Senators seek to weaponize Clinton trial in Trump impeachment

Senators in both parties are using former President Clinton’s impeachment trial as a shared cudgel to accuse the other side of hypocrisy.

The 1999 trial — which marked the Senate’s second and most recent proceeding — has cast a long shadow over the machinations of a proceeding for President Trump, coloring everything from the current negotiations to what senators expect from a trial and how they are preparing. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted that the Trump impeachment proceedings seemed to be “eerily” mirroring Clinton’s. The House impeachment vote took place almost exactly 21 years after Clinton was impeached. 

“We seem to be on the same timeline, matter of fact to the date,” Cornyn said, adding that an agreement on procedure negotiated by former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 1999 is “one that has a lot of merit.” 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was in office in 1999, said “a number of our colleagues have asked us, ‘What’s it like?’ for the handful of us who were here during the Clinton impeachment.” 

Fifteen senators, including both leaders, were in the Senate in 1999, providing plenty of fodder for accusations of flip-flopping. 

Republicans have homed in on Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), accusing him of changing his position on witnesses, and trying to impose different rules on the Trump trial than what he supported during the Clinton proceeding. 

“My friend the Democratic leader continues to demand a new and different set of rules for President Trump. He wants us to break from that unanimous bipartisan precedent and force an all-or-nothing approach,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Schumer, who joined the Senate in 1999, supported a 100-0 resolution that laid out the ground rules for the impeachment trial. He subsequently voted for a failed attempt to dismiss the articles against Clinton and voted against a second resolution that allowed for closed-door depositions.

But Schumer is asking for at least four witnesses as part of the Trump trial, including former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He also wants, in contrast to the Clinton-era deal, one resolution at the outset that would deal with both procedure and specific witnesses. 

Schumer cited the 1999 trial in a letter to McConnell saying he was making the initial offer from Democrats “in keeping with the bipartisan spirit of the procedures adopted in the trial of President Clinton in 1999.” 

But Republicans were quick to note that while Schumer invokes the Clinton trial, he also wants to lump together something — procedure and witnesses — that were settled separately in 1999. Though the resolution on procedure passed unanimously, a subsequent resolution calling for specific witnesses broke down along party lines. 

Schumer has defended his request to decide witnesses before the start of the trial, arguing that in 1999 the three witnesses who gave closed-door depositions had already testified before a separate grand jury. None of the four witnesses requested by Senate Democrats appeared before the House as part of its impeachment inquiry.

“The witnesses in ’99 had already given grand jury testimony. We knew what they were to say. The four witnesses we have called have not been heard from. That is the difference, and it is a difference that is totally overwhelming,” Schumer told reporters during a press conference. 

It’s not just Republicans who are trying to weaponize comments made during the Clinton trial as they look for leverage ahead of the Trump proceeding and the 2020 election, where control of the Senate is up for grabs. 

Schumer has argued that McConnell is making “irrelevant and incomplete comparisons” to the 1999 trial. McConnell voted to subpoena three witnesses during the Clinton trial. 

“It’s not unusual to have a witness in a trial. It’s certainly not unusual to have witnesses in an impeachment trial,” McConnell said in 1999, adding that the request for only three witnesses was “pretty modest.” 

Senate Democrats have seized on the remarks, made on CNN to Larry King, adding: “Why shouldn’t we follow the McConnell rule now? What are they hiding?” 

Asked about his quote from 1999, McConnell asked if reporters had also seen Schumer’s comments from the Clinton trial. 

“So, I think it’s pretty safe to say in a partisan exercise like this people sort of sign up with their own side and what we may have felt 20 years ago may not be the same as today and you can quote virtually any of us who were here during that period to be on the opposite side because of the nature of the process,” he added. 

McConnell has backed skipping over witnesses during the Trump trial. Senators would instead hear arguments from both the House managers and Trump’s legal team, and then vote on the articles of impeachment. Some Republicans, while hoping to delay a final decision on witnesses until after the trial begins, are coalescing behind a shorter proceeding that would hand Trump a quick acquittal. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was a House impeachment manager during the 1999 trial. His role reversal, from prosecutor against Clinton to one of Trump’s most vocal defenders, has provided a steady stream of criticism that he’s done a 180 between 1999 and 2019. 

Republicans for the Rule of Law, a GOP outside group, seized on Graham’s support for witnesses in 1999, and his opposition to witness now, asking “the rules of a fair trial haven’t changed, why have you?” 

“If there is any doubt, let’s call witnesses and let’s develop them fully, and leave no doubt on the table, and make sure that history will judge us well. Everybody, the House and the president, will have a fair shot at proving their case, that these things occurred, the high crimes,” Graham said in 1999. 

Graham, in a separate interview with Fox News in January 1999, added: “If you take witnesses off the table, you lose the flavor of the case, you lose the persuasive element of the case. I think you don’t get the whole truth.” 

Graham has tried to draw a line dividing the Clinton and Trump impeachment trials, arguing that Trump’s impeachment has been driven by “partisans.” Republicans controlled both chambers during Clinton’s impeachment and trial. 

But he’s also compared the two trials, predicting they’ll play out in similar ways. Recounting his days as a House manager in 1999, he said that he learned that “without public support, getting a president removed is not going to happen.” 

“That’s missing here. That was missing in the Clinton impeachment,” he said. “So, what will happen is pretty much what I think happened in the Clinton case.”

Tags Bill Clinton Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Donald Trump Impeachment John Bolton John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell

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