Soon after the House voted to impeach him in December 1998, President Bill Clinton surrounded himself with dozens of Democrats on the White House’s South Lawn.
Directly behind the president stood Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings, the Marylanders who now serve as House majority leader and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, respectively. Next to them were Reps. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the future majority whip, and Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), now chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. A few feet away, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a moral force then and now within the caucus, held a prominent post in the front row.
House Democrats stood behind Clinton in defiant opposition to the nearly party-line use of impeachment when the outcome in the Senate — a hung jury — seemed all but certain.
Flash-forward more than 20 years. Those Democrats now find themselves staring down a revolt, mostly from the more junior ranks of their caucus. Of the five committee chairmen House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on to speak at Wednesday’s emergency meeting on investigating President Trump, four were in office in 1998 and the other won his seat in 2000 by defeating one of GOP’s “impeachment managers.”
They almost all urged caution from the relative newcomers, who have been pushing impeachment against Trump even though Senate Republicans stand unified behind him and the outcome — hung jury — would be all but certain.
The calls reached fever pitch earlier this week, after Trump blocked his former counsel from testifying Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee and continued to stonewall subpoenas requesting documents related to the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and other key materials.
“I think that it is entirely appropriate, given this overwhelming amount of evidence and the continued actions from the executive branch, that we exert our powers as a coequal branch of government,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday.
But Democrats who were in Congress for the Clinton impeachment succeeded, for now, in getting the caucus to agree to a go-slow approach to impeachment.
“I remember it tore the country apart,” recalled Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).
As she was finishing her third term in 1998, Eshoo said, the public fully understood the case against Clinton revolved around his coverup of extramarital affairs. Today, they are trying to make decisions from a Mueller report that was inconclusive in some parts.
“Are you for this or against it? Wait a minute. I think this is a case where you need to drive with the emergency brake on,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, a rising first-term liberal star, was in grammar school at the time of the Clinton vote. Eshoo, 76, in her 27th year in office, sides with her best friend in Congress, Pelosi, warning that once an impeachment inquiry gets started, it will almost certainly head to the full House, even if polls continue to show opposition.
“It’s very difficult to unring a bell,” Eshoo said.
The media has focused on the Democratic political divide, between those from safely liberal areas and several dozen from swing districts where Trump remains somewhat popular.
But the generational divide might be just as important, considering decision-makers such as Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn all come from very anti-Trump districts.
They all remember the split impeachment verdict against Clinton — the House approved two articles, but the Senate did not convict — and also the political backlash against Republicans, who voted just weeks before the 1998 midterms to start a formal impeachment inquiry. Democrats went on to pick up five House seats, breaking historical tradition that suggested Clinton’s party should have lost big in his second midterm.
Aware of those politics, Pelosi has tried to tamp down the rebellion with a layered formula requiring an overwhelming case against Trump that would also bring enough Republican support to force him from the Oval Office.
She often explains her long history opposing impeachment, beginning with Clinton and then holding back antiwar liberals who wanted to impeach President George W. Bush in 2007 for his handling of the Iraq War.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who was in his 10th year in Congress in 1998, said that he thinks the Mueller report paints a solid picture that Trump obstructed justice. But the Clinton impeachment proved the futility of pursuing such a divisive act when the outcome was predetermined.
“Some people will say, ‘If he should be impeached, then impeach him,’ ” said Pallone, who now chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I just know that, the way things are around here, we only have so many legislative days and so much that we can accomplish. I want to spend my time doing things that we can get done.”
Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), a junior member of Pelosi’s leadership team, has emerged as a vocal supporter of an impeachment inquiry. He says that such a move could at least give Democrats a better standing in federal courts to fight Trump.
On Tuesday, Cicilline — who was in Rhode Island’s State House in 1998 — rejected the calls for patience. “We need to vindicate the rule of law in this country and demonstrate that you cannot just trash the Constitution, undermine the rule of law, and expect the Congress of the United States to accept that,” he told reporters.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), first elected in 2006, has been calling for impeachment since before the Mueller report was released. “This is a question of the future of democracy, and I don’t think the politics are important,” Yarmuth told reporters Tuesday.
Some senior Democrats support immediate impeachment proceedings, fearful that these legal fights will last past the 2020 elections. “We also appreciate that, you know, winding your way through the courts could take a lot of time,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
Waters, who was in her fourth term in 1998, serving on the Judiciary Committee during its impeachment proceedings, now chairs the Financial Services Committee.
She was the lone chair to speak at Wednesday’s meeting who pushed impeachment.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), who won his seat in a February 1998 election, said his first year in Congress helped shape his views toward today’s crisis. Republicans “tried to make it a political scenario” against Clinton without doing enough preparation, he said.
Like Cicilline and Ocasio-Cortez, Meeks wants the same goal of ejecting Trump but believes in a more cautious approach.
“In order to do that, we’ve got to dot our i’s and cross our t’s,” he said.