Remember how you were just saying the other day that you enjoyed the Clinton impeachment so much you wanted to live through it again, and the only thing that would make it more fun is if everybody switched sides this time around?
Wait, you mean you weren’t saying that? Well, too bad, because that’s what is going to happen.
Michael Cohen has ratted out Donald Trump and admitted to paying off porn star Stormy Daniels to cover up her tryst with Trump. The most important thing is that he says the payoff was made at Trump’s “direction” and “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” That makes it a campaign finance law violation, and it makes Trump complicit. And that has Democrats now howling for impeachment.
If any of this sounds familiar, consider the parallels to the Clinton impeachment, as I laid them out earlier this year. Everything looks pretty much the same as 1998, but with Republican and Democrat partisans on the exact opposite sides from where they were 20 years ago.
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, or 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 is 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 — and as Andrew McCarthy points out, avoiding disclosure was the whole point of Cohen’s payoff.
Why is this important? Remember that 2016 was a very close election, in which President Trump won with millions fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. What would have happened if some of his voters had stayed home in states that tipped the balance in the Electoral College? Trump’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania, for example, was less than 50,000 votes. Would they have still turned out if they had known the full truth about his lurid sex life? We’ll never know, and that’s kind of the point. 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 related directly to 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 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 petty witch hunt into the president’s private life.
It’s just that the two parties have traded places, so that everyone can look totally dishonest and hypocritical.
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, 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, 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 to 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 here we go again. Enjoy the long, drawn out sex scandal and impeachment attempt that is headed our way. You asked for it.