As it seems almost certain that the House of Representatives will attempt to impeach Donald Trump, it’s worth a look back at the last impeachment of a president that took place during the lives of many of us. However, many today were not alive in 1999 when Bill Clinton’s impeachment took place. It is worth a look back today to examine the similarities and the differences between Clinton’s impeachment and details surrounding it as compared to the impending impeachment of President Trump. Let’s walk down Memory Lane together and reminisce for the late 1990s.
The Clinton Impeachment
In the highly charged partisan politics of the 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s personal indiscretions led to the second impeachment trial in our history. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating Clinton’s pre-presidential financial dealings but could prove no wrongdoing. In a separate case, Clinton was being sued by Paula Jones for sexual harassment. In her effort to demonstrate that Clinton was a harasser, Jones called a young former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky to testify. Lewinsky had told a friend that she had been having a relationship with the President.
In the Jones case, Lewinsky at first denied a relationship with the president. In his deposition, Clinton denied under oath any involvement with Lewinsky. This denial caught Starr’s attention; Starr suspected the president had committed perjury and obstructed justice in the Jones trial. Starr assembled a grand jury, issued dozens of subpoenas, and eventually offered Lewinsky immunity in return for her testimony. She finally admitted that she had lied — she and Clinton had had sexual encounters. When Clinton testified for Starr’s grand jury, he gave evasive answers. However, that same night, he admitted the Lewinsky affair to the American people, apologizing to his family.
Starr submitted his report to the House Judiciary Committee, saying that he had proof of eleven impeachable offenses. The House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment, both regarding his relationship with Lewinsky. House prosecutors said that Clinton deserved to be convicted and removed from office because he had committed perjury and obstruction of justice in the Jones investigation. Lying under oath is clearly a crime.
The president’s own lawyers said his behavior was “morally reprehensible,” but not impeachable. They explained that the accusations against the president did not “meet the constitutional standard to remove the president from office.” Whatever wrongs the president had committed were wrongs against his family, not matters of public concern because they did not threaten the national interests that the president is sworn to uphold.
A majority of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted in early 1999 to impeach the President based upon Judge Starr’s referral. The House managers argued that what the President had done was inconsistent with his sworn duty to take care that the laws of the nation be faithfully executed. When the matter was tried in the Senate, in February 1999, however, the President’s defenders prevailed, and no more than fifty Senators (all Republicans) could be found to vote for conviction on any of the charges.
The 1990s was a time of viciously partisan politics in the United States. According to a U.S. News & World Report article published in December 1998, “The House that voted to impeach President Clinton is more deeply divided than at any time since Reconstruction.” Some people believe that Clinton was impeached for political reasons, not for constitutional reasons.
There are many people — including many Constitutional experts — that question the substance of the original impeachment statute. Rather than pontificate on personal opinions, let’s take an objective look.
What is the Basis For Impeachment?
Impeachment is the constitutionally specified means by which an official of the executive or judicial branch may be removed from office for misconduct. There has been considerable controversy about what constitutes an impeachable offense. At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates early on voted for “mal-practice and neglect of duty” as grounds for impeachment, but the Committee of Detail narrowed the basis to treason, bribery, and corruption, then deleting the last point. George Mason, who wanted the grounds much broader and similar to the earlier formulation, suggested “maladministration,” but James Madison pointed out that this would destroy the President’s independence and make him dependent on the Senate. Mason then suggested “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which the Convention accepted.
Because “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” was a term of art used in English impeachments, a plausible reading supported by many scholars is that the grounds for impeachment can be not only the defined crimes of treason and bribery but also other criminal or even noncriminal behavior amounting to a serious dereliction of duty. That interpretation is disputed, but it is agreed by virtually all that the impeachment remedy was to be used in only the most extreme situations, a position confirmed by the relatively few instances in which Congress has used the device.
The word “impeachment” is popularly used to indicate both the bringing of charges in the House and the Senate vote on removal from office. In the Constitution, however, the term refers only to the former. At the Convention, the delegates experimented with differing impeachment proceedings. As finally agreed, a majority vote of the House of Representatives is required to bring impeachment charges (Article I, Section 2, Clause 5), which are then tried before the Senate (Article I, Section 3, Clause 6). Two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict before an official can be removed. The President may not pardon a person who has been impeached (Article II, Section 2, Clause 1). If an official is impeached by the House and convicted by the requisite vote in the Senate, then Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, provides that the person convicted is further barred from any “Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” The convicted official also loses any possible federal pensions. With a few exceptions, those impeached and removed have generally faded into obscurity.
It’s important to note that the U.S. President is NOT the only person in the federal government who can be impeached. Impeachment can occur for any person in the judiciary or executive branch of government. I know that is mentioned above but is important to mention again. I’ve seen numerous social media posts encouraging the impeachment of members of Congress and even state governors. In each of those cases, the voters who elected them into their positions have recall power to use to remove them. That process varies from state to state but is governed by law.
