Even though Bill Clinton was the second president to be impeached (charged) and put on trial by the U.S. Congress, he was actually the first elected president to go through that entire process. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was the first President so accused and tried, but he was not elected to that office. He rose to the presidency from his role as vice president under Lincoln after Lincoln’s assassination.
The Clinton impeachment and trial of 1998/1999 came about during a time of deep division in Congress, yet it was also era of great prosperity and peace in the United States. Bill Clinton was well liked by the public, so much so that even at the height of his problems with Congress, his polling showed historic highs, even reaching 73% approval at one point.
It was, however, Clinton’s affair with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and the resulting cover-up, that brought many House of Representatives members and Senators to believe he had indeed committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” as provided for under the Constitution. But the process also devolved into a nasty sin versus morality play as much as, or even more than, determining any criminal behavior.
Now, let’s take a glance at exactly what happened in abbreviated form and consider any lessons that can be learned as the “Impeach Trump” calls get even louder.
The Clinton Chronology
January – August 1994
- The Whitewater Scandal, regarding Bill and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a problematic and defunct property company that went back to 1978, heats up.
- Robert Fiske is appointed by U.S. Attorney General (AG) Janet Reno as an Independent Counsel for the Justice Department to look into the Whitewater situation.
- AG Janet Reno replaces Fiske with Ken Starr.
- President Bill Clinton and unpaid White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, start a sexual relationship that lasts 18 months.
April – Summer 1996
- Monica Lewinsky is moved to a job in the Pentagon.
- While at the Pentagon, Lewinsky becomes friends with co-worker Linda Tripp and tells her about the affair with Clinton.
May – December 1997
- President Clinton ends his relationship with Lewinsky.
- Clinton has also been involved in a civil legal case against him for sexual harassment by Paula Jones.
- In the Jones situation, Clinton tries to invoke immunity, but the U.S. Supreme Court rules against him. The case continues and Jones’ lawyers subpoena Lewinsky as a witness.
- Lewinsky’s friend, Linda Tripp begins secretly recording her conversations with Lewinsky.
- Lewinsky leaves the Pentagon and meets with Clinton one last time.
- Under oath in the Paul Jones sexual harassment case against Clinton, Lewinsky denies the affair with the president.
- Linda Tripp makes her Lewinsky tapes available to Independent Counsel Ken Starr and cooperates with the FBI to gather further such recordings.
- Ken Starr gets approval from AG Reno to widen his Whitewater investigation to include the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship.
- Under oath in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, President Clinton denies having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
- Some news outlets expose the Lewinsky-Clinton affair and Clinton publicly and angrily denies his involvement.
March – June 1998
- President Clinton invokes executive privilege in the Lewinsky part of Ken Starr’s investigation.
- A Washington DC grand jury under Ken Starr, investigating a possible cover-up by Clinton in the Lewinsky situation, hears testimony from Linda Tripp.
July – August 1998
- After having received full immunity from Ken Starr for her cooperation with regard to her affair with Clinton, Lewinsky begins testimony before the grand jury.
- Lewinsky turns over a dress to Ken Starr that has physical evidence of the affair on it.
- Having given up his bid in the courts to be protected by executive privilege, Clinton testifies before Ken Starr’s grand jury and admits his affair with Lewinsky.
September – November 1998
- Ken Starr turns over the extensive results of his Lewinsky-Clinton investigation to a Republican controlled Congress. That report included 11 possible grounds for impeachment.
- Congress releases much of Starr’s report to the public including President Clinton’s videotaped testimony before the grand jury.
- The House Judiciary Committee votes 21-16 to engage in a full impeachment investigation. The full House of Representatives approves that intention by a vote of 258-176.
- Without admitting any guilt, President Clinton agrees to pay Paul Jones $850,000 to drop her sexual harassment case against him.
- The House Judiciary Committee approves 4 Articles of Impeachment against Clinton and submits it to the full House of Representatives for consideration as follows:
- Perjury – grand jury testimony in the Paula Jones case.
- Perjury – written testimony in the Paula Jones case.
- Obstruction of justice
- Abuse of power
- Democrats tries unsuccessfully to get the House of Representatives to censure Clinton rather than impeach him.
- The Speaker of the House elect, Republican Bob Livingston, admits his own extra-marital affairs and makes plans to leave Congress.
- The full House of Representatives approves 2 of the 4 Articles of Impeachment, as follows and sends those articles to the Senate for trial:
- Lying under oath to a Federal grand jury and
- Obstruction of justice
- The U.S. Senate begins its trial of President Clinton on the 2 Articles of Impeachment with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding.
- The 2 articles of Impeachment go down to defeat in the Senate. It isn’t even close. It takes a 2/3 majority (67 out of 100). The vote count was as follows:
- Lying under oath – 55 to 45
- Obstruction of justice – 50 to 50
Note that back then it was an Independent Counsel investigating the president, similar to Robert Mueller, today’s Special Counsel currently probing into the Trump administration. And in thinking about how Mueller might proceed in his investigations it might be wise to see how wide a latitude Ken Starr had back in the day and also see how he used any possible financial misdeeds of the president as a starting point. Will Mueller be able to keep his job, independence, scope of responsibility and ability to investigate Trump’s finances? We shall see.
Unlike the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial of 1868, where Johnson was saved from losing his office by one vote, Clinton escaped removal from office by a very comfortable margin. But justice under the Constitution did work the way our Founding Fathers meant for it to. Many observers, however, find both these historic impeachment proceedings very politically motivated and unworthy of our great country no matter what good intentions might have existed at the time.
In that light, it might be wise for Trump opponents to take a deep breath for the long haul and let the long arm of the law do its work while still resisting the President and his agenda. Impeachment isn’t an easy or short-term process if it is to be done correctly and have the desired result.
Videos and Articles
Bill Clinton – Impeachment Charges (AP Archives 2:55)
Bill Clinton response to house impeachment vote (ABC News.com 7:59)
Clinton Impeachment | National Geographic (Youtube.com – National Geographic 2:45)
The Clinton Lewinsky Scandal (Youtube.com – National Geographic 2:41)
The President impeachment. Bill Clinton 1998 impeachment on CBS news with Dan Rather, a look back (youtube.com – CBS news 9:33)
Throwback Thursday: House votes to impeach Bill Clinton (Youtube.com – Politico 1:32)
Articles and Book
A Short History of Impeachment: Johnson, Nixon and Clinton (Infoplease.com)
Clinton Impeachment Overview (New York Times)
Impeachment History: Andrew Johnson (Indivisible of Central Florida)
Impeachment History: Richard Nixon (Indivisible of Central Florida)
President Clinton Impeached (History.com)
Removal of a President Under the Constitution (Indivisible of Central Florida)
The Case for Impeachment (HarperCollins Publishers)