There are just two Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who were also on the committee during the last serious congressional inquiry into presidential misconduct, the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Reps. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Steve Chabot of Ohio not only sat on the committee during the proceedings in 1998 and 1999, they were also two of the managers (or congressional prosecutors) for impeachment. Both forcefully argued at the time that Clinton’s wrongdoing as detailed in the report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr necessitated impeachment.
At Wednesday’s hearing with former special counsel Robert Mueller, both veteran GOP lawmakers drew a distinction between Mueller’s report on his investigation into President Donald Trump and the impeachment inquiry into Clinton.
During Clinton’s hearing and trial two decades ago, Sensenbrenner and Chabot stated clearly their view that the President had engaged in impeachable behavior as demonstrated in Starr’s report. But with a president from their own party now in the crosshairs, on Wednesday they took a different tack — ignoring evidence of Trump’s questionable behavior and focusing narrowly on Mueller’s specific recommendations (or lack thereof) for congressional action.
Starr, Sensenbrenner said on Wednesday, “in a number of occasions in his report stated that President Clinton’s actions may have risen to impeachable conduct, recognizing that it is up to the House of Representatives to determine what conduct is impeachable.”
But in Mueller’s report, Sensenbrenner stated, the former FBI director never used the term “impeachable” or suggested any such determination. Chabot, during his line of questioning, made a similar observation that Starr had used the term while Mueller had not.
Sensenbrenner pressed Mueller to say whether there was anything in the special counsel’s report that constituted an impeachable offense.
Mueller did not answer the question. “Well, we have studiously kept in the center of our investigation our mandate, and our mandate does not go to other ways of addressing conduct,” Mueller said. “Our mandate goes to developing the report and putting the report into the attorney general.”
Sensenbrenner suggested that because Mueller did not use the term impeachable conduct “like Starr did,” and that there was nothing preventing Mueller from using such a term, Trump must be considered innocent until proven guilty.
That stands in stark contrast to Clinton’s hearing 20 years ago, when both Sensenbrenner and Chabot, along with nearly every other sitting House Republican, had a different view of Clinton’s culpability. During his opening statement in the impeachment hearing on December 10, 1998, Chabot blasted Clinton’s “linguistic contortions” and said the evidence of wrongdoing was “strong, convincing and clear.”
“The President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, has engaged in a pattern of cover-up and deceit. Standing alone, each individual offense in extremely serious, collectively they are overwhelming,” the Ohio Republican said at the time.
Sensenbrenner echoed the same views in his opening statement at the Senate trial on January 14, 1999. “The President engaged in a conspiracy of crimes to prevent justice from being served. These are impeachable offenses for which the president should be convicted,” he said at the time.
Sensenbrenner had been unsparing in his judgment of the truthfulness of Clinton’s statements regarding his sexual relationship with a White House intern, which the President had denied during grand jury testimony.
“He could have told the truth to the grand jury,” Sensenbrenner had said of Clinton. “Instead, he chose lies and deception despite warnings from friends, aides and members of the House and Senate that failure to tell the truth would have grave consequences.”