Day 6

From Clinton to Trump, how U.S. lawmakers have changed their tune on impeachment

In the 21 years since Bill Clinton's impeachment, many of those involved — on both sides of the aisle — have rather dramatically changed their tune this time around.

'It seems to depend if it's your guy in the hot seat,' says columnist Mary C. Curtis

U.S. Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton were both impeached. What Democrats and Republicans said in 1998 compared to now is sometimes starkly different. (Scott Olson/Getty; George Bridges/Getty)

When Bill Clinton faced impeachment more than two decades ago, commentary from the Republican side of the aisle was very different than today's trial against U.S. President Donald Trump.

"We see with this impeachment, when you compare it to the Clinton impeachment, that it seems to depend if it's your guy in the hot seat," said Mary C. Curtis, columnist for Roll Call, a website covering U.S. politics.

The U.S. Senate wrapped up four days of impeachment hearings on Friday. Trump is accused of withholding Congress-approved military aid in order to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son Hunter.

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, for allegedly attempting to block the impeachment investigation.

But in 1998, when then-president Bill Clinton faced impeachment for allegedly lying about an affair, many Republicans supported the effort.

While Curtis says that the circumstances behind Clinton and Trump's impeachment hearings are vastly different — one a matter of allegedly lying under oath about a personal relationship; the other a matter of allegedly pressuring a foreign government for personal gain — she says that it's important to point out "a certain level of hypocrisy."

"You've seen quite a few people who are saying things a little bit contradictory than what they said in the Clinton impeachment when we're dealing with Donald Trump," she said.

Curtis broke down how the opinions of key players in Donald Trump's impeachment hearings have differed from 1998 to today.

Lindsey Graham was a member of the House judiciary committee and one of the so-called managers who presented the case for impeaching Bill Clinton. Now in the Senate, Graham has panned the efforts by Democrats to impeach Trump. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images)

Lindsey Graham

In 1998, then-Republican representative Lindsey Graham wanted to make sure lawmakers had all the evidence about what happened with Clinton. He admonished his colleagues for trying to rush the proceedings.

"I know what people want to do with this case. I know they want to get it over, I know many of them don't want the president to be impeached, but I have a duty far greater than just getting to the next election," Graham, today a senator for South Carolina, said then.

But Graham, now an outspoken supporter of Trump, has drastically changed his tune on impeachment.

"What I'd like to see happen is for this thing to get over as soon as possible. I don't want to give it any legitimacy because it's a crock," Graham said about Trump's impeachment.

Curtis adds that Graham has "dismissed" the process.

"At one point, he said he wasn't going to listen to the evidence, that he's pretty much decided that whatever Donald Trump did was not impeachable," she said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 19, 2019, the day after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Nancy Pelosi

Then-Democrat congresswoman, and now Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi saw Clinton's impeachment trial as an unfair personal attack.

"We have a situation where any and all grievances anybody ever had with the president are being heaped on," Pelosi said in 1998.

According to Curtis, some Republicans would see the Trump impeachment "the same way."

Republicans accuse Pelosi of having a vendetta against the president and using impeachment to oust him. 

Though she was initially hesitant to start impeachment hearings against Trump, she has now become one of the main drivers of the impeachment proceedings. 

Kenneth Starr, seen testifying on Nov. 19, 1998 in the House, was not the original independent counsel investigating the Clintons, one of many events to occur over a winding, 5-year path to impeachment. (Doug Mills/The Associated Press)

Ken Starr

As the lead investigator into the allegations against Bill Clinton, and author of a report used against him in trial, Ken Starr was one of the main drivers in the 1998 impeachment. 

"He attacked the very idea of a president, in this case Bill Clinton, even using the argument of executive privilege to keep witnesses from testifying or documents from being investigated," Curtis recalled.

Starr said at the time: "It may very well be that the considered judgment of this body is any privilege can be invoked no matter how unmeritorious one thinks it is; that that's not an abuse ... I disagree with that."

Today, Starr is one of Trump's impeachment defense lawyers. Meanwhile, Trump has argued that executive privilege protects him from investigations by Congress. 

"This whole idea of using executive privilege is something that he did not think was relevant for Bill Clinton, but I guess he's just fine with his president, Donald Trump, his present client, doing it because he's still representing him," Curtis said. 

Written by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Jason Vermes. To hear more from Mary C. Curtis, download our podcast or click Listen above.