Later this week, when House Democrats launch the public phase of the impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, it won't be the first presidential impeachment probe for some lawmakers in Washington. Among sitting senators and members of Congress, 29 Republicans cast a vote during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which ended with his acquittal in the Senate on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in February 1999.
A few of these Republicans, perhaps aware of the potential ramifications of rushing to judgment, have been relatively circumspect in public since the Trump impeachment inquiry began. "I think there are legitimate questions that have to be asked," said Michigan congressman Fred Upton, a moderate Republican who voted to impeach Clinton. Through a spokesperson, Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, who voted to convict in the 1999 Senate trial, promised to "do what he did before" and make a final decision after hearing "all the evidence." Others have been less restrained.
The Clinton impeachment saga began with an investigation led by independent counsel Ken Starr into the president's involvement in Whitewater, a series of failed real estate investments back home in Arkansas. Although the Clintons were never charged in connection with Whitewater, the scope of Starr's authority expanded to encompass other Clinton-era political scandals, too, including a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. Starr's report to Congress, which ultimately served as the basis for Clinton's impeachment, alleged that the president committed perjury in the Jones matter by lying under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and obstructed justice by urging Lewinsky to lie about their relationship, too. All told, the Clinton investigations lasted more than four years, cost taxpayers nearly $80 million, and resulted in the House impeaching the president for misconduct in a lawsuit related to his extramarital affairs.
The subject matter of the Trump inquiry is altogether different: a scheme orchestrated by the president and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure a foreign government to dig up dirt on a potential 2020 rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and to withhold a White House invitation and millions of dollars in foreign aid to force Ukraine to cooperate. In addition, special counsel Robert Mueller submitted a report to Congress earlier this year outlining the ways in which Trump, in a wholly distinct scandal, may have obstructed the government's investigation into Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. South Dakota senator John Thune, who as a congressman voted to impeach Clinton in 1998, has acknowledged that although it remains "pretty hard to come to hard and fast conclusions" at this stage, the "picture" emerging of Trump's conduct in Ukraine is, at the very least, "not a good one."
Other Republicans, however, have not been nearly so shy about defending Trump's abuses of power and condemning the current impeachment inquiry. Below are a few lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict Bill Clinton for high crimes and misdemeanors two decades ago—and who are taking a notably different approach to the prospect of impeaching or convicting Donald Trump for far more serious allegations.
Steve Chabot, congressman from Ohio
Then: Impeachment is an existential crisis. "I ask every Member of the House to consider the question I posed to my colleagues on the Committee on the Judiciary last week: What message are we sending to the youth of America if we abdicate our constitutional duty and condone perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power by the President of the United States?"
Now: Impeachment is a fundraising opportunity. "Never in my years of public service have I seen an American president be subjected to these kinds of hyperbolic claims, misleading accusations and partisan attacks. I need your help, friend. Can you give $50, $100 or $200 to stop impeachment?"
Jim Sensenbrenner, congressman from Wisconsin
Then: "Even if you are president of the United States, if you lie when sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you will face the consequences of that action even when you don't accept the responsibility for that."
Now: Sensenbrenner's concerns about lying seem to have dissolved with Trump who rarely tells the truth. "The Democrats have been searching for any alleged 'impeachable' offense since the beginning of the Trump presidency. I expect the Judiciary Committee and others will continue their partisan investigations, tarnishing Congress’ credibility and further dividing the country."
Mitch McConnell, senator from Kentucky
Then: "Our nation is indeed at a crossroads...I am of course referring to the investigation into serious allegations of illegal conduct by the President of the United States—that the president has engaged in a persistent pattern and practice of obstruction of justice. The allegations are grave, the investigation is legitimate, and ascertaining the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the unqualified, unevasive truth is absolutely critical."
Now: Although Mueller's report to Congress outlined 10 separate instances of Trump's potential efforts to obstruct justice, this apparently isn't the sort of "persistent pattern and practice" that McConnell considers serious. "Nancy Pelosi's in the clutches of a left-wing mob. They finally convinced her to impeach the president," he said. "All of you know your Constitution. The way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader."
Chuck Grassley, senator from Iowa
Then: "We are here because the president did wrongful acts and he admits to that...[O]nce you lose your moral authority to lead, you are a failure as a leader. FDR once spoke of the Presidency in this way: 'The Presidency is not merely an administrative office...It is preeminently a place of moral leadership.'" More than 20 women have credibly accused Trump of sexual misconduct.
