WASHINGTON — Even as the House Judiciary Committee prepared to vote on articles of impeachment, Lindsey Graham was in a back room trying to cut a last-minute deal. If the president fully admitted what he had done, he could head off charges of high crimes and misdemeanors. Mr. Graham scribbled on a piece of paper what the president had to say.
As the president came before cameras at the White House, members of the committee suspended their meeting to watch on television. But while he generally admitted wrongdoing, he did not go far enough for Mr. Graham. Nine minutes after he stopped speaking, the committee voted along party lines to impeach President Bill Clinton.
Twenty-one years later almost to the day, the House Judiciary Committee this past week gathered to approve articles of impeachment against another president along party lines. For anyone who lived through the last time that happened, there was a powerful sense of constitutional déjà vu. Closing one’s eyes, it was possible to hear many of the same arguments articulated in almost the same words as in 1998, with each party switching sides.
Yet as much as the impeachment battle over President Trump echoes that of Mr. Clinton, it is also striking how much is different.
Back in 1998, the impeachment battle felt like the ultimate drama, so intense that the rest of the world seemed to have stopped spinning on its axis, yet so fluid and suspenseful that it was never entirely certain how it would play out.
This time it feels like one more chapter in an all-out clash that has been fought for three years, hugely consequential yet of a piece with everything that has come before, with less suspense and an outcome seemingly foreordained.
The notion that a Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, could strike a deal with Democrats to head off impeachment today, that he or someone like him would even try, seems almost unthinkable. The young congressman who was open to a bipartisan resolution then is now a seasoned senator and relentless warrior on behalf of his president. The Clinton impeachment felt like the most divisive moment in a generation. As it turns out, it does not hold a candle to today’s factionalized politics.
“There were divisions back then as well, but the big difference is the lack of a common agreement on reality,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, one of five members of the Judiciary Committee still on the panel from 1998.
The Clinton impeachment took place amid the rise of Fox News and the Drudge Report and it felt at the time like a whole new political reality. It was an ugly moment. Larry Flynt, the pornography king, offered a $1 million bounty for dirt on lawmakers’ sex lives, exposing Republicans including the incoming speaker of the House. Mr. Clinton’s foes could bypass the mainstream media filters and pump into circulation wild conspiracy theories and salacious gossip about him through the internet.
But as it turned out, the fragmentation of society and reality was only in its infancy. Today’s impeachment battle occurs in a news and social media environment that rewards the loudest, angriest voices and has separated Americans into their own information silos.
Conspiracy theories are everywhere and conspiracy theorists are in the White House and Congress. Mr. Clinton could go before television cameras, but he had no Twitter to slam out 123 messages in a single day nor a Fox News to hammer home his version of events night after night.
The parties have become even more homogeneous in the last 21 years and the divisions starker. Mr. Trump is the most polarizing president in modern history, playing to racial, ideological and economic rifts rather than seeking to heal them. He has set the tone with relentless attacks and misrepresentations, amplified by conservative and social media. While Mr. Clinton acknowledged wrongdoing, even as he denied breaking the law, Mr. Trump never admits mistakes and forces his allies to defend him without qualification.
The animus Mr. Trump generated among his critics led to talk of impeaching him even before he took office. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders came under powerful pressure from their liberal base to abandon their reluctance to pursue impeachment after revelations of the president’s effort to solicit foreign assistance with his domestic political battles.
Some worry that impeachment will now become just one more political weapon. “Whenever one has the president of one party now and the House of the other party I think we’re going to see this more often,” said Representative Steve Chabot, Republican of Ohio and another of the 1998 survivors still on the Judiciary Committee. “And it really is divisive and it really does keep you from focusing on many other things.”
The charges against Mr. Clinton were simple and sensational — lying about sex under oath and obstructing a sexual harassment lawsuit — and they were clearly criminal in nature. But they were about the man more than the system. A president takes an oath to uphold the law and he did not. But his offense did not seem to threaten the republic. The argument over Mr. Clinton was not so much about whether he did it but what the appropriate penalty should be.
The charges against Mr. Trump are simple too but less tabloid and for many Americans a little esoteric — pressuring a foreign power to provide dirt on domestic rivals while holding back American security aid. The articles against him allege no statutory crime but they go more to the heart of a president’s use of the power granted him by the people. And the case comes in the context of a president who has defied so many norms that governed other presidents.
Both presidents enjoyed strong economies that bolstered them in the face of impeachment but Mr. Clinton was far more popular throughout his struggle to stay in office, with approval ratings over 60 percent and peaking at 73 percent in the days after the House voted to impeach him, while Mr. Trump’s remains around 44 percent in an average of polls by the website Real Clear Politics.
But Mr. Trump seems far more in command of his party than Mr. Clinton ever was over his. While many Republican lawmakers in private express disdain for their president, in public they have stuck with him with remarkable solidarity. Not a single House Republican voted to authorize the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump and not a single one is expected to vote for articles of impeachment when they reach the floor in the coming days.
By contrast, 31 House Democrats voted to open the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Clinton and many members of his party felt no compunction about condemning his behavior even if they did not support removing him from office. The Clinton White House was in a constant state of agitation that Democratic defections could lead to a breakout and raise pressure on him to resign.
At one point, the House Democratic leader identified 100 House Democrats as possible votes for impeachment. At another, the White House listed a dozen Democratic senators they believed were on the verge of abandoning Mr. Clinton. The president’s own former deputy chief of staff secretly sounded out liberal interest groups about going to Mr. Clinton to pressure him to step down.
All of which led Mr. Clinton’s team to the strategy that would save him — make sure the process was as partisan as possible. As long as it was an us-versus-them choice, then Democrats would stick by their president, ensuring that even if he was impeached in the Republican-controlled House there would not be a two-thirds vote to convict in the Senate.
That was why Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff almost panicked when Senators Trent Lott of Mississippi and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Republican and Democratic leaders who were determined to avoid a partisan spectacle, agreed on a set of rules for the trial that passed 100-0. Bipartisanship was dangerous for the president.
For Mr. Trump, there is little need to worry about that. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, is working with the White House staff to formulate rules for the trial — not with his Democratic counterpart, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.
That does not mean Senate Democrats did not ever coordinate with Mr. Clinton’s team. During the trial, senators were allowed to ask questions of the prosecution and defense by submitting notecards to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who presided and read them aloud.
Charles F.C. Ruff, the White House counsel leading Mr. Clinton’s defense, secretly arranged a signal with Mr. Daschle’s staff. If he wanted a chance to rebut a point made by the House Republican prosecutors, or managers, he would lay his pen down on the table in front of him. Democratic aides would then submit a question in the name of a Democratic senator asking Mr. Ruff to comment on any assertions made by the other side.
For all the differences between then and now, the historical parallels are still striking too. There were moments when this past week’s climactic meetings of the House Judiciary Committee sounded like a remake of an old highly rated television show with some of the original cast members.
The majority party talked somberly about the rule of law while the president’s party complained of partisan witch hunts. White House allies objected that there were no “fact witnesses” and the committee leaders insisted the evidence was clear cut.
Where the Democrats of 1998 vilified Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Mr. Clinton, the Republicans of 2019 vilified Representative Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat who led the inquiry into Mr. Trump. The end result was the same too — party-line votes for articles of impeachment.
And it was a somber moment for both sides. “It sent chills through you,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, who was casting her vote on impeachment on the committee for the second time.
On the way out after the votes, she said, she made a point of stopping to talk with one of her Republican colleagues, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, another veteran of 1998, saying to him words to the effect of, “We’re here again and we’ll make it through it.”
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