Impeachment Then and Now

Democrats in 1998 called impeachment of Clinton a coup, opposed trial witnesses

December 18, 2019

Congressional Democrats who called President Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment a "coup," said impeachment should be bipartisan and opposed witnesses appearing at his Senate trial have reversed themselves in 2019.

As Democrats prepare Wednesday to unilaterally impeach President Donald Trump, their staunch defense of Clinton two decades ago faces new scrutiny.

Longtime congressional Democrats—including Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), and Barbara Lee (Calif.)—called Clinton's impeachment a "coup" at the time.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) said Clinton would be "toppled against the will of the people of the United States," and Rep. James Clyburn (D., S.C.) said then that impeachment was meant for perpetrators of "high crimes and misdemeanors," not "all crimes and misdemeanors."

All six lawmakers are still serving and support Trump's impeachment in 2019.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in 1998 that the country would "suffer" from Republican efforts against Clinton, who was impeached on a partisan vote for obstruction and perjury over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"We are here today because the Republicans in the House are paralyzed with hatred," Pelosi said then, "and until the Republicans free themselves of this hatred, our country will suffer."

In 2019, as speaker of the House, Pelosi cited a "heart full of love for America" as she announced that she had directed committee chairmen to proceed with articles of impeachment against Trump. Trump is charged with abusing his power by seeking Ukraine's help in investigating political rival Joe Biden and obstructing the ensuing congressional investigation.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.) said in 1998 that impeachment should never be a purely partisan affair but said this month that Trump's impeachment would proceed regardless of the lack of Republican support for it.

"There must never be a narrowly voted impeachment or an impeachment supported by one of our major political parties and opposed by the other," he said then. "Such an impeachment will produce the divisiveness and bitterness in our politics for years to come and will call into question the very legitimacy of our political institutions."

When CNN's Dana Bash asked him about his prior standard, Nadler said it was up to Republicans to "decide whether they want to be patriots or partisans."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said there was no good Republican case to bring witnesses to Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999. In 2019, Schumer said that "trials have witnesses" as he called on Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, and others to testify at Trump's trial.

"I wonder if the House managers aren't a little more interested in political theater than in actually getting to the bottom of the facts," Schumer said in 1999.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) rejected Schumer's call for witnesses this time, saying it wasn't the Senate's job to do the work the House of Representatives should have done in the impeachment inquiry.

Schumer promised New Yorkers he would vote to acquit Clinton while campaigning for the Senate in 1998. He went on to win and kept his word.

He also warned, while still in the House of Representatives, that impeaching Clinton would lead to future revenge by Democrats against a Republican president.

"I expect history will show we've lowered the bar on impeachment so much, we have broken the seal on this extreme penalty so cavalierly, that it will be used as a routine tale to fight political battles," Schumer said. "My fear is when a Republican wins the White House, Democrats will demand payback."