Jan 26, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Impeachment: Then & now

Illustration of an old black and white television set with a peach on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We are living in a measurably different political and media landscape than when the Senate acquitted President Bill Clinton of impeachment charges in 1999.

The big picture: These dynamics are setting the pace as President Trump’s legal team speeds through arguments to seek a fast acquittal.

  • “We didn't have to contend with social media, cable news and the deep partisan divide to the extent it exists today," Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader in 1999, tells Axios.

Why it matters: What happens may shape how Americans view future impeachments.

  • The White House team kept Saturday’s arguments around two hours — after Trump vented about poor weekend TV ratings.

Some other ways Trump's 2020 impeachment backdrop differed from Clinton's in 1999:

Political power:

Then: Democratic president, Republican Senate, Republican House.

Now: Republican president, Republican Senate, Democratic House.

Setting the rules:

Then: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Daschle negotiated ground rules for the trial.

  • "We worked together closely during the entire impeachment period. That set the tone and allowed us to complete our work successfully," Daschle told Axios by email, calling their relationship “excellent.”
  • The Senate approved the rules 100-0.

Now: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer briefly met before the start of the trial, but talks failed once McConnell knew he had the votes to pass his resolution without Democrats.

  • "McConnell decided early on that he wanted no part of making this bipartisan," a person close to Schumer told Axios. "And that made it quite difficult for him to negotiate."
  • The rules were approved along party lines, with a vote of 53-47.

White House defense:

Then: Former Sen. Dale Bumpers represented Clinton: “You pick your own adjective to describe the president's conduct. Here are some that I would use: indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless. I promise you the president would not contest any of those or any others.”

  • The White House legal team turned over 90,000 documents, and key witnesses and Clinton himself testified before the trial.

Now: White House counsel Pat Cipollone told Senators on Saturday it would be “a completely irresponsible abuse of power” to convict Trump. Trump has long insisted his call with Ukrainian President Zelensky — around which the articles of impeachment are built — was “perfect.”

  • The White House repeatedly ignored requests for documents, asserted executive privilege to block key witnesses and Trump has not testified.

Senate partisanship:

Then: Vice President Al Gore broke ties in the Senate four times over eight years.

Now: Three years into the Trump presidency, Vice President Mike Pence has had to break ties 13 times.

  • The Senate of the 116th Congress has had no 100-0 votes thus far.
  • There were 167 attempted cloture votes in 2017–2018.
  • The average Democrat in Congress has become more liberal and the average Republican more conservative since 1999, as shown by Vote View data.

What to watch: Per Daschle: “How the Senate conducts itself, how the President will act upon his inevitable acquittal, and how it will affect future respect for the rule of law are questions about which all Americans should be concerned."

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