Impeachment is the burning question of the day, or at least it’s getting warmer in the midst of the kindling that Robert Mueller’s Report has spread across the nation’s capital. Talk of removing Trump from the presidency inevitably leads to reflections about the last time we went down the impeachment road and ended up leaving Bill Clinton in the White House.
In the late 1990s, there was a healthy economy, just as there is today. The public was disappointed by Clinton’s personal behavior but did not want him kicked out of office. In our own time, a majority of Americans hate the tweets and cringe whenever Trump is being Trump, but do not favor impeachment and removal. For both Trump and Clinton, the political dynamics are the same—the House of Representatives in the hands of the opposition party, and a Senate with enough acquittal votes to stop any impeachment process that is not bipartisan.
Are we gearing up for a rerun of the drama that consumed the nation in Bill Clinton’s second term? Maybe, but let’s not rush to the conclusion that the two cases are identical.
The facts in the Starr Report supported an accusation that Bill Clinton obstructed justice. He and Monica Lewinsky agreed to deny their affair in the depositions that were being taken in connection with the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. The president’s personal assistant retrieved gifts he had given to Monica so they couldn’t be used as evidence of the relationship. Clinton posed rhetorical questions to his secretary Betty Currie: “We [Monica and the president] were never really alone, right?” That sounded like witness tampering.
The evidence for obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report is more voluminous and more compelling than the evidence that Starr collected. Any reasonable reader of the report will see that Donald Trump tried to shut down, control and falsely discredit the Mueller investigation.
Clinton’s obstructive acts did not involve abuse of presidential powers to end the Jones suit or the Starr investigation. Clinton complained about both, but didn’t fight an attorney general, fire an FBI director, or instruct his subordinates to knowingly tell lies.
Clinton, himself, told a whopper: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” Later he gave tortured testimony in which he tried to be both truthful, and deceptive, within the parameters of a convoluted legal definition of sexual relations. Clinton knew it was wrong to lie under oath and tried not to. He failed and faced a second impeachment count for perjury.
Trump was never put under oath. His lawyers worried about a perjury trap, but any substantive conversation with Trump would be likely to involve perjury. Trump is congenitally unable to tell the truth. He tells big and small lies all the time, about everything. When he gets caught, as the Mueller Report clearly catches him, he tells more lies.
Clinton’s lying was said to be slick. Trump’s lying is sick. And someday it will have consequences. That could happen in a formal impeachment process that tested the discipline of a White House staff and president who, thus far, have shown very little.
A Trump impeachment might follow a different path for another reason. Starr’s report was so detailed, and so lurid, that there was nothing new or interesting that could be learned by Congress or revealed in an impeachment trial. Mueller’s work is balanced, bland and blacked out on a number of pages. Hearings that flesh out the Mueller Report could be lively—more like Nixon’s impeachment than Clinton’s—with dramatic testimony and new evidence in the final stages of the process. Public opinion could turn.
Moreover, Trump has outstanding investigations in multiple jurisdictions and journalists digging in a motherlode of shady dealings that hit a new vein nearly every week. An impeachment process against Trump could produce surprises.
There is one more difference between the two cases. Neither Clinton nor Trump obstructed justice in order to hide an underlying crime. Clinton was hiding marital infidelity, and everyone understood why. Trump’s motives are harder to explain.
If there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, why was Trump so afraid of the Mueller investigation? Why did he think it would end his presidency? And why, after Mueller cleared him on the most important charge, does Trump continue to rail against the angry Democrats who found him innocent of colluding with a foreign adversary?
Trump’s biggest problem in all the impeachment talk may not involve debates about whether or not he obstructed justice. It’s the danger that he will inadvertently revive and reinvigorate investigations of his truly strange behavior regarding everything involving Russia.
This essay was published in the Roanoke Times on May 15, 2019.