Trump’s Acts of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”
Now we know what impeachment is all about, how it works, and what is necessary to initiate the act. To impeach this president (or ANY president) their acts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” must be established. Let’s look at what a few of the President’s such acts have been that are driving the cries for his impeachment:
Former Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Mueller report outlined evidence of impeachable offenses by President Trump. “Oh, I think there are grounds for impeachment. I said, if you look at the second part of the report, there’s no question that obstruction of justice does exist in the findings that Bob Mueller reported, and in painstaking detail. And that in and of itself would be the basis for impeachment,” Holder said. “I think the House needs to gather evidence, we need to hear from Bob Mueller. They need to get the entirety of the report, and then make a reasoned decision,” Holder said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York declared that there was “plenty of evidence of obstruction” that lawmakers would need to weigh. “Obstruction of justice, if proven, would be impeachable,” Nadler said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee, where impeachment proceedings originate.
Author David Swanson uses the “Emoluments Clause” of the Constitution as the justification for the Trump impeachment: “Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states: ‘The President … shall not receive … any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.’ This means that the President cannot receive personal financial gains from the United States government or from the governments of any of the 50 states while he is president. This restriction is absolute and cannot be waived by Congress. Trump is already in violation of it and will be more so with every law, rule, regulation, enforcement, or lack thereof that his subordinates, Congress, or any agency of the federal government enact to the benefit of Trump’s businesses and possessions. For example, Trump’s lease of the Old Post Office Building violates an explicit clause in the General Services Administration lease contract which states: ‘No … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.’ The GSA’s failure to enforce that contract is an unconstitutional benefit to Trump.”
The problem with Swanson’s explanation is that if the Emoluments Clause was used as the basis for impeachment, any and all who are appointed to positions in the judiciary and/or the executive branches of government could never have professionally engaged in any type of business enterprise or personal financial interaction at all before being elected President or appointed by the President. Obviously, that would be an impossible task to enter into or oversee. President Trump famously turned over ALL Trump business enterprises and operations to his two sons Eric and Don Jr. to exclusively handle without his involvement at all. Short of liquidating dozens and dozens of companies and historical financial interactions this President and many previous judges at all federal judicial levels and members of pretty much every presidential cabinet would have been disqualified under the strictest interpretations of the Emoluments Clause.
We could list politico after politico who all are on the “Impeachment Bandwagon.” Do you know what’s missing in all of their impeachment charges against President Trump? Specific facts showing “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Constitutionally those must be present and provable to successfully exercise impeachment that would result in removal from office.
Impact of Impeachment Proceedings Against Trump
Most Democrat Party leaders are extremely hesitant to go down the “Impeachment Road.” Doing so by the Republicans in 1999 cost them dearly in the next midterm election. Bill Clinton’s approval rating among Americans during impeachment proceedings was as high as it ever had been during his presidency. Why? The economy in America was soaring! Sound a bit familiar?
Make no mistake about it: the Democrat Party is — on the impeachment issue — severely divided. Those in the “establishment” wing of the Party understand the dangers of going through an impeachment. Certainly, there are not enough Republican senators that will vote against the President to secure a conviction even if the House passes an impeachment motion. Those Democrats are convinced their House majority would be obliterated in 2020 just as happened to the GOP after the Clinton impeachment.
On the other hand, the young Turks in the House are hell-bent on impeachment. They as a unified and militant arm of the Democrat Party have made it clear they demand impeachment proceedings immediately. They primarily represent Millennials, which is a group of voters that Democrat Party leadership are desperate to keep happy. Without their support of Party policies and legislation, it would be tough to reach their legislative objectives.
Democrats are in a “catch-22” dilemma.
There’s one more thing we need to mention before we finish today. Let’s imagine for a minute:
The assumption is for Mueller to call and execute that very unusual press conference at the Department of Justice in which he did little more than repeating the details of his already released Mueller report, one would think he did so for a specific purpose. Many are certain that his reason was to send a message to Congress that says, “Hey guys, I’m done. We couldn’t prove sufficient wrongdoing to guarantee a successful action against President Trump, but we want to make certain you understand we think YOU (Congress) should take the ball we gave you to use to impeach him.” But I’m not so certain that’s the case.
Consider this: Let’s assume for a moment that Mueller really DOES NOT think or want the President impeached. By leaving his report with no solid conclusions shared for or against his removal from office, his dog whistle shoutout to Congress says, ” Sick ’em, Boys!” What if he purposely is goading members of Congress led by Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee to impeach the president all the while KNOWING THAT THEIR DOING SO WILL MOST CERTAINLY RESULT IN A SIMILAR ELECTION OUTCOME AS DID AFTER THE FAILED CLINTON IMPEACHMENT TRIAL!
Wouldn’t that be a sneaky way to assist the President in a dramatic re-election in 2020, “IF” really wants President Trump to win?