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The Bill Clinton affair may provide a lesson for Democrats planning a Trump impeachment

Next Monday, 8 October, marks 20 years since impeachment proceedings were brought against US President Bill Clinton.

pjimage (7) Source: Photojoiner/PA Images

THIS MONDAY MARKS 20 years since the Republican party began impeachment proceedings against US President Bill Clinton.

The United States Congress voted on 8 October 1998 to launch an impeachment inquiry against Bill Clinton. For the third time in American history, there was a threat of impeachment against a US President.

The inquiry would examine the allegations in a report by the independent counsel Ken Starr about Clinton’s relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Included in those list of allegations were perjury and obstruction of justice, which Clinton was eventually charged with.

He faced a trial in the Senate over the charges, but was later acquitted in February 1999.

To be clear – impeachment is when charges are brought against a member of government or head of state, issued by the elected members of the parliament (so the House of Representatives against the US President, or Dáil members against the Taoiseach, would be the Irish equivalent).

But it doesn’t automatically result in that government member leaving office, as was the case with Clinton.

The vote on 8 October was the beginning of the impeachment process; it also marked the end of a period of uncertainty where Republicans were deciding on whether they should launch impeachment proceedings or not.

Clinton/Lewinsky 

The Starr report, which ran over 150 pages, revealed intimate details of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, which was an on-again-off-again relationship.

One of the most famous lines from the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, which you might remember, was that after news reports and rumours circulating about the incident, Clinton gave a statement saying: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

That was one part in a long list of untruths Clinton gave about his relationship with Lewinsky, and formed the basis for the charges that were laid against him.

The investigation by Starr was originally meant to look into financial irregularities levelled against the Clintons in a controversy called ‘Whitewater’. But after a woman called Paula Jones began legal proceedings against Clinton for sexual harassment, and when that woman’s legal team heard about a possible affair with a White House intern, Starr shifted the focus of his investigation.

Clinton and Lewinsky signed affidavits stating that they denied having a “sexual relationship”, “sexual affair” or “sexual relations” with one another.

When Starr’s final report was released, it was uploaded to the Internet so that the public could read it – and they did, in their droves.

It contained a lot of intimate details about the affair in it, which some argued were unnecessary to be included to the extent that they had. The counter argument was that Clinton was trying to plead he hadn’t committed perjury based on the technical definition of “sexual relations” – so Starr would use details to prove him wrong.

But Clinton’s defenders and fairly neutral commentators said all the detail worked in Clinton’s favour, as the public felt he was being treated unfairly.

Impeachment

On 19 December 1998, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bill Clinton.

The impeachment was on grounds of perjury to a grand jury (by a 228-206 vote) and obstruction of justice (by a 221-212 vote).

Two other charges weren’t passed, including one that accused Clinton of abuse of power (by a 148-285 vote). The argument there was that Clinton didn’t use the arms of government at his disposal to carry out or cover up the affair, as had been the case with the Watergate controversy.

The Senate trial on those charges began on 7 January 1999, and ran for just over a month.

Clinton’s defence was unusual, to say the least; they argued that Clinton’s grand jury testimony in the Jones case had too many inconsistencies to be a clear case of perjury.

On 9 February, the Senate began closed-door deliberations – three days later they emerged to cast their vote. A minimum of 67 votes was needed to remove Clinton from office.

The perjury charge was defeated, with 45 votes for conviction and 55 against; and the obstruction of justice charge drew the exact same number of votes: 50 for and 50 against, meaning Clinton was acquitted.

In 1974, the Republican US President Richard Nixon was facing impeachment following revelations over the Watergate scandal, but resigned before proceedings concluded (which basically has the same outcome as a “successful” impeachment). 

What that means for a Trump impeachment

There’s a lesson in past cases for any future impeachments, including those looming against the current US President, Donald Trump. 

Currently, Trump is being threatened with possible impeachment from a number of fronts: the Mueller investigation being the biggest of those obstacles. 

The Robert Mueller investigation (the Trump-era equivalent to Ken Starr), is investigating whether there was Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and what links the Trump campaign had with any Russian interference.

In tandem with that, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been convicted on tax and bank fraud charges, while Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen admitted to charges that included making illegal campaign contributions in the Stormy Daniels case.

After the Cohen admission, there were calls for impeachment proceedings to begin; this was further than Clinton had gone, was the argument, and US internet searches for ‘impeachment’ soared.

But Democrats held back. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, although a vocal critic of Trump’s, explained why.

“The Mueller investigation then can be completed, and once the investigation is completed, then we know what we’ve got in front of us,” she said during a New York Times event.

Whether to launch impeachment proceedings is splitting the Democrats somewhat, but most have agreed that they should wait for the outcome of the Mueller investigation, even thought they have no idea how strong the case is against Trump.

Meanwhile, there are avenues Trump’s team could take to lessen the political blow the outcome of the Mueller investigation may have – a former Clinton lawyer says stalling its progress is one option.

Robert Bennett, a veteran Washington criminal defence lawyer said that when he defended Clinton against Paula Jones’ sexual harassment charges.

The case threatened Clinton’s reelection chances in 1996, and Bennett forced a procedural issue to the slow-working Supreme Court to make the case disappear for months (remember, the November midterm elections are approaching this year, threatening the Republican-controlled House and Senate).

“My job was to get this Jones case out of daily media coverage,” Bennett recalled.

“We figured if we could get the Supreme Court to take the case, we were assured this thing would have less impact on the 1996 election. That’s exactly what happened. Ultimately we lost in the Supreme Court but he won the election.”

If Trump, or someone in his family facing charges, could get their case tied up in court over constitutional issues, it could take up to two years to resolve, to the end of Trump’s term in office.

“No matter what the outcome, he’d probably be much better off,” Bennett said. 

What are the chances of a Trump impeachment?

Oddsmakers have placed the chances of a Trump impeachment at 45%, a new high, DataTrek Research Co-founder Nicholas Colas. Still, Colas pointed to recent polling data that show a majority of the US still does not favour impeachment.

“In the end, we don’t worry much about this issue from an investment perspective regardless of what happens in Washington DC over the coming months,” Colas said.

Aside from a panicky drop on nasty sounding headlines (which we will tell you to buy), all this will run its course.

- with reporting from AFP

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