There are no good outcomes: Thoughts on Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and impeachment

January 31, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 31, 2020

Author’s note: This post contains brief references to sexual assault and suicide. MEM

Over the years, I’ve come to believe something that I suspected but tried to suppress at the time: That Bill Clinton disgraced and endangered his office of the presidency by conducting an extramarital affair in the White House and then lying about it under oath.

The affair displayed bad judgment on a number of levels, not least because it potentially exposed him to blackmail. The perjury ultimately cost Clinton his ability to serve as a lawyer (although he hadn’t practiced in years). Shortly before Clinton left office, Robert Ray, the special counsel who succeeded Kenneth Starr, announced that the president has surrendered his Arkansas law license for five years and accepted a $25,000 fine.

As Starr’s investigation and impeachment effort proceeded throughout 1998 and into 1999, I generally scoffed at the Republican endeavor to remove Clinton from office. The Grand Old Party had always despised “Slick Willie,” a hatred that prompted Hillary Clinton to coin the infamous phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Right-wing nuts and grifters — it was hard to think of them in any other way — had spent years accusing Clinton of committing sexual assault, exploiting a savings and loan association to salvage what turned out to be a bad investment in the Whitewater Development Corp., facilitating international arms and drug smuggling through an airport in Mena, Ark.; and killing a high-level White House attorney.

There were degrees of truth to some of these allegations, and efforts to muddy the waters about the rest. Clinton may indeed have raped Juanita Broaddrick in 1978; some of the other accusations might be overblown. Fishy and illegal acts definitely occurred with Whitewater and Madison Guaranty, but Bill and Hillary Clinton were never charged with wrongdoing in the case, despite extensive investigations. (Questions about Whitewater led Starr to uncover the then-president’s illicit affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.) There was illegal activity at Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, but again, the Clintons were never charged. The available public evidence shows that deputy White House counsel Vince Foster died by his own hand, but there was certainly a vigorous effort to convince people otherwise.

One reason I think I didn’t want to see Clinton expelled from the presidency was that I didn’t want to see those people win. By “those people,” naturally, I meant the conspiracy mongers who displayed as little or less regard for morality and truthfulness as the president they vilified. I also meant more generally Republican politicians. I saw them using dirty tricks without hesitation (see Lee Atwater) while hypocritically portraying themselves as guardians of family and the flag. I also believed that they prioritized cutting taxes while disdaining to render any assistance or offer any protection to the poor, the working class and the environment.

Perhaps Clinton should have been removed from office; he was not. And we were treated this week to 20-year-old video clips of Democrats like current Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and two current House impeachment managers, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, arguing against the Clinton impeachment. (See page S626 of this PDF transcript of the Jan. 28 Senate proceedings.)

If Clinton had been convicted and removed from office, the Republicans and the conspiracy mongers would have had their scalp. Clinton wasn’t removed, and the Democrats saw their own words turned against them. There are no good outcomes.

If Clinton had been removed, might Democrats have tried to impeach George W. Bush? Perhaps, perhaps not; certainly many congressional Democrats voted to give Bush the authority to prosecute the disastrous war of choice in Iraq.

If Clinton had been removed, might Republicans have tried to impeach Barack Obama? Almost certainly, I suspect.

Donald Trump will not be convicted and removed from office by this group of senators; we knew that even before the House voted on impeachment.

If he were, Republicans would cry foul. Republicans, in fact, have cried foul for months now. They’ve complained about secret proceedings and unfair proceedings and incomplete proceedings and proceedings that were both conducted too quickly and not quickly enough.

And listen to how Pat Cipollone, White House counsel, described impeachment on Thursday (page S700; PDF):

We have never been in a situation where we have the impeachment of a President in an election year with the goal of removing the President from the ballot. As I have said before, that is the most massive election interference we have ever witnessed. It is domestic election interference; it is political election interference; and it is wrong.

They don’t talk about the horrible consequences to our country of doing that, but they would be terrible. They would tear us apart for generations, and the American people wouldn’t accept it.

It’s nonsense to characterize impeachment as election interference when the president in question is charged with abusing his office and breaking the law to solicit foreign election interference. But Cipollone is at least partly right on one count: Conviction and removal would tear America apart for years, if not necessarily generations.

With tongue partly in cheek, I speculated one week ago about what would happen to Donald Trump and his family and top officials if he were removed from office. What I didn’t write about was what would happen to our society. To wit, there would be political violence. We would see more extremists like Cesar Sayoc target more Democratic politicians and more newspapers and TV networks and websites, which — thanks to hopelessly biased far-right media like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Fox News — they view as hopelessly biased far-left media programs.

Of this prediction of violence, I have no doubt. I think we might have seen it had Hillary Clinton won the electoral college in 2016.

Ah, but let’s return to reality. We won’t see violence in the wake of Trump’s conviction, of course; not now, and probably not even if he’s re-elected in November. There simply aren’t enough Republican senators willing to break party ranks to vote against the presidents, and there may not be when the new group of senators are seated.

And so what will happen? We’ll see Trump and his supporters gloat. We’ll see the president and his administration act as they please, adamantly resisting all congressional oversight. Further down the road, we’ll see other presidents exploit the expanded powers of their office.

Violence on the one hand; an imperial president who can’t be held accountable for his actions on the other. There are no good outcomes.

Benjamin Franklin famously remarked that the Constitution would enact “A republic, if you can keep it.” It’s slipping away as we speak.

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