Only one elected president has been impeached, and tried in the Senate: Bill Clinton. With the Senate on the verge of trying President Donald Trump, it is worth looking anew at the Clinton case to see if its particulars accord with its place in memory.
What people mostly recall is that Clinton was impeached on a technicality, for sex between consenting adults. What that reflects is the Democratic talking points of the time. It is not the whole impression you get if you try to look at it with fresh eyes, which is what Peter Baker did in his chapter on Clinton in “Impeachment: An American History,” published last year.
When The Washington Post reported that Independent Counsel Ken Starr was investigating a Clinton cover-up of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, which began the ordeal, not just Republicans took notice. George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton aide and loyalist who had left the administration a year before, said that morning in 1998 that if were true Clinton had lied under oath, “I think that would lead either toward the impeachment proceedings or resignation.”
It was about lying under oath. But it was also about sex in some respects. And rape.
As Republican House members unlimbered their impeachment machinery, cribbing from proceedings against Richard Nixon 24 years earlier, they discovered something well beyond Lewinsky. In 1978, Clinton allegedly raped Juanita Broaddrick. It was a credible accusation, all the more so by current standards – and she had told it to Starr. It did not directly bear on the impeachment charges House Republicans were preparing, but if Republicans wavered, they were taken to a locked room in the House Office Building to see the Broaddrick file. Forty-five of them did, along with many aides. When Republican Rep. Bob Livingston had second thoughts about impeachment, an aide – who had seen the Broaddrick files – pushed back: “Boss, “ he said, “we have a rapist in the White House.”
Revisiting the Broaddrick case in 2017, Caitlin Flanagan, in The Atlantic, described the rape and its aftermath:
“‘You better put some ice on that,’ (Broaddrick) remembers him telling her as he walked out the door, headed off to his important work of feeling other people’s pain.”
Republicans believed they were pursuing Clinton for a pattern of criminal behavior, not just an indiscretion.
Both the Clinton impeachment and trial proceeded along partisan lines and first succeeded, then failed on them. As impeachment became more likely in the House in late 1998, Democrats resolved to oppose Republicans every step of the way, Baker writes:
“They concluded they could not let the Republicans win, even though a successful impeachment conviction would still leave Vice President Al Gore in the Oval Office, because it would weaken their party and reward what they considered an unfair crusade by the other side. And so they decided to turn every issue into a party-line struggle, regardless of the merits. The more partisan the impeachment effort looked, the less legitimate it would look in the eyes of the public.”
They succeeded, just as it looks as though Republicans may succeed in painting the trial of Trump as Democratic shenanigans, the story Trump will hawk as he campaigns for reelection this year. Democrats were pleasantly surprised that the impeachment of Clinton led to gains in Congress in the 1998 midterm elections. We have never impeached a first-term president before, let alone before a general election.
Republicans strongly felt the character of the president was on trial in 1998, just as many Democrats do today. In neither case did either think the man was fit to hold the office, although Clinton twice had been elected to it. The one crucial difference now is that Trump is more substantially accused of misusing his office to benefit himself – but in a time become even more partisan, nudged down this path by Clinton’s impeachment, it still may not be enough to convict.