Before Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and obstructing an investigation into his personal infidelity, he was pursued for six years on more serious matters. The Whitewater investigation accused him of corruption during his time as the governor of Arkansas. Troopergate accused him of using state police officers to help him arrange secret sexual liaisons. The Travelgate and Filegate investigations pertained to actions his administration took soon after he was inaugurated in 1993. Most ominously, the suicide of Vince Foster was treated as a possible homicide, with Bill and Hillary Clinton as likely suspects.
It’s important to note that none of these accusations were ever proven. It’s also important that they preceded the crimes he actually did commit. The result in the public mind was that the Republicans were perceived as promising a whale and producing a minnow. Were we really going to remove the president of the United States from office for a ticky-tack foul?
The Republicans have attempted to create a similar impression in defense of Donald Trump. Certainly, there are some Democrats who called for his impeachment before he was even sworn in. And, given the Russian assistance he requested and received during his campaign, many expected the Mueller investigation to result in articles of impeachment. Now that the president has been impeached over “a phone call,” we’re supposed to see this as small potatoes compared to the original charges.
The reason this approach doesn’t work in the current context is that Trump was impeached for doing in office what he was originally accused of doing only as a candidate. Imagine if the Clinton impeachment had been about Bill and Hillary using the power of the presidential office to pressure a bank into giving an improper loan. That would have been a kind of confirmation of the original charge against them prior to the presidency, but now even more serious. Instead, the Lewinsky matter reinforced a completely different suspicion about Bill Clinton. His fatal flaw wasn’t personal corruption, but questionable sexual conduct.
Donald Trump has engaged in a lot of questionable sexual conduct and he’s committed crimes to cover it up, but he was impeached for the most serious allegation against him: that he sought foreign political assistance and bent American policy to get it.
During the Clinton impeachment, the Democrats readily conceded that the president had perjured himself. They mainly acknowledged that he had obstructed justice. In the present case, it’s hard to get the Republicans to acknowledge the same type of obvious fact. They won’t come out and admit that President Trump committed an extortion campaign against a foreign ally—using his office and federal dollars as weapons—in order to get that foreign power to help him politically.
In 1999, the Senate debated whether or not Clinton should be removed from office for lying under oath and obstructing an investigation. In 2020, the Senate is going to debate whether they should even hear evidence.
In the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Senate had to decide what the appropriate punishment should be for a president who seeks to hide that he’s cheated on his wife and commits crimes in the process. In the impeachment of Donald Trump, we can’t even get the Republicans to voice the crimes that were committed.
The explanation for this difference should be pretty obvious to everyone. It was easy to say that the president shouldn’t be convicted over a blow job. It’s a lot harder to say that the president shouldn’t be convicted for using military aid as a political weapon against Joe Biden.