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12 Details from the Clinton Impeachment Trial That You Should Know

There were votes, speeches, and quirky moments that help understand what is happening today with President Trump.
January 21, 2020
12 Details from the Clinton Impeachment Trial That You Should Know
The more things change . . . (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

One of the consolations of aging is that the longer you live, the more history you know, just because you’ve endured more of it. And every once in a while some bits of historical trivia composting in your memory become relevant. This winter, people over the age of 35 may find themselves reminiscing about early 1999—when You’ve Got Mail was still in theaters, when the new Britney Spears album was on its way to going platinum fourteen times over, and when the U.S. Senate last sat as a court of presidential impeachment.

Tens of millions of Americans who will watch the Trump impeachment trial are too young to have any personal recollection of what happened in the Clinton trial. And even for politics mavens old enough to have closely followed the Clinton trial as it happened, a lot of colorful details may have faded and blurred with time.

So to prepare for the impeachment trial about to start, let’s warm up the VCR, crank the dial-up modem over to AOL, and take a look at some of what happened last time around.

1. There was an early push to cut the trial short.

In the days before the Clinton impeachment trial began, some senators wanted to find a way to expedite the whole process, and especially to avert the spectacle of witnesses testifying in the Senate. Two moderate senators—Slade Gorton of Washington and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut—floated a plan for an abbreviated trial. Here’s how Lieberman, a Democrat, recently recalled their idea:

My Republican colleague and friend Slade Gorton of Washington and I, both former state attorneys general, simultaneously reached out to each other and began to draft a proposal for a trial in which the House managers and the president would each be given ample opportunity to present their case and answer questions and then the Senate would vote whether to begin a full trial. In effect, it would be a vote on a motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment. If that motion passed, as we expected it would, the Senate would proceed to consider a motion to censure President Clinton.

The Republican impeachment “managers” from the House were adamant about wanting witnesses, and enough Senate Republicans agreed with them that the “Gorton-Lieberman plan” failed.

2. The Senate huddled in private to settle on rules for the trial.

In 2020, as in 1999, Republicans are in the majority in the Senate. But the party dynamics are otherwise very different. Democrats control the House now. Today’s impeached president is of the same party as the Senate majority. And there is even less comity in the Senate today than there was in the already intensely partisan 1990s.

Which makes the Senate bipartisanship of 1999 all the more striking. Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle were, Peter Baker writes, “determined to work together to ensure a smoother, less polarized process” than the House had seen in impeaching Clinton. As part of that push for bipartisanship, the morning after the impeachment trial kicked off, the Senate gathered for a two-hour closed-door discussion—not in a formal session—in the rarely used, crimson-draped Old Senate Chamber to settle on the trial rules.

The private meeting served its purpose: Later that day, the Senate agreed on initial rules for the impeachment trial in a 100 to 0 vote.

3. Some senators snoozed.

The Clinton impeachment trial dragged on for weeks, and parts of it were incredibly boring and repetitive. While a few senators—including Joe Biden—kept busy taking notes, others, unaccustomed to hours of enforced silence, nodded off.

But don’t expect to see footage of senators napping, either from 1999 or 2020. The cameras shooting the Trump impeachment trial will be controlled by the Senate, as they were in 1999, so you will only get to see whoever is speaking at any given moment, with occasional wide shots of the chamber.

4. A precedent for Ken Starr.

President Trump has selected as part of his legal team Ken Starr, the former federal judge who was the independent counsel leading the Clinton-era investigations and prosecutions. Starr’s team assembled the evidence that formed the basis of the case for Clinton’s impeachment. His presence on Trump’s team is partly intended, we can presume, to send a signal that the evidence in today’s case is on the side of the defense.

Something very similar happened in 1999: President Clinton selected Charles Ruff as one of the leaders of his impeachment-trial defense team. Two decades earlier, Ruff had been the last of the special prosecutors investigating Watergate. He proved a capable advocate for Clinton.

 5. Senators are not jurors.

On January 15, 1999, Representative Bob Barr, one of the House managers, referred to the senators as “the distinguished jurors in this case.”

In one of the odder moments of the impeachment trial, Senator Tom Harkin rose to object, making the case that the senators were more than merely jurors. Chief Justice Rehnquist, who presided over the impeachment trial, agreed with Harkin, and instructed Barr “to refrain from referring to senators as jurors.”

6. The House managers were a mixed bag.

For the Clinton impeachment trial, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde allowed an unwieldy dozen other members of the committee join him as impeachment managers. Some of these congressmen carefully prepared and delivered effective presentations. Lindsey Graham (now a senator), Asa Hutchinson (now the governor of Arkansas), and Jim Rogan (now a state superior court judge in Orange County, California) were each very strong.

