Twenty years ago, Republicans in the US House of Representatives narrowly voted to impeach president Bill Clinton. It was December 19, 1998. Subsequently tried by the Senate in early 1999, he was found not guilty on one count of perjury, while senators divided 50-50 on the other count of obstruction of justice. This fell far short of the two thirds majority required to remove him from office. He survived, but many Americans now wonder whether Donald Trump might face impeachment now the Democrats have regained control of the House.
Clinton, after all, was the target of a politically-motivated investigation into his financial and personal affairs set up when the Republicans won the House in 1994. It was led by Kenneth Starr, a Republican nominated to a senior judgeship by Ronald Reagan, who served as US solicitor general under George H. W. Bush between 1989 and 1993.
Starr’s exhaustive investigation into the personal and especially financial affairs of the Clintons in Arkansas prior to 1992 (when he was elected to the presidency) found no hard evidence of wrongdoing. But it intersected with a suit brought by Paula Jones against Clinton over his personal conduct, which led investigators to White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the president’s alleged sexual relations with her. Clinton denied under oath in August 1998 that he’d had sexual relations with “that woman”, and this denial led to the perjury charge.
The Clinton case revealed the challenging nature of impeachment. It is a political move, played to remove a head of state. But its outcome depends on the rules of black letter law. Did an incumbent commit “high crimes and misdemeanours” provable by the tests of hard evidence as required in a court of law?
How it played out
When news of the Lewinsky affair broke in January 1998, Clinton reportedly believed he would be forced from office. But the legal case against him took months to assemble and by December the political dynamics had shifted. Hillary Clinton led in turning the tables against the investigation, arguing that they were victims of an unprincipled conservative conspiracy. In November 1998, Clinton also settled with Jones out of court, paying her US$850,000, which further eased the pressure on him.
The main shift, though, was political. The Republican House was led by speaker Newt Gingrich, who saw himself as a national party leader articulating a coherent Republican programme. In challenging Clinton, he insisted that the Republicans would make big gains in the November 1998 midterm elections – but their House majority actually fell. Gingrich also faced a sex scandal of his own. He resigned from the speakership in November 1998 – and, soon after, Congress. His successor resigned within weeks for similar reasons. The Republicans’ claim to the moral high ground was further undermined by the Starr report’s lengthy, prurient descriptions of Clinton’s sexual encounters with Lewinsky.
Bill Clinton’s approval ratings remained high. Tired of investigations grinding on for years, increasingly the public failed to see that perjury about personal encounters amounted to a high crime or misdemeanour. Meanwhile, the US economy continued to grow.
When the Senate’s vote in February 1999 finally failed to unseat him, it ultimately reflected the public mood.
Impeaching Trump would also depend on political calculations. If the grounds were an infringement of campaign finance laws by the alleged payments in 2016 to two women, the Democrats would be derided for double standards, and the Clinton brand, important in mainstream Democratic politics, would be savaged. How election expenses are defined when they affect personal matters is also not clear cut.
Impeachment could also result from Trump’s alleged Russian connections. But the link, if found, would likely seem obscure and complex to a majority of Americans, who will ask where the smoking gun is.
Besides, by the time there are possible charges, attention will likely be focused on the 2020 election and revisiting the details of 2016 might simply reinforce partisan tribalism unless the evidence is powerful and clear cut. Equally important, a Russian-focused inquiry could divert attention back to Hillary Clinton’s emails and alleged ties to Russia, which the current nominee for US attorney general, William Barr, has said merits further review.
The Republican-controlled Senate will not convict the president unless an exceptionally clear case of criminality is assembled. And by attempting to remove Trump, the Democrats will be accused of ignoring America’s real concerns and blamed for torpedoing the president’s agenda.
Indeed, even if such an attempt succeeded, current vice-president Mike Pence as president would appeal to a deeply conservative Republican base and might stir Trump enthusiasts to vote in huge numbers against a party which destroyed their hero. Consequently, the Democrat House leadership is currently more interested in developing positive social, economic and foreign policies.
Cue: the radical Democrats
Instead, the main proponents of Trump’s impeachment seem to be more radical Democrats. Their opposition to all that Trump represents is undoubted. But internal party calculations may ultimately influence their tactics.
The field for the Democrats’ next presidential candidate in 2020 is open. A recent poll in Iowa, the first state to hold a presidential primary in January 2020, showed that the leading candidates were former vice-president Jo Biden, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. There have also been suggestions that Hillary Clinton, who is younger than both, might enter the fray.
Impeachment may appeal to Democrats seeking a more radical alternative to Hillary Clinton as it would revive memories of the Clinton legacy’s failings. For them, impeachment would ramp up the personal pressure on Trump, even though it would fail to remove him, and make launching a Clinton rerun more problematic. They are now the ones to watch.