1999 vs. 2019: Senate Republicans’ attitudes on impeachment sure have changed a lot

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) arrives for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” on July 23, 2019.  | Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Senate Republicans have very different takes on impeaching Trump versus impeaching Clinton.

In 1999, Senate Republicans were eager to condemn Bill Clinton for his abuse of the presidential office. But 20 years later, they’re giving President Donald Trump a lot more breathing room.

Fourteen current members of the Senate were serving in Congress during Clinton’s impeachment proceedings — and at least 10 are striking an entirely different tone with their approach to Trump.

Take Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an outspoken Trump critic turned ally:

  • In 1999: “You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role,” he said about Clinton, who faced charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
  • Today: “Impeachment over this? What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger. Democrats have lost their minds when it comes to President Trump,” he said in a September statement in reaction to a summary the White House released of the call between Trump and Zelensky.

Then there’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, indicting Clinton for lying, but downplaying today’s scandal:

  • In 1999: “The President would seek to win at any cost,” he said, according to Newsweek. “If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his Cabinet. The name of the game was winning. Winning at any cost.”
  • Today: “I’ve read the summary of the call. If this is the ‘launching point’ for House Democrats’ impeachment process, they’ve already overplayed their hand,” he told Politico last month. “It’s clear there is no quid pro quo that the Democrats were desperately praying for.”

And Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who took a principled stance 20 years ago, but argued that the Trump impeachment inquiry was taking away from the ability to do bipartisan work:

  • In 1999: “I choose to be on the side that says no person is above the law,” he said, according to Business Insider.
  • Today: “We have enough problems in Washington, D.C., in working together to get things done,” he told reporters in Topeka.

Graham, McConnell and Moran are far from the only Republican responding to the House inquiry in this way. Others — like Sens. Chuck Grassley and Roger Wicker — also advocated strongly in favor of impeaching Clinton by suggesting that he betrayed the trust of the executive office but have widely criticized House Democrats’ efforts to investigate Trump, even though he’s accused of abusing the power of the office as well.

Their positions, it seems, aren’t founded so much on their interpretation of existing evidence as they are on party allegiances. It’s worth noting that a similar dynamic was present in 1999: Democrats overwhelmingly stood by Clinton.

Republicans in the Senate are broadly denouncing the impeachment inquiry against Trump

Senate Republicans’ change in tone isn’t all that surprising. After all, the impeachment process now concerns a president of their own party and it’s still early in the formal inquiry.

But the marked change in how Republicans are approaching the allegations against Trump highlights how much senators’ partisan affiliations influence their reactions to wrongdoing by the president and how they’ll likely vote on a conviction if the House sends over charges.

Here’s how other still-serving Republican lawmakers responded to both impeachments:

Chuck Grassley

Clinton: “The President’s actions are having a profound impact on our society. His misdeeds have caused many to mistrust elected officials. Cynicism is swelling among the grass roots. His breach of trust has eroded the public’s faith in the office of the Presidency.” (New York Times)

Trump: “Democrats have been searching for any reason to impeach President Trump since his inauguration because they couldn’t accept the results of the 2016 election.”

“This all reeks of hypocrisy considering former Vice President Joe Biden has already said he used his office and taxpayer dollars to pressure Ukraine’s president into taking specific law enforcement actions that directly benefited his son. The attention on unverified reports instead of an on-record admission shows why Americans are so distrustful of politicians and the media.” (Grassley statement)

Susan Collins

Clinton: “I believe that in order to convict, we must conclude from the evidence presented to us with no room for doubt that our Constitution will be injured and our democracy suffer should the President remain in office one moment more.

“In this instance, the claims against the President fail to reach this very high standard. Therefore, albeit reluctantly, I will vote to acquit William Jefferson Clinton on both counts.” (CNN)

Trump: “If there are articles of impeachment I would be a juror just as I was in the trial for President Clinton, and as a juror I think it’s inappropriate for me to reach conclusions about evidence or to comment on the proceedings in the House.” (Bloomberg)

Richard Burr

Clinton: “I believe the facts presented by the judiciary committee prove beyond a reasonable doubt that President Clinton repeatedly lied to a grand jury and encouraged a witness before that grand jury to provide false information. The United States is a nation of laws, not men.” (The Guardian)

Trump: “Don’t expect us to move at light speed — that will probably happen in the House.” (PBS)

James Inhofe

Clinton: “I really believe that the President of the United States should be held to the very highest of standards. You know, Winston Churchill said: ‘Truth is incontrovertible. Ignorance may deride it, panic may resent it, malice may destroy it, but there it is.’ I think we have seen the truth.” (CNN)

Trump: “Democrats have been conducting an impeachment investigation for months, and they’ve been investigating President Trump since he took office. Today’s announcement by Speaker Pelosi, while an escalation of Democrat smear tactics, is nothing new.” (Inhofe statement)

