Here’s a parlor trick: How many people can you name who were in favor of impeaching William J. Clinton and also favor impeaching Donald J. Trump? Or flip it: How many opposed Clinton’s impeachment at the time and now also oppose Trump’s?
Of the 14 House impeachment managers in the Clinton case, most have retired from Congress, and one has died. None has endorsed the current effort to impeach President Trump.
Former representative Bill McCollum cautions against a rush to judgment. “People ought to wait before they make judgment on whether or not there’s even an impeachable offense out here to be considered until all the facts are on the table.” So far, McCollum says, he sees a “really weak case.”
James Sensenbrenner remains a House member. In 1999, he was particularly agitated over Clinton’s legal/constitutional claims: “We are here today because President William Jefferson Clinton decided to put himself above the law, not once, not twice, but repeatedly.” He was also outraged about Clinton’s lies: He “could have told the truth to the American people. Instead, he shook his finger at each and every American and said, ‘I want you to listen to me’ and proceeded to tell a straight-faced lie to the American people.”
Today, Sensenbrenner opposes impeachment. “From what we know now,” he said, “Trump did nothing wrong. And he did nothing wrong because he did not offer a quid pro quo to the president of Ukraine for any of this information.”
Senator Lindsey Graham was a House member in 1999 who became a household name during the Clinton impeachment. At the time, he said, “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
Today, of course, Graham has introduced a resolution condemning the impeachment inquiry on the risible grounds that it denies “due process” to the president.
In 1999, Representative Nancy Pelosi said, “What President Clinton did was wrong. It is grounds for embarrassment, not for impeachment.” The same was true of Steny Hoyer, Peter DeFazio, John Lewis, and many more of the 71 lawmakers who were in Congress in 1999 and remain there.
I supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Was I blinkered by excessive partisanship, as former representative Bob Inglis now says he was? Possibly. I certainly despised the lying and opposed many of Clinton’s policies. But I believed then that certain lines could not be crossed without creating a dangerous precedent. In the era before Me Too, many progressives took sexual misbehavior lightly. Some conservatives, myself included, were appalled that Clinton took advantage of a young intern and betrayed his wife and daughter. How much damage was done to the culture by Democrats rallying around to say, “Everyone lies about sex”?
And contra Sensenbrenner, Clinton did more than lie to the American people; he committed perjury. Though his lie was “only about sex,” he lied in a sworn deposition — and that has to be a red line. Wouldn’t our culture be healthier if Democrats had not chosen tribalism over principle?
Republicans today are flirting with creating their own awful precedent — that it’s a normal part of foreign policy for a president to bully another nation to create a false narrative smearing a political opponent. The accusation is not that President Trump was playing hardball with a foreign leader but that he was attempting to subvert the 2020 election. Like Democrats in 1999, Republicans are now arguing that “everybody does it.”
Clinton urged that his private behavior not affect our judgment of his conduct of the office of the presidency — even if that conduct led him into witness-tampering and perjury. Trump is arguing that the full panoply of executive powers can be used for his personal political benefit — because he does not recognize any value higher than his own welfare. That’s why he persists in saying that the call with Zelensky was “perfect” and that he did nothing wrong.
In the end, by acknowledging his lie, Clinton at least permitted the Democrats who supported him to condemn his behavior as wrong. Trump is not doing the same for his Republican defenders. He’s forcing them to insist, with him, that black is white. It’s Orwellian.
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