As Washington Democrats are beginning to talk about impeaching President Donald Trump, many of the party’s leaders in Congress are saying it’s far too early — in large part because many of them watched the process turn sour for Republicans during the Clinton years.
While progressives and a few Democratic members of Congress are embracing the subject, including Rep. Al Green, who hosted a town hall in his Texas district to discuss impeachment this weekend, most congressional Democrats are still fervently hanging on to the emergency brake.
“I remember back then thinking that impeachment proceedings against President Clinton were ridiculous. And I thought, and many on our side thought, that it [was] part of dirty politics, political ploy,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel told BuzzFeed News. “And so I really think that impeachment really comes as a last resort, not a first resort.”
Leadership in particular has held on tightly to a message that it is too early for impeachment talk (although Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, did recently say, “members can come to their own conclusions”).
“I think some people recognized that Republicans overreached and it blew back [on] them,” said Scott Mulhauser, a longtime senior Democratic aide in the Senate, of Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment. (Clinton was technically impeached by the House, sending the case to the Senate, which acquitted him a few months later in early 1999.)
Mulhauser noted, however, that Trump’s situation is different than Clinton’s, and “impeachment proponents clearly believe the bigger and more significant issues at play make this demonstrably different.”
“I think the facts are very different in this situation involving a foreign country. This is of major proportion,” Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur told BuzzFeed News.
Through their experience with Clinton’s impeachment, Democrats gained insight into the process. Among their takeaways was learning how easily impeachment can attain a partisan air.
“I think you can get caught up in the hysteria of the moment … runaway horses, you know, you get caught up in that,” New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican who voted with Democrats against Clinton’s impeachment, told BuzzFeed News. “I felt strongly that the allegations against the president did not involve abuse of his office and were not the types of high crimes and misdemeanors that were contemplated in the constitution.”
King said there’s no evidence against Trump yet: ”You hope that people learn from history, and to me, impeachment is such a drastic step.”
Clinton’s impeachment was not viewed favorably by the public. In the 1998 midterm elections (when the president’s party has historically lost seats in all but a handful of elections), Democrats actually gained five seats in the House and held steady in the Senate in what was widely viewed as a rebuke to the GOP’s push for impeachment. Just a month later, House Republicans voted to impeach the president on two counts.
“The impeachment of President Clinton helped President Clinton’s party very substantially. [Republican Rep. James] Rogan and I had adjoining districts [in California], people thought I was more vulnerable, he’s not here anymore,” Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman told BuzzFeed News, referring to the post-impeachment 2000 election, in which Democrats gained one House seat overall and another four in the Senate.
Many Democrats say they are trying to avoid the appearance of a witch hunt by not calling for impeachment prior to an investigation. And as the minority party, they recognize that they cannot move ahead with impeachment without Republican support anyway. Calling for impeachment too early could alienate GOP allies on impeachment down the road, should investigators uncover more serious wrongdoing.
When asked why he and his colleagues hesitate to call for impeachment now, Sherman used the same line many of his colleagues do: “We don’t have the facts.”
“I got a lot of friends who would have impeached Trump Nov. 8th just because of how he comported himself in the campaign,” Sherman said. “If it seems like that’s what we’re doing, just responding negatively to what he said in the campaign, we’re going to make Trump voters, who already think they’re being looked down on and dismissed, think that they’re being looked down on and dismissed. You want to build a case step by step that the whole country can agree on.”
Reflecting on the Clinton impeachment, California Rep. Anna Eshoo said that Congress has to be careful before dragging the American public through that kind of fight again. “There of course is a political fallout associated with [impeachment], but in my mind, number one, having experienced it, is that impeachment tears the country apart. It tears the country apart,” Eshoo said. “So there really has to be an assurance to the American people that there are grounds for impeachment, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Currently, both the House and Senate Intelligence committees, both chambers’ Judiciary committees, the House Oversight Committee, and the FBI with the help of a newly appointed special counsel are investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.
In the meantime, Democrats continue to call for an independent commission to investigate as well, similar to the 9/11 commission. So far Republican support for that idea has been scarce.
“Well, you can’t even talk about impeachment until you have a serious investigation. The House was handed the multi— you know, whatever, you know, tens of millions of dollars that Ken Starr spent putting together, essentially, an indictment that was extensively researched. And they used that,” Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio told BuzzFeed News, referencing Starr’s probe into Whitewater, which ultimately led to Clinton’s impeachment. “At the moment, we have no indictable materials available to us because there have been no investigations.”
When it comes to Trump, the chatter about causes for impeachment has been disjointed, with Democrats on and off Capitol Hill pointing to everything from his firing of FBI Director James Comey to his travel ban, one of his administration’s first initiatives. Even the few Democrats who have called for impeachment have not decided on an avenue to follow.
“My god. If I wasn’t bald to start off with, I’d — every day there’s another reason for clumps of hair to fall out,” Sherman said. “What can I say? I think there’s more reason to impeach Trump today than there was to impeach Clinton then. But that isn’t saying we should — I phrase that very carefully, there was no reason to impeach Clinton back then.”