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Why the Trump and Clinton impeachments are nothing alike

Donald and Melania Trump, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Reuters
The crushing weight of history.
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Washington DC

US president Donald Trump’s impeachment has understandably led to comparisons with l‘affaire Clinton, circa 1999. But the scandals, their implications, and the times, are different. It’s disingenuous to cite the precedent and gloss over key distinctions.

The late 20th century already seems quaint from this two-decade distance, after all. It’s practically incomparable, now that the dreadful postmodern condition and Twitter have produced a president who communicates via excited utterance—tweets destined to be memes—like the proclamation of innocence Trump issued yesterday after senators were sworn in for his impeachment trial.

Comparisons to the “Clinton model” have mostly obscured the Trump matter rather than illuminated it. Still, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell above all insists on them, weaponizing the past while ignoring facts in the present case.

Substantively speaking

Trump was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress related to his Ukraine dealings. The president allegedly used public office to advance private interests, pushing a foreign government to inquire into his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, after he became a 2020 Democratic presidential contender.

To pressure Ukraine, Trump conditioned congressionally-approved aid on compliance, withholding funding until concerns became public. He reportedly tried to hide the scheme, literally by improperly storing a key record and more, figuratively under the guise of policymaking, and finally by blocking people with knowledge of the case from participating in the House impeachment inquiry.

The House of Representatives impeached former US president Bill Clinton, by contrast, for perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from investigations into marital infidelities. Senators were reticent to develop trial evidence against him at least partly because discussing the sordid sexual details during nationally-televised proceedings was distasteful to all. Republicans and Democrats pretty much agreed he acted improperly even if they didn’t all see eye-to-eye on the impeachability of his offenses.

The case against Trump pertains to affairs of state, though. Unlike Trump’s alleged scheme, Clinton’s marital infidelities didn’t arguably jeopardize presidential election integrity by inviting foreign influence or threaten the national security of the United States and an ally.

The charges leveled against Trump also have broader implications than those leveled at Clinton, and they warrant further exploration. But politicians just don’t party like it’s 1999 anymore, a fact that garners bipartisan boohoos.

Stark partisanship

“Many Americans, including Democrats, thought what Clinton did was wrong. You can’t get a single Republican politician to say what Trump did is wrong although it affects matters of state,” said Democratic strategist Michael Gordon, a Department of Justice spokesperson during the Clinton impeachment and now principal of Group Gordon, a New York PR firm.

Thirty-one Democrats in the Republican-controlled House of 1998 voted to initiate impeachment proceedings against Clinton. That willingness to concede basics indicated a commitment to the truth that has since been subsumed by stark partisanship. Gordon tells Quartz that Clinton-era rifts seem like “reasonable disharmony” compared to the ideological divisions of the day. “On both sides, you score points now by showing ideological purity and an unwillingness to compromise.”

Republicans also lament contemporary divides, but say stark partisanship is evidence that the case against Trump is illegitimate, unlike the Clinton impeachment.

Only one Democratic representative in the House, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, registered anything like dissent by voting a neutral “present” at Trump’s impeachment last month. Bold Republicans voted against impeaching Clinton, however, breaking with their party. McConnell claims that the dearth of Democratic defections proves the Trump case is a meritless partisan crusade.

But that’s faulty reasoning, argues former Obama administration White House counsel Bob Bauer in Lawfare. Partisan division isn’t an “acid test” for an impeachable offense. Comparing the ideological rifts misses the more important questions about what Trump did and why.

Finding out is proving difficult, though, as McConnell also cites the Clinton precedent to support limiting evidence in Trump’s looming trial.

The evidentiary perspective

McConnell says the Clinton precedent applies because it’s recent and was agreed to unanimously by senators. But the substance of the cases, and the evidence available now are dramatically different, among all the other distinctions.

At the Clinton impeachment trial, senators relied on a wealth of documents and depositions, in addition to hearing from witnesses. Trump has strategically blocked record development, barring witnesses from cooperating with impeachment investigators, as House speaker Nancy Pelosi noted recently in a tweet urging senators to “#EndTheCoverup.”

By blocking cooperation Trump ensures a paucity of proof, which is useful. Allies then point to the void and say absence of evidence indicates there’s no case.

But senators could get to the bottom of things, whether to clear the president, discover the truth, fulfill their constitutional duties, or even just for the optics. They can subpoena documents and witnesses, and given recent developments have good reason to do so.

Former national security adviser John Bolton said recently that he’ll testify after previously refusing, and some conservative voters want to hear from him. Republicans for the Rule of Law—a group of self-described lifelong GOP-loyalists “dedicated to defending the institutions of our republic“—just launched a $1 million, one-week  ad campaign aimed at viewers of “Fox & Friends,” featuring clips of politicians scoffing at the quality of impeachment evidence followed by a narrator saying, “Now, John Bolton, a witness with first-hand information, has agreed to testify in the Senate trial. Senate Republicans, Americans deserve the truth. Let Bolton testify.”

Lev Parnas, indicted businessman and associate of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, also just publicly disclosed damning details in the Ukraine matter. He claimed Trump directed the pressure campaign personally and implicated vice president Mike Pence and attorney general William Barr in the scheme, providing records purporting to support his contentions.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office on Thursday issued a report on the withheld Ukrainian aid, concluding, “In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget withheld from obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense for security assistance to Ukraine…Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.”

The Clinton model

Little is known about how the looming Senate trial will unfold. What’s certain is that McConnell insists the Clinton model applies. That means witnesses and new evidence will be considered after initial presentations by the prosecution and defense, so House trial managers have no assurances that they can make the fullest case possible.

“All we are doing here is saying we are going to get started in exactly the same way 100 senators agreed to 20 years ago. What was good enough for President Clinton is good enough for President Trump,” McConnell argued.

But there is “one very important difference.” The power dynamic. In 1998, when the House voted to impeach Clinton, Republicans were in control (though they lost it in that year’s election). The impeaching party handed the articles of impeachment to their fellow Republicans, who also controlled the Senate. There was no concern about ceding control to ideological enemies who could use the rules to thwart the discovery of truth.

The same cannot be said now. McConnell admits he’s working with the president, so it’s absurd to cite the Clinton impeachment—as if it was a gold standard rather than the accidental fruit of time, circumstances, and that convenient power dynamic. It is just one more example of the majority leader confusing his comparisons and skipping the devilish details that make all the difference between the cases.

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