The Senate Trial Of Bill Clinton

Dec 19, 2019
Originally published on December 19, 2019 7:01 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Only three times in American history has the House of Representatives impeached a president - one in the 19th century, one in the 20th century, now one in the 21st. But the last time was recent enough for NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg to remember.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Twenty-one years ago today, the House approved articles of impeachment against President Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On this vote, the yeas are 221, the nays are 212. Article 3 is adopted.

TRENT LOTT: I was in my little study in Pascagoula, Miss., looking out on a beautiful live oak tree.

TOTENBERG: Republican Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, picked up the phone to call Minority Leader Tom Daschle, his Democratic counterpart.

LOTT: And I said, well, Tom, this thing, whether we like it or not, is sitting in our lap, and we've got to figure out how to deal with it.

TOTENBERG: Lott was a skilled vote counter.

LOTT: I knew the votes were not there and were never going to be there to remove Bill Clinton. So what I had to figure out, working with Tom, was how do we fulfill our constitutional responsibility in a respectable way?

TOTENBERG: Meanwhile, the Senate staff - parliamentarians, floor aides, even furniture-makers - were frantically preparing. First, each staffer got a copy of the journal from the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

MARTIN PAONE: The journal is - in a sports metaphor, it's an instant replay of the Senate.

TOTENBERG: Marty Paone was Daschle's top aide on the Senate floor.

PAONE: And if the journal doesn't have it, it didn't happen.

TOTENBERG: It's the shorthand version, later transcribed, of every agreement, every statement that occurs. And the journal of Andrew Johnson's trial became the guide for the trial of William Jefferson Clinton. There were some modern editions, too. A Lott-Daschle direct hotline was installed.

Tom Daschle.

TOM DASCHLE: We had a line that was direct to him and direct to me that bypassed everything else.

TOTENBERG: Now, remember - the Clinton impeachment in the Republican-dominated House had involved graphic sexual descriptions and the House managers wanted to call Monica Lewinsky to testify on the floor of the Senate. Lott was having none of it. So he and Daschle initially proposed a two-week trial with no witnesses.

Trent Lott.

LOTT: When I presented it to the Republican caucus, some of my best buddies did everything but stone me and throw me out into the hall.

TOTENBERG: So the two leaders arranged to have a closed-door Senate session in the historic old Senate chamber where the Senate met in the Capitol until 1859. Without the public or press there to watch, the senators began to talk to each other in earnest. Conservative Republican Phil Gramm eventually outlined some of his ideas, and liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy seemed to embrace them.

Tom Daschle.

DASCHLE: So not wanting to lose an opportunity, we said, well, you know, sounds like we've really got something here that may work as a bipartisan compromise.

PAONE: Lott and Daschle looked at us and said, go write it up.

TOTENBERG: Democratic aide Marty Paone.

PAONE: We went up to Lott's private offices in the Capitol with the leadership team and a bunch of lawyers. And I'm not a lawyer, but this is where I really realized the truth in that saying of, first, we kill all the lawyers. They kept trying to get into all this granularity on calling witnesses. And, you know, I finally had to call Senator Daschle down in his office, and he had to come up and remind them, like, no, we're not going there. And so we finally hammered it out.

TOTENBERG: That agreement would pass the Senate unanimously. It outlined the rules, temporarily, but the House managers still wanted to call witnesses to testify on the floor of the Senate. So eventually, the Senate agreed to take a vote. The House proposal failed 70-30. Instead, three witnesses - Monica Lewinsky and two others - were deposed off-site, with the House managers and Clinton lawyers able to use excerpts later on the Senate floor.

As required by the Constitution, the chief justice presided over the proceedings, but he had little to actually do. Any ruling he made could be overruled by a majority of the Senate, and no important rulings were needed, anyway. Chief Justice Rehnquist's presence nonetheless added a sense of gravitas to the occasion. Under the rules, Senators were supposed to attend all the sessions, sometimes eight hours a day and into the night, six days a week. But they could not talk. They were essentially jurors, not participants. Again, Democratic aide Marty Paone.

PAONE: They had to sit there in their uncomfortable seats and listen.

TOTENBERG: Former Senator John Warner of Virginia, a Republican, found the process in some ways overwhelming.

JOHN WARNER: We're here in our cocoons. And as time went on, the significance of it was so great, I felt that every breath I drew I had to reassure myself, this is exactly how you feel about it.

TOTENBERG: In contrast to the current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Lott and Daschle sought to preserve the notion of neutrality at the trial and to try to separate themselves from the White House. Tom Daschle, of course, was from the president's party.

DASCHLE: As a juror, I needed to keep a personal distance from the president of the White House. But you can't ignore the fact that there is a good deal of logistical and other coordinated requirements around a complicated experience like this.

TOTENBERG: In the end, there would be a total of four sessions behind closed doors - no public, no press - where the senators debated often at night.

Tom Daschle.

DASCHLE: It was really remarkable how candid, how open, how much more forthcoming members were if they knew they didn't have to perform.

TOTENBERG: Besides the institutional goals of the two leaders, they had some other perhaps less noble goals, too. Lott had a 55-45 Senate majority and enough Republicans facing tough races that he could lose the majority in the next election. Mitch McConnell today has a smaller majority than that.

PAONE: He has the same thoughts that Lott had in '99.

TOTENBERG: Democratic aide Marty Paone.

PAONE: He wants these - his members to get reelected. He wants to continue to be majority leader, and that's the prism he's going to view all this through.

TOTENBERG: And what does Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, want?

PAONE: He wants to become majority leader, and so he's going to look at it through that prism.

TOTENBERG: Lott and Daschle, though, are proud of what they did in 1999, and they say they grew closer through the experience.

DASCHLE: I don't think Trent gets nearly enough recognition for the incredible, tough, tough decisions he had to make.

TOTENBERG: Tom Daschle.

DASCHLE: I think the Senate rose to the occasion, and I think that's what the American people expect when you face crises like this. Can an institution rise to the occasion and do what they're supposed to do?

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "MILES TO GO (SUNSET ROAD)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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