he denied having a sexual relationship or affair with Lewinsky. White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters that Clinton viewed the matter as “a distraction but… not a burdensome distraction”. Ten days later, the president told reporters, in words that would come back to haunt him: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

That summer, confronted by Starr at an in camera grand jury hearing with the recordings made of Lewinsky by Tripp, Clinton admitted he had engaged in a relationship with Lewinsky.

“I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”

Weeks later, Starr released his eponymous report. “The nature of the relationship was the subject of many of the president’s false statements, and his desire to keep the relationship secret provides a motive for many of his actions that apparently were designed to obstruct justice,” he wrote.

Pat Roberton, head of the powerful Christian Coalition that held its annual convention days after the report was released, brought the hall to its feet with a call to impeach Clinton: “As landlords of the White House, it’s time to tell this occupant his lease has expired.”

How the two chambers voted
On 19 December 1998, after a delay caused by the US’s bombing of Iraq, which Clinton’s critics said was an attempted distraction from domestic affairs, much like the 20 August missile strikes on alleged Al-Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, the House voted to impeach Clinton on two of four charges.

It voted 228-206 on the count of perjury, and 221-212 on a count of obstruction of justice. A second perjury count and one of abuse of power failed.

On 9 February 1999, the Senate, after a month-long debate, voted on the two charges. Fifty senators voted to remove Clinton on the obstruction of justice charge, and 45 voted to remove him on the perjury charge. Not a single Democratic senator voted to convict on either charge.

Because a two-thirds majority was required to convict him, Clinton was acquitted.

The backlash
The context in which Clinton’s impeachment occurred was that of a strong, powerful Republican Party that since 1994, in what became known as the revolution of speaker Newt Gingrich, had controlled both houses.

As it was, as the impeachment process went on, the US public became convinced the Republicans were overreaching. Gingrich believed the party would pick up seats in the 1998 midterms; they lost four, while narrowly holding the House, and Gingrich resigned as speaker, as he had said he would. Not since 1822 had the party controlling the White House gained ground in the sixth year of a presidency. Republicans were stunned, though not enough to call off their impeachment plan.

The planned impeachment also failed to have an impact on Senate races, with the upper chamber staying 55-45 in favour of the Republicans.

Only a handful of the Republican “managers” of the impeachment remain in politics – Gingrich, Bob Livingston and Tom DeLay all resigned. In 2015, Dennis Hastert, who succeeded Gingrich as speaker, entered a plea deal with prosecutors over financial misconduct carried out to pay hush money to cover up his sexual abuse of students while a teacher and coach at Yorkville High School, Illinois.

Similarities to Trump
Like Clinton, Trump faces a fired-up, newly emboldened political opposition in the Democrats, who will in January take control of the House. Many of the new members, which include a record number of women and progressives, appear keen to punish Trump.

Many believe his behaviour in office, be it his firing of James Comey, his defending of his son’s June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in Trump Tower, amount to either “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”, the standard for impeachment as laid out by the constitution.

The differences
To date, Trump has been found guilty of no crime, and many independent observers say despite guilty pleas made by some of his associates, it would be hard at this moment to point to hard evidence of collusion. (Collusion does not have a legal definition.) They also point out that while Michael Cohen told prosecutors he had paid hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal at Trump’s behest, the president has not yet been indicted, and may never be while he remains in office.

And Democrats, skilfully if cautiously led by Nancy Pelosi, want to avoid the sort of backlash suffered by the Republicans in 1998, as they look ahead to the 2020 president election. During the 2018 midterms, Pelosi’s office told Democratic candidates to avoid the impeachment word at all costs, saying it could prove divisive and rally Trump’s base. Instead, they regained control of the House by talking about issues such as healthcare and the economy.

The fallout
Attitudes towards the two-year relationship between Lewinsky and Clinton have changed in last two decades, especially following the emergence of the #MeToo movement in which women, and men, spoke of their experiences of being allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed at the hands of powerful people such as Harvey Weinstein. The producer, currently charged with assaulting two women, has denied the allegations.

Could an affair between a sitting president and a 22-year-old intern, some have asked, ever be truly consensual? Shortly after Clinton was impeached, Lewinsky cooperated with author Andrew Morton for an authorised biography, Monica’s Story. As part of the publicity tour she came to London, where in an interview with The Independent, she said she had learned two lessons: one, that she was wrong to trust her friend Tripp, and the second was “not to have an affair with a married man”.

In a recent Slow Burn podcast produced by Slate, Tripp claimed she had no idea at the time how her decision to inform the special prosecutor would play out. 

“Sitting here today, I have no clue what I thought was going to happen. It was sort of fuzzy. But there wasn’t an organised master plan of what I was thinking,” she said. “This was flying by the seat of my pants, terrified, out of my wits, completely guilt-ridden that I was having to manipulate her, but convinced in my soul that in the end it would benefit her.”

During the 2016 election campaign, Trump, who had been accused of sexual harassment by a number of women, sought to seize on the decades-worth of allegations about Bill Clinton by inviting several of his accusers – among them Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones – to attend one of the presidential debates with Hillary Clinton.

(Source: The Independent)

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