Now: "Democrats’ impeachment proceedings are rooted in animus, a lack of rights for the accused, no transparency and anger at the 2016 election results."
Robert Aderholt, congressman from Alabama
Then: "As a relatively young man, I remember a time in this great nation when those endowed with public trust and those that were elected to public office were held to a higher standard."
Now: "While Congress does have the CONSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY to impeach a President, it was meant to only be used as a response to actual crimes committed by a President." This is not at all true. "High crimes and misdemeanors" need not be "crimes" or "misdemeanors" to be impeachable, because the term includes wrongful acts that violate, as Aderholt apparently once knew, the "public trust."
James Inhofe, senator from Oklahoma
Then: "I think we have seen the truth. And I think the final truth is that this President should be held to the very highest of standards."
Now: Inhofe's feelings on holding the president to the highest of standards seems to have changed since Trump took office. "The Democrats made up their mind to impeach Trump three years ago before he even took office. They want to remove President Trump from office no matter the facts. They want to play political games. We aren’t going to let that happen."
Roger Wicker, congressman-turned-senator from Mississippi
Then: "The rule of law is more important than the tenure in office of any elected official."
Now: "The political left has made a bad habit of drawing conclusions about President Trump without knowing all of the facts. It appears they have done so again."
Don Young, congressman from Alaska
Then: Impeachment is about transparency. "Being truthful to the American people is part of our system of justice. Americans deserve to know the full truth about this issue in a fair and complete manner."
Now: Who needs transparency? "From the moment President Trump was elected, Congressional Democrats have acted as sore losers, spending every minute working to undermine him and his administration’s policies," he said. "Frankly, impeachment is not only a political stunt, but a waste of time."
Kevin Brady, congressman from Texas
Then: "If it is no longer the duty of the president to tell the truth under sworn oath, can we require it of any American? The answer is no, which is why justice, hope and the Constitution demand that today we vote yes [on impeachment]."
Now: "Democrats have a simple message for the American people: You don't matter. Our hatred for the President crushes your desire for Congress to work together to solve real problems."
Rob Portman, congressman-turned-senator from Ohio
Then: Impeachment is not a tool of political expedience. "I believe the long-term consequence to this country of not acting on these serious charges before us far outweigh the consequences of following what the Constitution provides for and bringing this matter to trial in the United States Senate."
Now: "We’ll be voting in a year. That’s where the decision ought to be made.” Election results were not always so important to Portman, whose party impeached Clinton during a lame-duck session of Congress despite losing five seats in the 1998 midterms.
Mac Thornberry, congressman from Texas
Then: "This President has violated the law; he has betrayed his oath and constitutional duty; he has undermined the legal system and the rule of law—all to promote his own selfish interests and desires, which he consistently puts ahead of the country's best interests." Perhaps this presidential selfishness sounds familiar.
Now: "I believe it's inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival...I do not believe it was impeachable." As far as campaign slogans go, "Trump 2020: Inappropriate But Not Impeachable" could use some more work.
Ken Calvert, congressman from California
Then: Impeachment is about the integrity of American democracy. "The President is the nation's chief law enforcement officer and is subject to the same rules and laws as every American. Without a clear and strong rule of law, the United States would be nothing more than a banana republic."
Now: Impeachment is a manifestation of cynical, unfounded mass hysteria. "This is a total witch hunt."
Jerry Moran, congressman-turned-senator from Kansas
Then: "Having to make a choice, I choose to be on the side that says no person is above the law, that this is a nation of laws not men, that telling the truth matters, and that we should expect our public officials to conduct themselves in compliance with the highest ethical standards."
Now: Trump has told more than 13,000 lies as president, by the Washington Post's count. But for Moran, affirming the importance of honesty is now an inconvenient obstacle to bipartisanship in Washington: "We need a country in which we’re working together and not pulled apart."
Pat Roberts, senator from Kansas
Then: One needs only a bit of folksy wisdom to understand the propriety of impeachment. "We in Kansas know that you don't urge hiding legal evidence under the bed unless you want to affect the outcome of a legal proceeding. The President did so."
Now: Who among us can understand the propriety of impeachment, or of anything, really? "To be determined, I don't know," Roberts said when asked about the political fallout for Trump. "It's been a crazy year."
Lindsey Graham, congressman-turned-senator from South Carolina
Then: "Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office," said Graham, who served as one of the House's impeachment masters during the Clinton proceedings. "You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role."
Now: "This is a lynching, in every sense."
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