Other members should not have been selected to be managers at all. Some of them gave remarks that repeated the facts—and even recycled the jokes—of their colleagues. One manager, Bob Barr, was in those days seen as the sort of conservative firebrand that Democrats despise and the kind of brawling representative that senators despise, so Hyde had to relegate him to less prominent speaking slots. Another of the managers, George Gekas, was prone to rambling divagations when speaking without a script, as in these pointless remarks intended to help wrap up the managers’ case:

A footnote: For a few days, Clinton’s lawyers and advisers tried to bring three Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee to join the president’s defense team in the Senate. This attempt—which would have set two teams of House members to clash during the impeachment trial—was quashed by Senator Robert Byrd, who considered it a break with precedent and a violation of the spirit of the design of the impeachment process. But President Trump has decided to add eight of his most avid House Republican defenders to his Senate trial team, although it is not yet clear in what capacity.

7. The president delivered a State of the Union address in the middle of his impeachment trial.

On the night of January 19, 1999, President Clinton drove down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to deliver the State of the Union address. The previous year, he had delivered the annual address less than two weeks after the news of the Lewinsky scandal first emerged in the press. Now, a year later, he returned to give the address while he was on trial. Both speeches and the receptions they received were deeply weird—precisely because they were so normal, as if the scandal and impeachment hadn’t happened at all.

At least one Republican senator—Jeff Sessions—had unsuccessfully made the case that Clinton shouldn’t be invited to deliver the 1999 address in person but should be forced to submit it in writing.

Chief Justice Rehnquist did not attend the 1999 address.

President Trump’s next State of the Union address is currently scheduled for February 4, 2020.

8. Senators asked questions in writing—but the questioning was coordinated behind the scenes.

Each side in the Clinton impeachment trial presented its case over three days. Then, on January 21 and 22, 1999, the House managers and the Clinton defense team took questions from the senators. These questions were handwritten on slips of paper that were hand-delivered to Chief Justice Rehnquist, who then read them aloud.

Although it seemed like the questions might really have been coming from the senators, in fact, much of the questioning was scripted. As Peter Baker reported:

A day or two before the question session was to begin, binders of 179 proposed questions were left in the Republican cloakroom with spaces for senators to fill in their names of they wanted to “ask” any of them. . . . Aides quietly steered many of the questions most likely to be asked to . . . fence-sitting moderates, hoping to make sure they felt involved.

The Democrats were going through a similar process. . . . The Democratic lawyers settled on what they called a “Bill Walsh strategy”—just as the famed San Francisco 49ers football coach would script out his first ten plays and call subsequent ones depending on how the game was going, they determined their first ten questions and would then leave things open to improvisation.

In at least one case, Chief Justice Rehnquist misread the handwriting on a question card, substituting the word “confession” for “concession,” which led to this awkward, funny exchange with House manager Asa Hutchinson.

9. The Senate considered a motion to dismiss the case against President Clinton.

After the questions phase of the impeachment trial, Senator Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.) moved that the impeachment case be dismissed immediately, without even voting on the articles of impeachment.

After considering his motion for two days, the Senate voted against Byrd’s motion to dismiss the case (by 56-44, almost entirely along party lines). And even though the Senate also voted that day to permit the House managers to have witnesses testify, it was generally understood from those votes that the trial’s conclusion was inevitable: Clinton would not be convicted.

10. Three witnesses testified in the impeachment trial, but not in person in the Senate.

Just as is 2020, the House managers in 1999 clashed with the Senate over whether witnesses should be called to testify in the impeachment trial, and if so, how many. There was certainly historical precedent for witnesses: During the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, more than 40 witnesses had testified in the Senate.

In 1999, the House managers, after deciding not to attempt to compel President Clinton to testify, settled on three witnesses. But those witnesses did not come in person to the Senate chamber. They were interrogated on videotape, taking questions from House managers, with their own lawyers and President Clinton’s lawyers presents, in depositions presided over by senators.

Video snippets from the three depositions were then played in the Senate trial, but since they did not add in any meaningful way to the evidentiary record, their effect on the case was minimal.

11. The senators held their final debates behind closed doors.

For four days, the senators met in private. They each had the opportunity to speak for fifteen minutes to explain their reasoning about whether or not to convict President Clinton. The senators took turns, alternating between Democrats and Republicans.

Although there is no video or audio recording of these closed-door sessions, we have a sense of what many of the members said—or wished they had said—in the form of an official Senate volume of statements the senators wanted in the public record.

12. One senator tried to vote neither “guilty” nor “not guilty” on the impeachment charges.

On February 12, 1999, during the final vote on the two articles of impeachment against President Clinton, when each senator’s name was called, he or she responded by saying “Guilty” or “Not guilty”—all except for Senator Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.), who said “Not proved, therefore not guilty.”

“My position in the matter,” Specter explained, “is that the case has not been proved. I have gone back to Scottish law where there are three verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proved. I am not prepared to say on this record that President Clinton is not guilty. But I am certainly not prepared to say that he is guilty. There are precedents for a Senator voting present. I hope that I will be accorded the opportunity to vote ‘not proved’ in this case.”

But as Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Senate parliamentarian confirmed, any vote other than an affirmatively guilty vote would not count toward the necessary two-thirds majority, and so—symbolism aside—Specter’s vote would have the effect of counting as a vote of not guilty.

Adam Keiper

Adam Keiper is executive editor of The Bulwark. He is a senior editor of The New Atlantis, which he co-founded and edited for many years, and a contributing editor to National Affairs and American Purpose.