The politics of impeachment have always revolved around hypocrisy and partisanship. These days, it’s just become easier to see. YouTube readily delivers embarrassing evidence of high-profile flip-flops: videos of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) arguing for impeachment in the ’90s have been a staple of Democratic Twitter accounts for weeks.
Yet the political stakes couldn’t be higher for McConnell, the majority leader, and Schumer, the minority leader, if the Senate is forced to sit in judgment of Trump. He would be the first president to seek reelection after being impeached by the House, if the Senate does not remove him from office. And control of the Senate is up for grabs.
So, the scrutiny over every one of the Senate leaders’ moves will be intense. The urge to compare and contrast what they said about Clinton and what they say about Trump will be irresistible. And both men will hammer the other with whatever they can dig out from the past.
“Being served soup from 20 years ago, it never tastes the same,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who wanted to dismiss the impeachment trial of Clinton 20 years ago but now prefers deliberation on Trump. “We all look back, it’s a different time and a different place.”
Some things are the same.
The president’s party, then as now, is livid. The process is terrible and unfair, lawmakers complain, and what the president did was bad, but not impeachable.
The opposition sees things differently: Let’s get all the facts — the allegations are breathtaking.
Today, Schumer is urging impartiality as the House impeachment inquiry ramps up. The New York Democrat said Thursday that he’s not “prejudging” the case against Trump.
“We may be like a jury,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “But we want the facts to come out. Not some, but all. That is our responsibility — to get the facts out — all of us.”
In 1998, though, Schumer sounded like McConnell does now in bashing the House process and aligning with the president. Running for the Senate as a House member who opposed Clinton’s impeachment, Schumer actually ended up voting against Clinton’s removal from office three times, a record that may never be broken.
Schumer voted against the Clinton impeachment articles in the House Judiciary Committee, on the House floor and then again as a brand-new senator in the February 1999 Senate trial.
During his Senate campaign, the New York Democrat was repeatedly pressed on how he could be impartial as a Senate juror if he opposed impeachment in the House.
“A vote for Chuck Schumer is a vote not to impeach the president?” NBC’s Lisa Myers asked in late October 1998.
“Based on the present evidence, that is correct,” Schumer replied on the “Today” show.
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said the quote “came after the Starr investigation had concluded and been made public for more than a month.”
“He believed then and still believes now that all of the facts must come out and then a decision can be made — in stark contrast to Republicans who are trying to impede this important fact-finding mission from moving forward,” Goodman said.
Today, McConnell is running for reelection in a Trump-loving state, vowing to block the president’s removal with his power as majority leader.
“The way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader,” he said in a web ad. He’s also introduced a resolution with Graham ripping the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Yet McConnell’s decades-old statements could be used verbatim by Democrats today to justify their inquiry into allegations that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian officials began an investigation into Joe Biden and his family.
“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,” McConnell said at the time. He also pledged to be an impartial juror.
McConnell was then chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Clinton’s impeachment dominated Senate races, including Schumer’s race against Republican Al D’Amato, who was sitting on the fence on impeachment. Senate Republicans hoped for big gains in November 1998, dreaming of a filibuster-proof majority.
But the public soured on the GOP’s drive to oust Clinton amid Democratic attacks on independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the GOP’s handling of the impeachment process. Senate Republicans didn’t pick up any seats. McConnell shrugged off the setback, served another term as NRSC chairman and eventually became the top Senate Republican and the majority leader.
“They are very different — very different cases and different people in different times. So I haven’t drawn any lessons,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who like Schumer was a House member elected to the Senate in 1998. Crapo voted for Clinton’s impeachment in both the House and Senate.
Crapo conceded it was a “fair observation” that Republicans are making the same argument today that Democrats did in 1998. But he also echoed the current GOP line, criticizing House Democrats for holding closed-door hearings to depose witnesses on the Ukraine scandal. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her lieutenants are expected to hold public hearings at some point but haven’t decided when.
“What we see right now is basically just secrecy,” Crapo said in an interview.
Democrats note Starr was gathering evidence on Clinton and the House was holding closed-door witness depositions before the impeachment inquiry was formally approved by the chamber. They also say comparisons between the two cases aren’t legitimate.
“If they were going to try to get Donald Trump on all his many, many, many extramarital affairs, I’d say, ‘Why are we spending time on that?’” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “But an extramarital affair versus withholding American military aid to get political advantage, that’s something totally different.”
Leahy reminisced of persuading then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to hold a closed-door, senators-only meeting in the Old Senate Chamber to hash out the process before the Clinton impeachment trial began, a rare moment of bipartisanship in a toxic political environment. Schumer and McConnell may have to do the same.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was opposed to Clinton’s impeachment and pushed for a censure resolution instead, a proposal floated by Democrats after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke to signal condemnation of Clinton without removing him. Feinstein said she is keeping an open mind in the Trump case.
“The issues are so different,” said Feinstein, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. “Censure is usually used in terms of one [episode.] I think this is just beginning. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I don’t think we should rush to judgment.”
Perhaps the senator most in conflict with his past positions is Graham. He said not complying with subpoenas could be an impeachable offense 20 years ago; these days, it’s difficult to tell what could change his mind about Trump.
After he unveiled his resolution with McConnell criticizing the House over its procedures, Graham was asked how he would have responded to that in 1998.
“If we were doing this, you’d be beating the shit out of us,” Graham said. “And we would deserve it.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.