Two Impeachments, but Two Radically Different Accusations

WASHINGTON — The room was charged with electricity the day the House Judiciary Committee opened public hearings into whether to impeach the president of the United States. It felt like the whole world was watching. It felt like the whole world was on edge.

It was grand drama and soap opera at the same time — a constitutional seminar one moment and a high school food fight the next. The president’s allies protested loudly. “You are disrupting the continuity of this meeting!” chastised the chairman trying to restore order. “We’re disrupting a railroad!” one of the president’s defenders shot back.

Twenty-one years later, almost to the day, another House committee will open public hearings into whether to impeach another president, with plenty of grand drama and soap opera and food fight expected. As the first witnesses on Wednesday tell their stories to a televised audience in the case against Donald John Trump, shadowing the latest constitutional showdown will be the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton.

The scene may be similar, but the allegations are radically different — lying under oath about sexual indiscretions versus using the power of the presidency to extract foreign help against domestic rivals. The two presidents in the dock are radically different as well, both defiant, angry and aggrieved, yet one strived to hide it and be seen as above the partisan mudslinging, while the other dives headlong into the mud, energetically slinging away.

Even more transformed since the Clinton era is the Washington surround sound. As polarized as the political environment seemed in 1998 with the advent of the Drudge Report and Fox News, it has only become exponentially more so today with the rise of social media, the fragmentation of the news and opinion industry, the infiltration of conspiracy theories into the mainstream conversation and the empowerment of once-fringe forces. The 24/7 world of trolling and Twitter has split America into warring camps.

“It feels like our experience 20 years ago was ‘Mayberry R.F.D.,’ and Andy Griffith was our sheriff,” said Lanny A. Breuer, who was one of the White House lawyers defending Mr. Clinton against impeachment. “As bad as we thought it was — and it was terrible, it was crazy, it was a rough and tough time — but for some reason it seems much simpler than today.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who was a leading Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee that drafted four articles of impeachment against the president in 1998, said that the partisan divide that seemed so wide back then, “the breach” as Mr. Clinton termed it, has grown even more unbridgeable today.

“Twenty years ago, there was bipartisan work on process and bipartisan discussions on potential ways to resolve the dispute,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who was among those who unsuccessfully explored the prospect of a bipartisan censure resolution rather than impeachment. “Those discussions don’t appear to be existent.”

Yet in some ways, Washington rings with the echoes of 1998, only with the partisan roles reversed.

The Republicans complain about an unfair process today, using words like “coup” and “lynching,” just like the Democrats complained about an unfair process back then, using words like “coup” and “lynching.” The Democrats say they are acting on principle not partisanship today just like the Republicans said they were acting on principle not partisanship back then.

The trajectory also feels remarkably familiar, like a script that has been written awaiting only the actors to play it out. An opposition-controlled House heads toward a likely vote to impeach a president from the other side of the aisle along party lines, setting the stage for a Senate trial that seems poised to acquit for lack of the two-thirds vote required by the Constitution for conviction.

If Mr. Trump’s troubles stem from foreign affairs, Mr. Clinton’s were rooted in domestic affairs. His efforts to cover up his extramarital relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, a onetime White House intern, when asked about it during a sexual harassment lawsuit led the House to impeach him for perjury and obstruction of justice. Only five Republicans and five Democrats crossed party lines on the key first vote, though dozens of Republicans joined Democrats to reject two of the four proposed articles.

After a monthlong trial in the Senate in early 1999, Mr. Clinton was acquitted — less because of doubt that he did it than because of doubt that it was momentous enough to merit removal from office. Ultimately, a federal judge found Mr. Clinton in contempt of court and fined him; he acknowledged providing false testimony under oath, surrendered his law license for a time and settled the original harassment lawsuit for $850,000.

Like Mr. Trump two decades later, Mr. Clinton saw himself as the victim of enemies who were out to get him from the start, the target of what Hillary Clinton memorably termed a “vast right-wing conspiracy” pursuing one faux scandal after another until they finally found one that stuck.

The phrase “witch hunt” was a regular staple of Democratic talking points in that era. Mr. Clinton’s camp pilloried Ken Starr, the independent counsel, much as Mr. Trump has denigrated Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel in the Russia investigation.

And there were ugly moments of collateral damage. Larry Flynt, the Hustler magazine publisher, offered a $1 million bounty for stories of adultery by members of Congress, which among other things resulted in the resignation of the next Republican speaker on the same day that Mr. Clinton was impeached.

