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IN FOCUS – Lessons of the Clinton Impeachment


If the House of Representatives actually were to impeach Joe Biden, and the matter proceeded to trial in the Senate, it would be the fourth impeachment trial to be held in the brief span of 24 years — Clinton, Trump (2), and Biden.  However, there once was a time when impeachment trials were not so common.  In fact, somehow, the nation managed to survive without such a trial for more than half of its existence — 131 years — between the 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson and the 1999 trial of Bill Clinton.

While most Americans today likely associate the Clinton impeachment with “Slick Willie’s” sexual involvement with 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, the articles of impeachment against Clinton actually approved by the House were, as Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) tried to frame the issue, “not about adultery.”

The investigation into Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham (still using her maiden name when in Arkansas) originally centered around their role in the Whitewater real estate development in Arkansas, while he was Governor.  The investigation was begun by Special Prosecutor Robert Fiske, Jr., and then continued by Independent Counsel Ken Starr.  (Although the Clintons were never convicted, their partner in Whitewater, James McDougal, was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges.)  The final report of the investigation, known as the “Starr Report,” was submitted to the House of Representatives on September 9, 1998.  At that time, the House had a Republican majority, and Newt Gingrich was Speaker.

Based on that Starr Report, the House Judiciary Committee approved four articles of impeachment: perjury in defending against a sexual harassment suit against him by Paula Jones; perjury to a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky affair; obstruction of justice; and abuse of office based on refusing to respond to and lying to Congress.

The full House of Representatives was willing to impeach based only on two of those articles — perjury and obstruction of justice.  The perjury charge alleged that Clinton “willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration, impeding the administration of justice.”  Specifically, it alleged that “William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury.”  The obstruction of justice charge alleged that he had “encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to give perjurious, false and misleading testimony.”

Two-thirds of the Senate are needed to convict, but at the time, the Republican Party held a 55 to 45 majority in the Senate.  Thus, conviction would require a dozen Democrat votes, but instead there were many defections from Republican ranks.  Republicans voting against impeachment on the obstruction of justice count were five Northeastern Rhinos:  John Chafee (RI), Susan Collins (ME), Jim Jeffords (VT), Olivia Snowe (ME), and Arlen Spector (PA).  In the end, the Senate split 50-50 on the obstruction of justice charge.  It would turn out that this would be  the high-water mark for the House Managers.

Even though no one really disputed that “Clinton flat-out perjured himself,” five more Republican Senators joined the other five dissenters on obstruction of justice, as 10 Republicans voted to acquit, this time adding Slade Gorton (WA), Richard Shelby (AL), Ted Stevens (AK), Fred Thompson (TN), and John Warner (VA).  Thus, the Senate voted 55-45 against conviction on the perjury charge.

On February 12, 1999, it was all over.  Clinton was acquitted on both charges.  Neither charge could even muster a majority of Senators.  The Republican defectors allowed Democrats to describe the Clinton acquittal as “bi-partisan.”

A bit of justice occurred in April 2001 when, after he left office, Clinton agreed to what amounted to a plea bargain to end Starr’s criminal perjury investigation.  Clinton’s law license was suspended for five years in Arkansas.  In October of the same year, the Supreme Court disbarred Clinton from practicing before it.

What can be learned from the Clinton Impeachment?  Part of the lesson is that Democrat Senators do not take perjury or obstruction of justice all that seriously — if it’s by one of their own.  Even more now than then, they have shown they will hang together, unless the politics of their state demands differently.  A popular uprising would require the People of their state to be outraged, but rage is hard to generate when the establishment press covers for a Democrat President and rails against the Republican House Managers.

Additionally, we learned from the Clinton impeachment that since the Senate sets the rules for an impeachment trial, the game can be rigged by Senate leaders.  With Clinton, the Senate Majority Leader was Trent Lott (MS), who never wanted Clinton to have been impeached in the first place.  Lott had first served in Washington as administrative assistant to powerful House Democrat Congressman William Colmer (D-MS), and by the time Lott was elected to the Senate and rose to Majority Leader, he had become comfortable in the Washington swamp.

The great controversy  was whether to call witnesses — and the Democrats (and Lott) did not want to risk matters of “sex” being discussed in the hallowed Senate Chambers.  In the end, the Senate refused to let the House managers call Lewinsky to testify in person — by a 70-to-30 vote.  Today, there is every reason to believe that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would work hand-in-glove with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to undermine however the House Managers would want to present their case.

Opposed by the establishment press in the days before alternative media had become well established, and faced with Senate leadership that did not want to even be there, the 13 House Managers became so demoralized that, at one point, most simply wanted to end the entire proceeding.  The one Congressman who rallied the troops, calling on them to do their duty no matter what the political cost may be, was Congressman James Rogan (R-CA).  As a curiosity of history, Rogan turned out to be the one house manager who lost his seat in Congress primarily due to his work on the Clinton impeachment.  And who was he defeated by?  That would be then-state senator, now extreme leftist Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), who beat Rogan in the November 2000 election by a vote of 53-to-44 percent in what was the most expensive House race ever as of that time.

There is one huge difference between the Clinton impeachment and a possible Biden impeachment.  In the case of Biden, the key charges likely will be bribery and abusing the powers of his office.  Those charges are easier for the public to grasp than perjury, especially when the lying, in part, was to defend against an allegation of having committed a sexual act.  Beyond that, Biden is not nearly as “likeable” as Clinton, and you could never describe Biden as “slick.”  And with low approval ratings in the polls, it would be much harder for Senators to ignore the solid charges that the House is now developing, especially if voters become enraged by how our country has been sold to the highest bidder.

In any event, the courageous counsel former Congressman, now California state Judge James Rogan, gave to the Clinton House Managers is still instructive.  House members should do their duty to impeach when the facts support impeachment, regardless of the political consequences.

Editor’s Note: To read the articles in this series, please click here.

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