Why you should care
Because if you come at the king, you best not miss.
It was the heart of the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings in the ’90s, and Jack Kingston remembers wondering after a meeting with his Republican colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives: “Surely there is more?”
The Ken Starr independent counsel probe, launched in 1994 to investigate shady financial dealings by the Clinton family, had become almost entirely fixated on a stained blue dress. Yes, Clinton had lied under oath and appeared to have obstructed justice. But while the sex scandal made headlines, the “empirical question” of the case — did Clinton pay off officials, evade taxes or create phony corporations to mask financial wrongdoing? — wasn’t so clear. And “if you can’t prove that empirical question, you’ve lost it,” says Kingston, who is now at the lobby firm Squire Patton Boggs.
As House Democrats announced a formal impeachment inquiry this week, Kingston sees similar problems in their case against Donald Trump — whom Democrats accuse of misusing the office of the presidency for personal political gain. “The empirical question for Democrats is ‘Did Trump tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to investigate [former Vice President Joe] Biden or lose foreign aid?’” And Kingston isn’t the only Republican who, reflecting on their own investigations into impeachment, believe the Ukraine evidence revealed so far is more dud than smoking gun. “The reports come out, and the Democrats immediately rush to the microphone and say impeachable offense — without really knowing what it is,” says Bob Barr, one of the House managers for the Clinton impeachment.
Frankly, you just can’t take politics out of it. You can be impeached for wearing an ugly tie.
Former Rep. Jack Kingston
That the likes of Kingston and Barr, both Trump supporters, are defending him isn’t surprising in itself. Republican senators are signaling the same skepticism, meaning that even if the House votes to impeach Trump, the likelihood of two-thirds of the GOP-controlled Senate voting to remove Trump are minuscule.
But the lessons from the 1990s from those who went after Clinton, only to see him acquitted in the Senate with improved approval ratings, are real. “Frankly, you just can’t take politics out of it,” Kingston says. “You can be impeached for wearing an ugly tie if you are president of the United States.”
Impeachment lesson No. 1: Taking on a president is hard. “The administration always has an upper edge, because they have the bully pulpit, the microphone,” says Barr, a former federal prosecutor and now head of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation. As Kingston puts it: “[Clinton] made the case that this is about sex, that everyone lies about sex, and Americans were like: ‘Yep, you’re right about that!’”
Every day, Trump can raise counter-controversies, much like he did with Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, and the news media will follow. “What about the famous hot mic line Obama said, where he told the Russians he would have ‘more flexibility’ after the election? Was he not asking the Russian president to not say anything, because it will hurt his election? Is that not an invitation to interfere in the American election process?” Kingston says. “You’re going to see a bunch of cases where this is what Obama did, this is what Nixon did, [what] Eisenhower did.”
The processes of holding a president accountable are murky too. “It’s not easy to make the case to the public,” Barr says, given a lack of education around what actually constitutes an impeachable offense. That could prove doubly true given the information overload of the 2019 news cycle.
Barr also says the Clinton impeachment process was much more straightforward than this one so far, as it began with a referral from Starr. From the House Judiciary Committee’s recent resolution setting up impeachment procedures to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement expressing support for an inquiry without filing any articles of impeachment, Barr says: “What they are trying to do is give the appearance of doing something without really doing anything.”
Another roadblock? The House is about to go on a break from Washington for two weeks. “They should be setting up hearings, they should be saying, ‘We’ve got some wind at our backs, let’s get going while we have traction,’” Kingston says. At least one Democrat, Rep. Ro Khanna of California, has called for Congress to stay in session: “The stakes are so high,” he said in a video statement over Twitter on Thursday.
Pelosi has resisted launching into impeachment before now for fear of the politics — knowing full well that the Senate won’t remove Trump. But for members representing bluer districts, such as Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, who faces a primary challenger in Manhattan, the politics are peachy. It will be tougher for folks in the middle. Kingston, who represented a more moderate district based in Savannah, Georgia, says he was often admonished for not acting more like hard-charging Barr during the Clinton impeachment. In the same way, he says, the 31 Democrats elected in Trump-voting districts in 2018 are taking flak from the base for not being “a fighter” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
While most people remember the Clinton impeachment as a loss for the GOP, the evidence isn’t so clear-cut. Republican George W. Bush won the White House in a squeaker a year and a half after Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate, running on restoring “honor and dignity to the White House.” And opposition parties gained when Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon were tossed aside (Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him).
As Congress crosses a historic threshold once again, the political stakes have risen. “It really has a sort of championship game atmosphere,” Kingston reflects. “A lot of red-meat Democrats are very fired up. But there is no question: Republicans are equally as fired up.”