If the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s lawyer is about what we think it’s about, that raises an uncomfortable possibility: we could be living through a rerun of the Bill Clinton impeachment crisis.
Some regard the raid on Michael Cohen as an outrageous attempt to breach lawyer-client confidentiality, though there are supposedly safeguards intended to prevent that. To my mind, this is actually the first thing in the Mueller investigation that makes any sense. Cohen’s reported hush money payment to Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, could be considered an illegal (and illegally concealed) campaign contribution, just like the payments made on behalf of John Edwards to his mistress. Far from being an outrageous witch hunt, this is the only really convincing argument I’ve seen so far about a clear-cut crime being uncovered by the Mueller inquiry.
Maybe that isn’t what the raid is about, and there are some indications — this is far too early to take anything at face value — that the investigation may be about another crime unrelated to the Mueller probe. (You don’t think it’s possible that Trump’s lawyer is a little bit crooked, do you?) But if it does turn out to be about Stormy Daniels, consider the parallels to the Clinton impeachment in 1998.
1) A special prosecutor with a broad and vague mandate.
The titles are slightly different — Ken Starr was an “independent counsel,” while Robert Mueller is a “special counsel” — but in both cases, we have a respected federal prosecutor given a broad and vague mandate to investigate past misconduct by the president of the United States. The investigations’ original lines of inquiry (a corrupt real estate deal in Arkansas, collusion with the government of Russia) turn up little that is actionable, but they branch out to dig up something unseemly in the president’s personal life.
2) It involves allegations of genuinely illegal activity.
There is no law saying a president can’t fool around with an intern in the Oval Office. There is a law saying that he can’t lie under oath to a federal investigator, which is what turned the Lewinsky investigation into grounds for impeachment. Similarly, there’s no law saying Donald Trump can’t cheat on his wife with a woman of ill repute, even though it’s a pretty low thing to do. But there are laws about campaign contributions, governing their size and disclosure. We may not agree with all of these laws, but if we give one politician a pass on violating them, then the playing field is not level.
There’s plausible evidence that the payoff to Clifford/Daniels was made by Cohen with the goal of aiding Trump’s campaign, yet it was not disclosed as a contribution. That implicates Cohen, and if Trump was aware of it, that implicated him, too. Moreover, 2016 was a very close election, and it’s quite possible that the Stormy Daniels story, if it had broken then, might have kept enough conservatives at home to tip the outcome. So investigators have no choice but to look seriously at this case, just as they couldn’t give Clinton a mulligan on perjury.
3) But it’s also about a politician’s personal life.
This is the basic tension in both cases. There is a genuine legal issue, yet the underlying action is about a politician cheating on his wife, which is primarily a matter between the two of them. Moreover, that underlying action is not directly related to the core responsibilities of the president.
If Bill Clinton had been caught using the presidency to sell special favors — and I still suspect he did, given how he minted the presidency into a vast fortune after leaving office — that would have been a scandal that tainted how he carried out the duties of the office. The same would be true if Trump is found to be “colluding” with the Russians, though a smoking gun on that issue is looking more and more unlikely.
But if we’re dealing with allegations of a violation of law tied to an underlying action unrelated to the president’s core responsibilities, we have the same ambiguity as in 1998. It’s easy for one political party to insist upon the technicalities of the law and cry for prosecution, while the other party dismisses the whole thing as a hypocritical witch hunt into the president’s private life. It’s just that the two parties have traded places.
4) A political party desperate to reverse the last election.
I remember in 1998 the palpable frustration among Republicans. The Republican Revolution of 1994 had won them control of the House for the first time in decades, and they expected to ride that wave to the White House in 1996. But they elected an uncharismatic, uninspiring candidate (sound familiar?) and Slick Willie narrowly won re-election, and then ran rings around them politically.
In retrospect, this all seems a bit absurd, because Bill Clinton gave Republicans more of their agenda than any other Democratic president in living memory — free trade (back when Republicans were for it), welfare reform, budget surpluses, and so on. It got to the point where Republicans were complaining that Clinton was “stealing our agenda.” But to the political partisan, a public policy win matters less than a political win, and Republicans had tried everything to take Clinton down and failed. So they leaped on the possibility of impeachment.
The same thing goes, possibly with even greater force, for the Democrats and Donald Trump. They revile him and regard him as illegitimate. They entertain conspiracy theories about an election “stolen” by Russian interference. They are in full, panicked emergency mode about his very presence in the White House, but they don’t yet have the ability to check his power. They don’t yet have a congressional majority (though they seem to rent a lot of space in the heads of the Republican congressional leadership), and they are as far away from the next presidential election as Republicans were when they impeached Clinton.
So Democrats are desperate for something that will take down their hated opponent and hopefully damage the reputation of his political party, just as they did with Nixon in 1974. They are likely to be disappointed in that expectation, just as Republicans were in 1998.
5) A bruising battle where nobody really wins.
Who won the Clinton impeachment crisis? Bill Clinton remained in office, but was politically damaged, a cloud that still hung over his wife in the last election. The Republican Congress lost the battle for public opinion, squandered whatever reforming zeal was left over from 1994, and suffered a lot of collateral damage to its own leadership. Republicans lost two Speakers of the House, first Newt Gingrich and then Bob Livingston, when it turned out that the guys throwing stones on marital infidelity were living in glass houses. We ended up with a new speaker named Dennis Hastert, because he couldn’t possibly be involved in a sex scandal.
And what about the American people, who were subjected to a year of uncomfortably minute examination of Bill Clinton’s sex life? In retrospect, we should have been paying more attention to a pesky Islamic extremist all the way out in Afghanistan named Osama bin Laden. Sure, he blew up a couple of our embassies in Africa, but we weren’t going to let that “wag the dog” and distract us from impeaching Bill Clinton.
6) Everybody is to blame.
If we’re about to repeat this whole saga, who is blame? Pretty much everyone, just like last time.
Donald Trump is to blame for being a notorious womanizer and hiring an unscrupulous lawyer. His voters are to blame for selecting him over less scandal-prone alternatives. The Democrats are to blame for nominating the only candidate less appealing than Trump, and then for indulging unrealistic fantasies about reversing the last election. The media, both the mainstream media and its alternatives on the right, are to blame for focusing on the sensational over the substantive. And we, the American voters, are to blame for letting our politics get this appallingly stupid.
So enjoy the long, drawn out Stormy Daniels sex scandal that is headed our way. We asked for it.