Party-line views of presidential misconduct started with Democrats and Clinton impeachment
Sometime in the next week or two, it seems almost inevitable that the Senate will vote against convicting former President Donald Trump on the insurrection impeachment charge filed by the House of Representatives. Given the evidence, this would be a grievous injury to our democracy. And while the Republicans who choose to ignore Trump’s attempt to subvert an election will bear the majority of the blame for this unfortunate decision, spare a thought for the Democratic Party and the role it has also played in bringing us to this place in history. For the seeds for this error were sown more than two decades ago by the Democrats during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
To be clear, the two cases are not in any way substantively comparable. Clinton’s impeachable acts were tawdry and violated criminal law, but they pale in comparison with the egregious anti-democratic insurrection that Trump incited. That having been said, it is nonetheless the case that in rejecting Clinton’s impeachment, the Democratic Party set an important precedent — the precedent of partisan disregard for presidential misconduct. If one reaps what one sows, then today the Democratic Party is reaping the bitter harvest of the crop it planted back in 1999.
Consequences echo through decades
Clinton’s wrongdoing, it was said, was simply “lying about sex”; or, put more prosaically, it was a personal matter between him and his family; of no real concern, it was argued, to the general public. And to be fair, there is a degree of truth to this. Clinton’s acts involved personal wrongdoing that, at least as far as the public record reflects, had little or no impact on his exercise of presidential authority.
Unlike Trump — who misused presidential authority to pressure a foreign nation to support him in his reelection campaign and retaliated against those who exposed his misconduct and then, again, abused presidential power by inciting a riot in an effort to overturn an election — Clinton does not seem to have deployed presidential influence for political gain.
But to say that Clinton did no more than lie about a private affair is to trivialize his conduct — a trivialization that is both false to fact and whose consequences have echoed down the corridors of American history to today’s events.
I was part of independent counsel Ken Starr’s team that investigated Clinton. We found that Clinton did not merely lie about an affair — he did so under oath during court proceedings on at least two occasions. He did not merely seek to hide the fact that he was cheating on his wife — he attempted to obstruct justice and tampered with witnesses to do so. These are not solely acts of personal misconduct but also fundamental violations of legal norms that bind all Americans.
Far from being dismissed as private errors, they are crimes. And when committed by the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, they are crimes of national significance, even when the background of those crimes lies in personal peccadillo. If the Clinton impeachment was about anything, it was about holding a president to the same standard we hold an average citizen.
And yet the Senate, in 1999, chose to see the matter differently. Rather than assessing Clinton’s acts against the backdrop of his fundamental obligations to the nation, as a whole, they chose to see the impeachment charges as the expression of partisan animus and, in that context, they rejected the impeachment as an assault on Clinton’s election and on the policies they favored.
Perhaps they were right, in some relative sense. I have little doubt that a number of the Republicans who advocated the impeachment of Clinton did so for political reasons rather than for reasons of principle. One need only look at how senators like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell have broken their backs flip-flopping from their attacks on Clinton to their defense of Trump to realize that the politicization of impeachment implicates both parties.
But someone has to stand up for principle. Or at least someone should have. By excusing Clinton’s conduct, the Senate took an irrevocable step on the slippery path to partisan relativism. I understand (having lived through the moment) why Democrats felt justified in doing so. And had the Clinton impeachment been the end of it, perhaps their choice would have been retrospectively justified.
A chance to redress a grave assault
But it wasn’t the end. Today, Trump’s supporters deploy fairly frivolous legal arguments to defend his conduct — arguing against the weight of history that post-term impeachment trials are impermissible and, even more risibly, that Trump’s incitement of violence was just the exercise of free speech. These arguments are transparent make-weights for what is really happening: The Republicans have chosen to treat the impeachment of Trump as a partisan fight rather than, as they should, an opportunity to reflect on and redress the gravest assault (both figuratively and literally) on American democracy since the Civil War.
In making this choice, the Republicans follow the path that was broken in the Clinton impeachment. For good or ill, the senators trying Clinton allowed politics to sway their assessment of justice. Cloaking their decision in the veil of partisan interest, they established a norm — that senators may view impeachment through the lens of party advantage.
The Trump and Clinton cases are very different. Any reasonable assessment of the facts would see Trump’s assault on the result of a democratic election as a far graver threat than Clinton’s perjury. But that same objective assessment suggests that we cannot defend norms against presidential misconduct by excusing presidential misconduct. Though the causal chain is tangled, there is a relatively straight line from the failure to convict Clinton to the anticipated decision on Trump. In politics, as in life, our nation does reap what we have sown — sometimes to our grave dismay.
It isn’t too late to change course, though. Perhaps the Republican Party will see its way clear to rising above partisan considerations. One can only hope, against hope, that will be the case.