With the votes on Friday in the House Judiciary Committee, Donald Trump is now only the third president in history who will face an impeachment vote in the House. The last one to do so was Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House but not removed by the Senate in 1998.
Joe Lockhart was Clinton’s press secretary during the impeachment hearings, vote and Senate trial. I reached out to him to talk about his memories of that historic moment and what lessons Trump (and his team) can learn from it. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: The Judiciary Committee has now voted for two articles of impeachment. Full House vote expected next week. Can you remember back to this moment in 1998? What was the thinking in the White House? And what was the President’s state of mind?
Lockhart: We found out we didn’t have the votes to block impeachment while we were doing Middle East peace negotiations in Israel. Some of the staff felt like we could turn enough Republicans to stave off a vote. But we were no match for Tom DeLay and his pressure tactics. So we knew we were going to lose the vote but we were really jammed with other issues.
We were in the final stages of preparing a military strike against Iraq. We spent a fair amount of time debating the timing, the “wag the dog” thing. But at the end of the day we decided to treat the Iraq issue like impeachment wasn’t happening.
We also were in an important phase of getting the State of the Union speech process.
So, when we woke up on impeachment day it honestly didn’t feel that remarkable. We had a plan to deal with it and we were executing it. Everything we planned to do that day was to highlight the partisan nature of the proceedings.
Of course everything went off script when [then-Louisiana Republican Rep. Bob] Livingston decided to resign on the floor of the House and the military leaders wanted to announce the end of the military action in Iraq. So much for our plan.
The President took refuge in the work. Getting things done was both his strategy and his way to get through all of this. And we all took our cues from him and kept our heads down and did our work.
Cillizza: How did you deal with the need to focus on the impeachment proceedings but continue to try to get other stuff done?
Lockhart: 99% of the White House staff didn’t work on impeachment. It was not like an 8-year-old’s soccer game where everyone ran to the ball. Everyone not working on impeachment spent time trying to find out what was going on without much luck. A small group of lawyers, communications people and political staff handled everything and were fairly secluded on the second floor Counsel’s office in the West Wing. Everyone else was told to do their jobs. They were helped by the fact that Clinton was very engaged with them.
Cillizza: You wrote in The Washington Post that the hardest thing to deal with was the “sheer unpredictability” of the impeachment stuff. Is that true for Trump? Or different because his entire MO is “sheer unpredictability.”
Lockhart: We had lots of mini-controversies swirling around but by the second term the West Wing was pretty buttoned up. But the daily leaks from [independent counsel Ken] Starr and then [Capitol Hill] was really challenging for us to stick to our strategy. I think we did, but it wasn’t easy. The Trump team … doesn’t have a robust domestic agenda to fall back on and a President willing to stay out of it.
Cillizza: After the 1998 impeachment, Democrats won big – a backlash to what voters believed to be Republican overreach. How much danger are Democrats in of having the same thing happen to them in 2020?
Lockhart: There is political peril in doing something like impeachment or doing nothing. You can’t avoid it and you have to manage it. I think the Democrats face less risk of backlash for a couple of reasons.
First, Clinton’s transgressions were essentially a personal matter, not a national security issue.
Second, Clinton was much more popular than Trump. His job approval was at 73% the day he was impeached, Trump is at around 40%.
Finally, Clinton acknowledged his wrongdoing and apologized multiple times for his actions. Trump has done none of that, which puts him in a more precarious position as the issues are revealed.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The key to Bill Clinton surviving and thriving amid his impeachment was ____________.” Now, explain.
Lockhart: Doing his job as President all day, every day.
Clinton knew the public would reject a part-time president who was more worried about himself than the country. He did feel rage, he did feel victimized, but he was careful to keep all of that private. He kept his job because he did his job and was seen doing his job.