Ohio lawmakers in Congress headed home for a holiday break after a historic impeachment vote in the U.S. House against President Trump last week, following a floor debate which mirrored the impeachment efforts against President Bill Clinton in late 1998.
The debates and votes this month offered a unique historical window into how the two parties basically flipped the script on many of their arguments of 21 years ago.
“Alleged abuse of power, the first article, is not a high crime and misdemeanor,” argued Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, this past Wednesday as Ohio Republicans denounced the impeachment charges.
President Trump was impeached on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Chabot represents Ohio’s 1st District which includes Warren County.
But 21 years to the day - on December 18, 1998 - Chabot was on the House floor giving a much different view on abuse of power when it came to the impeachment of President Clinton.
“What message are we sending to the youth of America if we abdicate our constitutional duty and condone perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power by the President of the United States?” Chabot said during the Clinton impeachment debate.
Those changed arguments were not limited solely to one party. Back in 1998 it was Democrats who blasted the process and accused the GOP of going too far in their pursuit of President Clinton.
“The action being taken in the ‘People’s House’ today makes a mockery of the Constitution,” thundered former Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Cleveland.
“I rise in protest against this unfair procedure,” said Sherrod Brown - now one of Ohio’s senators - but back in 1998, a Democratic congressman from the Cleveland area.
“Retribution through impeachment may feel right today, but the long-term harm it will cause our government outweighs filling the immediate satisfaction,” said former local Congressman Tony Hall, D-Dayton, of the Clinton impeachment.
Fast forward to 2019, and it was Ohio Republicans who echoed those same sentiments pressed by Democrats in the Clinton impeachment debate - as it was now the GOP arguing that President Trump was the victim of an unfair and partisan vendetta.
“This is clearly just a political impeachment,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton.
“This is a disgraceful and dishonest process. It is a discredit to this body and to our nation,” argued Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy.
“This isn’t about the rule of law,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville. “It is politics at its worst.”
“We have watched this illegitimate impeachment process unfold while making a mockery of our constitutional duties,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green.
Like Clinton, Trump will forever be impeached
President Clinton was not removed from office by a Senate trial, but is forever only the second president in history to be impeached.
President Trump is now the third and Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that is something that will follow him throughout history.
”He just got impeached. He’ll be impeached forever. No matter what the Senate does. He’s impeached forever because he violated our Constitution,” she said.
“If I did nothing else, he saw the power of the gavel there,” Pelosi told the AP. “And it wasn’t me, it was all of our members making their own decision.”
Speaker Pelosi has not indicated yet whether she will send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which means she could deny President Trump a likely acquittal by the Republican-controlled chamber.
President Trump railed behind closed doors about Pelosi’s decision to delay sending articles of impeachment to the Republican-controlled Senate, putting an expected trial in limbo.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump GOP ally, emerged from a White House meeting with the president with a message.
“He is demanding his day in court,” Graham said in an interview on Fox News Channel. “I just left President Trump. He’s mad as hell that they would do this to him and now deny him his day in court.” The White House did not immediately respond to questions about his account.
Trump has seen a Senate trial as his means for vindication, viewing acquittal as a partial antidote to impeachment’s mark on his legacy. But that effort has been threatened by Pelosi’s decision to delay sending the articles approved by the House Wednesday to the Senate until, she says, Republican leaders offer more details about how they will handle an expected trial.
Democrats do not have enough votes in the GOP-controlled Senate to convict Trump and remove him from office, but have been pushing for a trial to include witnesses who declined to appear during House committee hearings, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
Trump, meanwhile, has been hoping the trial will serve as an opportunity for vindication, and continues to talk about parading his own witness list, including former Vice President and 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden, even though there is little appetite for that among Senate leaders.
There is no constitutional requirement for the Democrats to transmit the articles swiftly, or at all.
What a difference 21 years makes
In 1998, Ohio Republicans made a much different case against President Clinton that the one made against President Trump.
During the Clinton impeachment, current Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was a U.S. senator and voted to convict the president.
“How can we allow a man who has obstructed justice and committed perjury to remain as the chief law enforcement officer of our country? How can we call ourselves a nation of laws and leave a man in office who has flouted those laws?” DeWine said in his official statement then.
“In our constitutional democracy, no one, not even the President, is above the law,” said former Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., using a phrase - ‘above the law’ - which was employed dozens of times by Democrats in the Trump impeachment debate.
In late December 1998, the House ultimately approved two articles of impeachment against President Clinton, who was acquitted in a Senate trial early the next year.
If his case ever makes it to the Senate, that same type of outcome is expected to be repeated in early 2020 for President Trump, who also faces two articles of impeachment.
“I will listen to the evidence and weigh the facts of the case before coming to any decision,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. “I urge my colleagues, of both parties, to do the same.”
In the end, there was one remark from an Ohio lawmaker which was not repeated in the Trump impeachment debate, as few could ever duplicate the verbal performances of Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Youngstown), the colorful Ohio Democrat who was later expelled from the House after a corruption conviction.
Arguing for censure, Traficant said in 1998 that Clinton’s failings were more personal in nature, and not a crime against the country.
“Mr. Speaker, an impeachable offense should be one that threatens liberty, not chastity.”
One big difference
When President Clinton was impeached, he was already in his second term. President Trump’s impeachment comes in the middle of a campaign for re-election in 2020.
The president’s approval rating has largely remained unchanged during the impeachment inquiry, his personality and populism helping cement his hold with supporters.
Extraordinary polarization around impeachment is not new, but the fierce partisanship this time has been heightened by a unique aspect of this moment: Trump is standing for reelection, while Clinton and Nixon were halfway through their second terms when they faced the threat of impeachment.
The outcome of that election may alter how Trump’s impeachment is ultimately remembered.
“Donald Trump is now going to be synonymous with impeachment. There is no way to market it like a badge of honor. It’s a medallion of shame,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University.
“But if he wins, the impeachment looks somewhat smaller. It means he defied it and remade the modern Republican Party in his own image and kept them loyal.”
Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press contributed to this report.
You can hear our Washington Insider Jamie Dupree’s reports from the nation’s capital daily on 1290 and 95.7 WHIO
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