An impeachment inquiry exacerbates all the stresses and anxieties that already exist in any White House. The media magnifies the slightest development; dire predictions of imminent demise are common. As press secretary — a perilous job during normal times — I personally felt the pressure to not make a mistake from the lectern, with every word I spoke analyzed for both real and supposedly hidden meanings.
Throughout, members of the press breathed down our necks, sniffing for any material that could help them characterize “the mood in the White House.” John Podesta, the chief of staff, had made clear, using quite colorful language, that he didn’t want people talking about impeachment. Not in meetings, not at the proverbial water cooler and especially not out in public, even with family and friends. It was difficult to go through this period always being watched, and always pretending it wasn’t happening.
Despite Podesta’s admonition, the few staffers working on impeachment — mostly lawyers and communications staff like me — were constantly being asked by colleagues, Hill staffers, lobbyists, friends and family what was going on. Everyone lived off rumors and secondhand information, studying the body language of the president and senior staffers. Several times a day, colleagues dropped by my office to “see how I was doing.” No one got much sleep. Once, I remember working until about four in the morning, getting about an hour’s rest, and then being suddenly woken up by my wife — while I was in the shower. I had been standing under the water, fast asleep.
We all developed a certain gallows humor. Bad jokes flew: “If you see the vice president, tell him it looks like he’s lost weight. He’ll remember you when he starts filling out his staff.” One memorable flight back from the Middle East was punctuated by phone calls in the Air Force One conference room, about Republicans we were losing on the impeachment vote. One staffer yelled out, “We’ve lost Jack Quinn,” to groans. “Ben Gilman is now a yes on impeachment!” another added. I shouted, “We just lost Dick Gephardt!” — the House Democratic leader. That got a big laugh.
Perhaps the defining aspect of this period was its sheer unpredictability. The best way to describe the experience is by recalling the day the president was impeached: Dec. 19, 1998. It was as normal a Saturday as you could expect, knowing that the vote was coming. We knew the outcome, and we had a strategy. We would say this was all partisan, and the president would stay focused on the people’s business. Simple. People in the administration believed it, and that was our message for the day.
Then, just before noon, Bob Livingston (R-La.), the incoming speaker, went to the House floor, admitted he’d had affairs and said the only honorable thing he could do was resign. Which he did, right there in the middle of the debate.
Our simple message was suddenly trumped by an even simpler one: Do something wrong, get caught, resign. I estimated that we had about 15 minutes before everyone caught their breath and the television pundits started the drumbeat for the president, too, to resign. I sprinted to the Oval Office to get Clinton’s reaction. While waiting for other staffers to arrive, I asked him not what we should say, but what he thought, and scribbled it down. Ten minutes after the meeting, I went to White House driveway and read it aloud, word for word.
That clear statement — that it was wrong for Livingston to resign and that the politics of personal destruction had to stop — seemed to break the fever before it fully spiked. Because the media largely focused on the president’s plea for Livingston to reconsider, we avoided a full-scale outcry for Clinton to resign.
After that, I dashed to a State of the Union planning meeting. I remember sitting there, discussing issues like health care, education and gun safety, and thinking to myself, We are going to get through this. Then, 10 minutes in, I was pulled away to meet with the national security staff. We were about 3 days into a military action against Iraq. That operation was now complete, and the national security team needed the president to announce it that evening. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “Just last week, we launched this strike and said it had nothing to do with impeachment. Now you want to announce we won the war on impeachment day?” I politely inquired if we couldn’t find more targets to hit. The national security team didn’t think that was especially funny.
We had no choice but to handle what some might call a communications problem: delivering opposing messages from the president back to back. First, we had two busloads of members of Congress stand with the president on the South Lawn of the White House for a partisan pep rally. The impeachment was all about politics, Democrats are good, Republicans are not — that was the gist.
Two hours later, after carrying the presidential lectern no more than 100 yards away, we moved inside to deliver a slightly different message. Flanked by America’s military leaders, the president declared that we were not a country of Republicans and Democrats, but of Americans, bound together by patriotism. He proclaimed the military action successfully completed, and he departed, leaving me to explain how these two messages — us against them, and we are all in this together — could fit.
At the end of this long day, I went back to my office. Waiting for me was a close colleague with two cold beers. We sat down, and I’ll always remember what he said next: “You know, except for getting impeached, we had a pretty good day.”
We survived the process because we were disciplined about keeping the president out of the impeachment debate. We had an aggressive and experienced legal, communications and political team. Most important, we never turned on one another. While being in the foxhole was never comfortable, it was comforting to know who was in there with me.
My sense is this White House has none of these things. Its lawyers have yet to develop a legal theory to extricate the president from his predicament and instead seem to be devoting all their energies to stonewalling Congress. No “war room” has been set up to plan the response — any such operation “would be [an] overreaction on our part,” Kellyanne Conway blithely told the New York Times. The political and communications infrastructure is nonexistent, with internal factions vying for control. In the meantime, the official response to developments seems to be whatever the president thinks to say. Everything seems to run from Trump’s Twitter account.
Even if they had everything prepared, I still don’t think they know what is about to hit them. With no signs of a strategy, and with a loose-cannon president, I can only wish this White House the best of luck. It will need it.