Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Okay, children, pull up a chair. Uncle Paul is going to teach you how to win an impeachment fight.
I did not go into government service to become an expert on impeachment, but as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded us, there are moments in history when the times find us. And in 1998 the times found me.
A quick recap, for those who weren’t yet born: Bill Clinton invested in a land deal in Arkansas. He lost money. Republicans being Republicans, they thought this was scandalous, so they investigated. And investigated. For years. The whole thing eventually ran out of gas. But then a woman secretly taped her friend talking about an affair she was having with the President. Gave it to the special prosecutor, who salivated all over it, because, obviously, extramarital sex has a lot to do with a failed land deal.
The press got wind of it, Clinton lied about it, and the Republicans filed articles of impeachment because, let’s face it, Republicans cannot countenance infidelity, and they really hate lying — even about an affair. The story has a happy ending. Clinton confessed, apologized tearfully, and got back to work. When he left office two years later, he had the highest job approval of any departing president.
Times are different now, and so is the Trump impeachment inquiry. But the strategy we in the White House employed to rescue Clinton might also work for President Donald Trump. I offer it because: 1) It is useful to recall how a well-run White House dealt with a crisis; 2) The Trumpsters are probably too stupid, egotistical and gutless to actually take my advice. So here goes.
Shut up. That’s the first thing. Shut the heck up. I mean it. Especially you, Donald. Didn’t Roy Cohn ever teach you to keep your big mouth shut? The more Trump talks, the more he confesses, covers up, opens new areas of inquiry, or pulls the rug out from under his previous defense. Remember when the Trump defense on firing FBI Director James Comey was that Trump fired him because he was unfair to Hillary? Then Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt, “In fact when I decided to do just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story’.”
This applies especially to Twitter. I know, I know. Even a four-star Marine general could not get Trump to turn loose of his Twitter machine. But the impeachment team has leverage now. No one should agree to work for Trump on impeachment unless he surrenders control of his Twitter account, period. Don’t close the account. Instead, turn it over to someone a little less personally invested, a little less prone to outbursts, a little less, shall we say, loopy and self-destructive.
Lawyer up. And, no, I don’t mean the clowns we see on TV pumping out conspiracy theories like they were balloon animals. Get some serious lawyers in there. Mr. President. By the way, that goes double for the White House staff, plus anyone at State, CIA, Defense and any other agency that could be dragged into this. Trump will throw you under the bus. If you don’t believe me, ask his former fixer, Michael Cohen. You can find him at the Otisville Federal Correctional Institution.
Give it up. It’s all going to come out, one way or another. Coverups never work. Bill Clinton and his team ultimately complied with every subpoena, no matter how personal or crackpot. Heck, he even gave blood. Cooperating shows you have nothing to hide; covering up proves you do.
Focus on the American people’s problems, not yours. This is the most important thing. Every day during the scandal, Clinton told the country he was getting up every morning and working on their problems. And he was. Even with a GOP House that was impeaching him, and a GOP Senate, he passed legislation to double Head Start. He passed his GEAR UP program for at-risk middle schoolers unanimously. Unanimously. He touted child care and job training initiatives. He brokered peace in Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Accords, and between Israelis and Palestinians at Wye River. He signed the Kyoto Climate Accord. Oh, and he balanced the budget and generated a surplus.
That’s why the American people hung in there with him. That’s why his job approval skyrocketed to 73% when the House impeached him — while Trump, whose economy is strong, sits at a wimpy 43% in the latest average from FiveThirtyEight.
Americans rallied to Clinton not because they liked the idea of his having an affair with an intern, and not because they appreciated being lied to about it. But because at the end of the day they knew that, while Clinton had violated his marital vows, he upheld his oath of office. They knew he was fighting for them every day.
Trump has no positive, forward-looking agenda. We are almost three years into Infrastructure Week and Trump’s still spinning his wheels. Mass shootings proliferate, yet there’s no plan of action on gun safety. Know why? Because Donald Trump is a narcissist and his only agenda is himself: his greed, his grievances, his gripes.
So, you see, children, it is possible to write an impeachment story with a happy ending for the White House. Just not this one.