Why Clinton Got ImpeachedRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, impeachment, Donald Trump
Rich Lowry is the editor of the National Review.
There’s been a cottage industry in accusing Republicans of impeachment hypocrisy.
They happily impeached Bill Clinton and now vociferously oppose the impeachment of Donald Trump, even though Clinton was accused of obstruction of justice — just as Trump is now.
Is this a legitimate point?
There are uncomfortable parallels. The Democrats most fervent about impeachment say that it is their duty to do it no matter what, politics be damned. They speculate that perhaps the polling on impeachment will improve once it’s under way. Republicans said the same thing in the 1990s, and the Clinton impeachment ended in a fizzle.
And it’s certainly true that both Clinton and Trump behaved appallingly when under investigation.
Given that the Clinton impeachment, as a practical matter, acted as a censure vote and Clinton’s misconduct didn’t involve his core presidential duties, there’s a good argument that a formal censure would have been the wiser course. In retrospect, Newt Gingrich doesn’t give himself high marks for how he handled it.
That said, the case for Clinton’s impeachment was still stronger than the case for Trump’s.
The independent counsel in the Clinton case, Ken Starr, acting under a law that compelled him to notify Congress of impeachable offenses, said there was “substantial and credible evidence” that Clinton was guilty of eleven possible impeachable offenses. Starr didn’t, like Mueller, exonerate Clinton on the underlying matter and “not exonerate” him on the process crimes.
Most important, Clinton flat-out perjured himself, which no one disputed. If Trump had done the same in the Russia probe, he’d have been impeached already.
In the 1990s, there was bipartisan support for an impeachment inquiry and a strong consensus for punishing the president. Neither exists today.
While it’s easy to think that Clinton was always safe from removal in the Senate, and for the most part he was, there was a moment of legitimate peril for him. Under current conditions, it’s impossible to imagine Trump facing similar jeopardy.
It’s worth recalling all of this, and in what follows, I draw on the book I wrote on the Clinton presidency in 2003 (the original quotes are from my research at the time).
Ken Starr Didn’t Have Much Choice
Starr wasn’t, like Robert Mueller, a special counsel who is supposed to be tightly tethered to the Justice Department. He was an independent counsel who was envisioned under the law as a quasi-independent prosecutor who would serve up impeachment referrals to Congress.
Almost every aspect of the independent-counsel statute was a trespass on the executive branch: Congress required the attorney general to ask for the appointment of independent counsel in certain circumstances; gave to a panel of judges the power to make the appointment; and invested in the independent counsel, once selected, prosecutorial powers with almost no check from the rest of the executive branch.
Foolishly, instead of letting the independent-counsel statute lapse, Bill Clinton signed a renewal in 1993. He thus ensured endless investigations of his administration and, once the Monica Lewinsky affair got caught up in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment lawsuit against him, a huge step toward his own impeachment.
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