WASHINGTON — There’s every chance that the impeachment trial of Donald Trump will look much like Bill Clinton’s did 21 years ago.
There’s little chance the Senate will take the same path to get there.
The third impeachment trial of a president in U.S. history is expected to start this week on a sharply partisan vote, breaking from the unanimous bipartisan tally that set the tone at the start of Clinton’s trial.
It’s a different Senate now, with the transformation of the parties over the past 20 years leaving fewer moderates to seek consensus. The hyper-polarization has led to steps deemed unthinkable in Clinton’s time, like the end of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, a sentiment that has now migrated to one of the Senate’s gravest constitutional responsibilities.
“In my view, I think what’s happening is that politics has taken over,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., whose 24-year Senate career is coming to a close this year.
“That’s not unusual to say the least, but it’s just gotten to the point now that the blanket of comity that we always had over the Senate is, you know, getting pretty shredded.”
Twenty-one years ago, then-Senate leaders Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., were able to start Clinton’s trial on a 100-0 vote. A decision on testimony, which created a partisan split, came later.
“I was determined from the get-go — I was not going to let the Senate lose all its decorum,” Lott recalled. “I wanted us to get through it in a respectable way so we could go back to work.”
Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has invoked the “precedent” of the Clinton trial resolution to unite his party, operating under rules that give him the advantage. His resolution is expected to lay out a schedule for opening arguments and questions, but push off until later a decision on calling witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton.
“If that unanimous bipartisan precedent was good enough for President Clinton, it should be our template for President Trump,” McConnell said. “Fair is fair.”
But by cloaking himself in the Clinton model, McConnell is also opening himself and his fellow Republicans to charges of inconsistency — even obstructionism — if they vote to block witnesses once Trump’s trial is underway.
Already, three of the Senate’s remaining moderates — Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — are signaling they want to hear from Bolton, who could offer explosive new revelations. It would only take one more GOP vote to call Bolton as a witness under Senate rules.
“As I’ve said from the very beginning, I have always believed that the model we used with the Clinton trial 20 years ago worked very well,” Collins said Monday.
Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, say allowing testimony is the only way to have a fair trial.
“When Leader McConnell talks about precedent, he’s talking about witnesses,” Schumer said. “Plain and simple.”
The wrangling over Senate procedure is just a sampling of how the political past has been exhumed as the parties have fought through Trump’s impeachment on charges of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress.
Republicans supported witnesses the last time because they wanted to give the GOP lawmakers prosecuting Clinton a fair shot. In Trump’s trial, the momentum toward calling witnesses is coming from a core group of moderates led by Collins that have been given great latitude by McConnell and other GOP leaders.
One obvious reason is voter opinion. A Quinnipiac Poll released Monday found that two-thirds of voters would like to see Bolton testify, with even many Republicans favoring the idea. About 7 in 10 independent voters back the idea.
Both McConnell and Schumer were in the Senate for the Clinton trial, and fought on opposite sides when it came to testimony.
Twenty-one years ago Schumer was adamant against calling witnesses like Monica Lewinsky. “This is not a fishing expedition to be conducted on the floor of the Senate,” he said. Schumer also voted in 1999 for the unanimously-approved resolution that got the Clinton trial started.
The script is similarly flipped for McConnell, who was an advocate for hearing from witnesses like Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom Clinton had an extramarital affair.
“It’s not unusual to have a witness in a trial. It’s certainly not unusual to have a witness in an impeachment trial,” McConnell said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in January of 1999. “The House managers have only asked for three witnesses. I think that’s pretty modest.”