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Last week, a controversial report from BuzzFeed News sparked and renewed talks of impeachment for sitting President Donald Trump. The report alleged that Trump had instructed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress regarding negotiations to build a tower in Moscow. The article attributed knowledge of the felony to two federal law enforcement officials and birthed dozens of articles from other news organizations and reactions from government officials and the president himself. Additionally, the previous allegations of illegal hush money made during Trump’s presidential campaign, the unceremonious firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the recent indictment of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and an ongoing probe into the Trump campaign’s affiliation with Russian agents contribute to talks of possible impeachment. The public and many officials are currently divided as to if these allegations are worthy of impeachment proceedings and if the BuzzFeed report is even accurate. As for debatable accuracy, some have cited the office of special counsel Robert Mueller’s unusual step in rebuking the BuzzFeed article with a public statement that vaguely claimed portions of the report were not accurate.
Twenty years ago, the country was enthralled in a similar debate: Were President Bill Clinton’s actions to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky worthy of impeachment?
Recognized political analyst and MTSU professor of political science Kent Syler says that important lessons can be found from researching the public’s reaction leading up to Clinton’s impeachment.
“Something that I’ve learned is that change is slow,” Syler said. “We kind of keep debating the same things over and over and over again.”
Syler also serves as the special projects director for the Albert Gore Research Center, an MTSU institution dedicated to the study of American politics. Thanks to the resources that the center provides – collections of government documents, university records and more – Syler has been pouring over letters, emails and phone transcripts related to citizen opinion of Clinton’s then possible impeachment. The correspondence was donated to MTSU by Bart Gordon, a former U.S. representative for Tennessee’s 6th congressional district, when he retired in 2011. Syler served as Gordon’s Tennessee Chief of Staff from 1985 until 2011.
“I thought it’d be interesting to get the (documents) out because we are kind of heading down the same road again, especially the partisans,” Syler said. “The partisans on the other side, the Republicans, were anxious to impeach Clinton. Now some partisans on the Democratic side are very anxious to impeach Donald Trump. It’s interesting how things have flip-flopped.”
In November 1995, Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky engaged in an extramarital affair that went on for over a year and a half. Eventually, Lewinsky was secretly recorded by a coworker while describing her relationship with the president. Lewinsky was subpoenaed by lawyers who represented Paula Jones, a woman who was suing the president for sexual harassment, and later, the former intern was questioned by FBI agents and offered immunity if she worked with those prosecuting the president. When the story broke days later, Clinton stated publicly, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Fast-forward to Aug. 6, 1998, and Lewinsky was testifying before a grand jury, followed by testimony from Clinton on Aug. 17. Clinton then admitted to prosecutors for Whitewater Independent Counsel Ken Starr that he did, in fact, engage in an affair with Lewinsky, which conflicted with his previous statements for the Paula Jones case. Starr originally began his investigations of the Clintons due to a real estate scandal, referred to as “Whitewater,” involving both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Clinton then provided a national address in which he admitted to the affair. In early September, Starr provided a report to the House of Representatives that brought about a case to impeach Clinton on 11 charges. One of these charges was perjury, a crime Trump allegedly encouraged. In December 1998, two articles of impeachment were pushed forward and approved by the House, thanks to a Republican majority that strongly supported retribution for the president’s actions. Clinton was, however, acquitted from all charges in the February 1999 Senate trial. If Trump is eventually impeached by the House, he would not immediately be forced to resign but would have to face a trial before the Senate just as Clinton did years before.
“The impeachment for Bill Clinton kind of set the bar for impeachment a lot lower,” Syler said. “So now, it’s like, ‘They impeached Clinton for having sex in the White House, so what Donald Trump did deserves impeachment.’ That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are.”
“I think the lesson to be learned by the people on the Democratic side who are clamoring for impeachment, it’s something you have to take very seriously, very slowly and learn from what the Republicans did with Bill Clinton,” Syler continued. “They ended up paying a political price because the general public didn’t agree that what Bill Clinton did, while wrong, deserved impeachment.”
Due to difference in the opinion of the public and House Republicans, the party of the sitting president gained five seats in the House in the 1998 midterm elections.
“The party of the president usually always loses seats during the midterm election,” Syler said. “Because the public thought the Republicans went too far in impeaching Clinton, they punished them. So, Democrats should learn from that lesson.”
“If you impeach someone and the public doesn’t agree that it is worthy of impeachment, then you’re going to pay a political price,” Syler continued.
While it’s currently unclear whether a majority of Americans would say that Trump’s actions are worthy of impeachment, his approval seems to be slipping. According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that displays results from Jan. 10 through Jan. 13, Trump holds 39 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval, a clear difference from December when he stood at 42 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.
However, polls in recent months during Trump’s tenure do not display strong majority support for impeachment. A Harvard/Politico survey from early January showed that of 21 priorities that participants could choose for the newly-elected Congress, impeaching Trump was tied for last.
“Most of the general public right now believes we are not to the level of impeachment yet,” Syler said.
While researching the letters and correspondence sent to Gordon in the weeks before Clinton’s impeachment, Syler discovered a common theme that supporters of Clinton’s removal rallied behind.
“If you look at the letters that were written of people wanting to impeach Bill Clinton, the central theme is morality,” Syler said. “This moral theme comes up over and over again in these letters from 1998. The people who want to impeach Trump, it hasn’t really gotten to one central theme. They’ve said he’s corrupt or incompetent or whatever it might be. No one has settled on something that people have said, ‘OK. This is what we are going to impeach him for.’”
When reviewing the documents from the Clinton era, words like “disgrace”, “disgust” and even “pervert” are often used, clearly outlining the impeachment supporters’ rally for a restoration of morality in the presidency.
One letter written to Gordon from Donald Matthys, a Franklin resident, starts each paragraph with the word, “Shame,” harshly punctuated with an exclamation point.
“Bill Clinton has shamed the very Office of the Presidency, the very office of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and so many other patriotic leaders of our Nation,” Matthys writes.
“He has no moral or ethical standing,” the letter continues. “… He tries to stop teenagers from smoking by taxing the tobacco companies and has become the National Poster Boy for oral sex.”
An email from Frank Limpus shares a similar, albeit less angry, sentiment, stating, “This is not about sex. It’s never been about sex. This is about trust, integrity and character … How can we trust (Clinton) now?”
A letter from self-described evangelist Bob Hansen states, “I’m sick of my children and grandchildren turning on the T.V. and listening to the sordid language describing our president having oral sex with a 21-year-old intern in the White House and then lying about it.”
An email from Jeremy Hewitt of Madison states, “I am appalled that such a great nation that was founded on principles has an adulterer as the main representative.”
The documents also outline the clearly partisan nature of the public’s opinion, with many supporters of impeachment blaming Democrats.
One letter to Gordon from James Lang targets Starr for his “biased” attacks on Clinton and the Democratic party.
“For how long will the Democratic Party allow a special prosecutor, with no pretense of being unbiased or independent, run roughshod over the rights of ordinary people, pry into their private lives, destroy the privileged conversation of parent with child, of loved ones with each other?” the letter reads.
“The Clinton impeachment was very partisan, and that’s what really cost Republicans with the public,” Syler said. “If you go back to Richard Nixon, he resigned before he could be impeached. He resigned because he knew that there was bipartisan support for impeachment. That’s another lesson Democrats should learn. If we ever get to the point of impeaching Donald Trump, this is not something that should be done by one side only. There should be bipartisan support if you’re going to sell this to the public.”
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