Editor’s Note: This is the third of a four-part series by renowned public policy scholar Michael Christensen placing the impeachment of Donald Trump into historical context. Part 3 focuses on the impeachment of Bill Clinton; Part 4 will provide observations and describe what history teaches about the Trump impeachment. (See parts one, two and four.)
William Jefferson Clinton Impeachment: 1989-1996
William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton was born August 19, 1946, to a single mom. His mother moved to New Orleans to study nursing and left her son to be raised by her parents who owned a small grocery store in Hope Arkansas. His mother returned from nursing school in 1950 and married Roger Clinton who co-owned a car dealership in Hot Springs Arkansas to where the family moved. Though he took his stepfather’s last name, Clinton described him as a gambler, alcoholic, and spouse abuser. He graduated from Georgetown University and received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford College where he attended, but did not graduate.
In 1973 he received a law degree from Yale University. Two years later he married Hillary Rodham whom he met at Yale. Always deeply interested in politics, he was elected Arkansas Attorney General in 1976. Two years later, he became Governor of Arkansas at age 31. Clinton lost his re-election bid in 1980 (two-year terms for governors then), but regained the office in 1982 and served there for 10 years. Then in 1992, he ran for president of the United States defeating President George H.W. Bush. He won reelection in 1998.
Origins of Impeachment: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp
In the second year of his presidency, Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee, filed a lawsuit against Clinton alleging he sexually harassed her during his governorship. Clinton denied the accusation and asked the federal court handling the case to delay the trial until after he left the White House. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court in Clinton v. Jones gave permission for the case to proceed.
That same year, another threat to Clinton’s presidency began to brew. Linda Tripp, a federal employee, had been secretly recording conservations between her and her friend, Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern. In those telephone conversations, Lewinsky discussed a sexual relationship she had with President Clinton in the West Wing. Tripp shared this information with attorneys representing Paula Jones. They quickly placed Lewinsky on their witness list.
News articles started appearing in early 1998 alleging the affair. President Clinton strongly denied them saying, “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He immediately began trying to conceal this relationship by suggesting to Lewinsky she file a false affidavit and telling her to conceal gifts he had given her.
Origins of Impeachment: Paula Jones Grand Jury
To counter the growing stories, Clinton agreed to give a sworn deposition in the Jones case wherein he stated that he did not have a sexual relationship with Lewinsky or was ever alone with her. Seven months later Clinton testified before a second federal grand jury which had been requested by Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. The Whitewater scandal was a financial debacle involving the Clintons that occurred in Arkansas while Clinton was governor. In this second federal grand jury, the president finally admitted that he did have a relationship with Lewinsky that was “wrong” and “not appropriate” without ever describing the details of his actions.
Impeachment in the House of Representatives
Hearing enough, the House of Representatives on October 8, voted to begin impeachment proceedings. Four articles of impeachment were introduced, Articles I and III passed by majority vote, II and IV did not. Article I accused the president of lying to a grand jury about the nature of his relationship with Miss Lewinsky, prior false statements he made in the Jones deposition, prior false statements he allowed his lawyer to make characterizing Lewinsky’s affidavit, and attempts at witness tampering.[i]
Article III accused Clinton of obstruction of justice in the Jones case by encouraging Lewinsky to file a false affidavit and to give false testimony, concealing gifts he had given to Lewinsky, attempting to secure a job for Lewinsky, permitting his lawyer to make false statements characterizing Lewinsky’s affidavit, attempting to tamper with the possible testimony of his secretary, and making false and misleading statements to potential grand jury witnesses. Then just before Christmas, the House voted to impeach President Clinton on the two articles. The vote in the House of Representatives was: Perjury to a grand jury - 228-206; Obstruction of justice - 221-212.
Trial in the Senate
On January 7, 1999, the Senate trial began with Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding. The Republican House managers presented their case arguing that the evidence showed “willful, premeditated, deliberate corruption of the nation’s system of justice through perjury and obstruction of justice.”[ii] The defense argued that the case the prosecution presented was “an unsubstantiated, circumstantial case that does not meet the constitutional standard to remove a President from office.”[iii]
From February 1st to the 3rd, the House managers showed videotapes in a closed-door deposition from Monica Lewinsky and others. The Senate voted 70-30 that the tapes were sufficient and calling witnesses not necessary. Each side was allowed three hours for closing arguments. The next day the Senate held a closed-door meeting. On February 12th, they held an open vote on the charges. Conviction required 67 votes. On the perjury charge the vote was 45 guilty and 55 not guilty. On the obstruction of justice charge the vote was 50 guilty and 50 not guilty. Neither article came close to the two-thirds majority needed for conviction.
Where was the Public on Impeachment?
Unlike President Nixon, President Clinton had a job approval rating that remained consistently high during the impeachment process. From December 1997 through March 1999, Clinton’s job approval rating varied between a high of 71 percent and a low of 56 percent. After the impeachment process had ended, his job approval rating stood at 62 percent. The public simply showed little support for the president’s impeachment. Roughly 7 in 10 Americans opposed impeachment through 1998. Only after Clinton had been acquitted in March of 1999 did opposition to impeachment drop below 70 percent.
Dr. Michael Christensen is the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Scholar in Residence. Dr. Christensen has spent over 35 years in the public policy arena. He served as Governor Norm Bangerter’s deputy director of the Office of Planning and Budget and State Planning Coordinator. He then directed the Utah Foundation, a private-public policy think tank, for nine years authoring over 100 papers. He was an editor and/or co-author of two books: “State and Local Government in Utah” and “Financing Government in Utah.” From 2000 until his retirement in 2017, he worked for the Utah Legislature as director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. He holds bachelors and masters degrees from Utah State University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah.
[i] Wikipedia, “impeachment of Bill Clinton”, the text of Article I.
[ii] Wikipedia, “Impeachment of Bill Clinton”, section “Trial in the Senate”.
[iii] Wikipedia, “Impeachment of Bill Clinton”, the text of Article I, endnote 26.