Rob Portman

Clinton: “For myself, I believe the evidence of serious wrongdoing is simply too compelling to be swept aside. I am particularly troubled by the clear evidence of lying under oath in that it must be the bedrock of our judicial system.” (CSPAN)

Trump: “The American people want us to get things done for them rather than focus on more and more partisan investigations. The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry will distract Congress from the bipartisan legislative work we should be doing to find solutions and deliver results for the American people.” (Portman statement)

Pat Roberts

Clinton: “Do these actions rise to the level envisioned by our founding fathers in the Constitution as ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ so warranting removal from office? Our Constitution requires that the threshold for that judgment must be set by each senator sitting as a juror. Again, I believe an open-minded individual applying Kansas common sense would reach the conclusion that I reached.” (CBS News)

Trump: “It’s been a crazy year.” (Wall Street Journal)

“Political theater.” (WOWT News)

Roger Wicker

Clinton: “The rule of law is more important that the tenure in office of any elected official. The facts in this case are not really in dispute. Even some of his most vocal defenders do not deny that this president repeatedly lied under oath. He also obstructed justice and abused his office.” (Daily Journal)

Trump: “The political left has made a bad habit of drawing conclusions about President Trump without knowing all of the facts. It appears they have done so again. The transcript of the President’s phone call provides no evidence of wrongdoing.” (Clarion Ledger)

Mike Crapo

Clinton: “Our entire legal system is dependent on our ability to find the truth. That is why perjury and obstruction of justice are crimes. … Perjury and obstruction of justice are public crimes that strike at the heart of the rule of law — and therefore our freedom — in America.” (Idaho Statesman)

Trump: “I always prefer Congress remain a legislative body that advances legislation to benefit the American people. As to the question of impeachment, our entire legal system is dependent on our ability to find the truth. I will wait for further information regarding the facts of this matter.” (Crapo statement)

Richard Shelby

Clinton: “After reviewing the evidence, I believe that the House managers proved beyond a reasonable doubt that President Clinton obstructed justice. Therefore, I voted for his conviction and removal for the offenses charged in Article II. However, I do not believe that the House managers met the legal requirements of proving perjury beyond a reasonable doubt.” (New York Times)

Trump: “The worst possible precedent…This is not something that Congress necessarily has to have its hands on…What about all the other conversations that the presidents of the United States have with foreign leaders and so forth? A lot of that is not for public consumption, I would imagine.” (The Hill)

Mike Enzi

Clinton: “[Clinton] was intending to influence the testimony of a likely witness in a federal civil rights proceeding.” (CBS News)

Trump: Effectively, no comment. (Wyoming Public Media)

Roy Blunt

Clinton: “No president can be allowed to subvert the judiciary or thwart the investigative responsibility of the legislature. There is clear evidence that President Clinton committed perjury on two or more occasions, and urged others to obstruct justice.” (Congressional Record)

Trump: “I would still anticipate that we are largely going to see a partisan exercise in the House. I believe they have reached a conclusion that a majority of their members, if not all of their members, are ready to move on the impeachment question. And I think they’re likely to do that no matter where the facts lead. But then we’ll see what happens after that.” (St. Louis Public Radio)

John Thune

Clinton: “This is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make in my career, and it is not a decision I enjoy making. However, after much study, much thought and much prayer, I have come to the following conclusion: Either we are a Nation of laws or we are not, and if we are, then those laws have to apply equally to all people.” (Congressional Record)

Trump: “If you’re the leadership over there, you got to think long and hard about what the implications are if it looks like you’re overreaching.” (The Hill)

The GOP, in general, is sticking very close to Trump

Senate Republicans aren’t the only ones who are sticking steadfastly by Trump. Other prominent Republicans who were involved in the Clinton impeachment, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have also strongly pushed back against calls for impeachment.

When Gingrich lead the inquiry against Clinton in 1998, he lamented the “level of disrespect and decadence that should appall every American.” Gingrich emphasized that impeachment “is not about politics,” adding, “I don’t know — and I don’t care — how this ‘strategy’ polls.”

As the pressure has grown on Trump, Gingrich has taken a different tack, dismissing the idea of impeachment as “absurdity” and “hopeless.” During an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Gingrich denounced Democrats’ efforts to impeach Trump as “politically very damaging” and an attempt to pander to partisan extremes.

Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, similarly, has taken to Twitter and argued that Democrats are “hellbent on a rush to impeach” in a “#coup” against Trump. But during the December 1998 Clinton impeachment debates, Brady supported impeachment because, he said, “truth does matter.” Brady insisted, “If it is no longer the duty of the president to tell the truth under sworn oath, can we require it of any American? The answer is no.”

The overall Republican response to impeachment highlights an about-face along partisan lines and underscores how politicized a process impeachment is. It’s also just the latest example of how much lawmakers are eager to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to Trump.

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