Mr. Clinton benefited throughout his battle with Congress from a strong economy, just as Mr. Trump does today. But Mr. Clinton was a significantly more popular president from the start, and most Americans opposed impeachment even though they did not like his conduct. His approval ratings were above 60 percent throughout the proceedings and in fact went up to 73 percent after the House impeachment vote.

Mr. Trump, by contrast, has never had anywhere near as much support from the public, with his latest Gallup approval rating at 41 percent. Judging by polls, many Americans see the allegations against Mr. Trump as far more weighty than lying under oath about sex, although they remain divided sharply along party lines in their views.

One fundamental difference is that the House in 1998 was operating on the results of an investigation conducted by Mr. Starr. In fact, the only fact witness called during the House public hearings that opened on Nov. 19, 1998, was Mr. Starr himself.

“You can’t compare where we are and where we were,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the impeachment drive in 1998 only to step down after Republicans lost midterm elections. “We had a report from Starr that used the word ‘guilty’ on 11 counts, one of which was perjury, which is a felony. After all of Mueller’s efforts, they couldn’t get him to use the word ‘guilty.’”

Indeed, House Democrats this year simply put Mr. Mueller’s report on Russia aside and instead are conducting their own investigation into Mr. Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to provide incriminating information about Democrats even as he withheld American security aid. The witnesses who will begin testifying on Wednesday — William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state — were right in the middle of the events in question.

“It is extraordinary how members of Trump’s own administration have been instrumental in building the case for impeachment,” said Robert F. Bauer, the top lawyer for House and Senate Democrats during the Clinton impeachment battle who went on to become White House counsel for President Barack Obama. “And we have yet to hear from John Bolton.”

John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, remains perhaps the most coveted witness for Democrats because he opposed Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, but he is waiting for a court to decide whether he should testify.

Julian Epstein, the counsel to House Judiciary Democrats in 1998, said there was a much stronger case for high crimes against Mr. Trump than there was against Mr. Clinton.

“What’s the same as ’98 is it’s easier to play defense than offense,” he said. “This is especially so in the age of distraction where we are addicted to social media and self-reinforcing news bubbles on our smartphone. It’s harder to get everyone into the public square and keep attention spans to hear the larger narrative. That’s the Democrats’ challenge.”

By the time Mr. Starr testified in 1998, the country knew the story pretty well, but the House Democrats this year face the task of explaining what happened through witnesses like Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent.

Republicans are still settling on their defense. Mr. Trump says his interactions with Ukraine were “perfect.” Few Republicans go that far. Some agree that the president’s approach was inappropriate but maintain it is not worthy of impeachment. Others argue that Democrats are twisting the facts to criminalize foreign policy out of animus for Mr. Trump.

“This stuff’s all garbage,” Mr. Gingrich said. “It’s been really astonishing to me how corrupt it’s been. It’s shamelessly corrupt.”

One advantage Mr. Trump has is that he owns his party far more than Mr. Clinton ever did the Democrats. While many Republican lawmakers are not fond of Mr. Trump and would happily rid themselves of him if they could, by and large they are sticking by him in public.

In 1998, 31 House Democrats voted to start the impeachment inquiry against Mr. Clinton, and the White House was relieved there were not more; not one Republican voted this year to authorize an impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump. In 1998, Democrats felt perfectly free to criticize Mr. Clinton without fear of reprisal; only a handful of elected Republicans have criticized Mr. Trump on the Ukraine matter.

Mr. Clinton and his allies were in constant fear that Democrats would turn on him and pressure him to resign the way Republicans did President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Absent a drastic change in political circumstances, it is hard to imagine Republicans breaking with Mr. Trump en masse.

What is different from 1998, though, is that Mr. Clinton was in his second term and would never face voters again. Mr. Trump’s impeachment battle comes just as his re-election campaign is getting underway in earnest. If the Senate does not convict him, as expected, then the ultimate appeals court would be the electorate next November.

Rahm Emanuel, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Clinton in 1998 and went on to become Mr. Obama’s chief of staff and the mayor of Chicago, argued that last week’s Democratic off-year election victories along with the midterm elections of 2018 showed that Republicans who stick with Mr. Trump may ultimately pay a price in 2020.

“There’s nothing this guy does that can help them,” Mr. Emanuel said. “They’re going to have to make the decision that they’re willing to tie the knot even tighter between him and them.”

And then it will be up to voters to decide.

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