What House lawmakers said about impeachment in 1998 and in 2019
Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler in 2019 sounds a lot like Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner did in 1998.
“Abuse of power” is what Nadler calls President Donald Trump’s actions, declaring them impeachable.
He “obstructed and abused power,” is what Sensenbrenner said of President Bill Clinton’s actions back then.
The Wisconsin Republican now rails against Democrats as out to get Trump since his 2016 election.
“They haven’t liked him from the beginning of his term,” he says.
Back in 1998, Nadler argued the same about the GOP and Clinton.
“Some members of the Republican majority … have never accepted the results of the 1992 or 1996 elections,” the New York Democrat said then.
This time, the allegations sparking impeachment proceedings are obviously quite different. But it’s worth noting another significant difference: which party’s president is being impeached, and which party holds the gavel in the House.
Five members of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that voted to impeach Clinton, are still there: three Democrats — Nadler, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Zoe Lofgren of California — and two Republicans — Sensenbrenner and Steve Chabot of Ohio.
“When I was involved in this two decades ago, I really never dreamed that we’d see it again,” Chabot told CNN during an interview in his Capitol Hill office, where he proudly displays a framed newspaper article from 1998 headlined “Moment in History.” When that was written, Chabot was a leading Republican Judiciary Committee voice in favor of impeaching Clinton. Chabot was even one of the GOP managers presenting their case in the Senate trial.
In that article about his efforts against Clinton, Chabot is quoted as saying he would not wish impeachment on his own worst enemy.
“Well, it’s bad not only for the individual who is being impeached, but it’s bad for the country, because it really does divide us,” Chabot elaborated during the CNN interview. “Sometimes it’s necessary.”
Back then, he said that allowing Clinton’s actions to go unpunished would “gravely damage the office of the president, our judicial system, and our country.”
It’s what Democrats are now saying about Trump, almost to the word.
“They’re saying it,” Chabot conceded, “but I think the facts are very different.”
The substance is quite different. Trump allegedly abused his power by holding up aid and a White House meeting for an ally until its leader investigated his political opponent. Clinton allegedly abused his power by lying under oath about an affair with an intern.
What is similar is the palpable solemnity of the moment.
In 1998, Clinton’s fellow Democrat Jackson Lee said she had come to a key hearing “bearing feelings of somberness and sadness,”
During last week’s hearing about Trump’s conduct, she reminisced about her experience “during the 1990s impeachment, guided by facts, duty, to serve this nation.”
Judiciary Committee members who were there then and now say tensions are just as high. It plays out with gavel banging, interruptions and raised voices — even if the political shoe is on the other foot.
For example, in 1998, Nadler, a Democrat who is now chairman of the committee, argued strongly against partisan articles of impeachment.
“They must never be a narrowly voted impeachment or an impeachment substantially supported by one of our major political parties and largely opposed by the other. Such an impeachment would lack the legitimacy and produce divisiveness and bitterness in our politics for years to come,” Nadler said then.
On CNN’s “State of the Union” last week, we asked Nadler whether, given the likelihood that Trump’s impeachment will not have any GOP votes, that too will provide the divisiveness and bitterness he warned about 21 years ago.
“No,” he responded.
“It is the conduct of the President, who questions the patriotism of people who don’t agree with him,” Nadler replied.
In 1998, Lofgren predicted that the GOP would suffer for impeaching Clinton.
“Those who are out to get the President, shame on you. But beware, next election the voters will be out to get you,” the Democrat warned during an impeachment hearing.
Again, the roles are reversed.
“If I were a Democrat, I’d be worried about it, and Zoe’s comments back there could probably be coming out of the lips of a Republican right now,” Chabot told CNN.
Lofgren turned out to be right. Republicans did lose congressional seats in the 1998 elections, after impeaching Clinton. We won’t know until next November if that bit of history will repeat itself too.