‘Is This Watergate Or Peyton Place?’: Clinton Impeachment Question Shadows Congress In Trump Era

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) speaks to members of the media after a closed briefing Wednesday at the Capitol in Washington. Image: Alex Wong/Getty via Washington Post


At the outset of the 1998 impeachment hearings, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked a memorable question that could resonate for some lawmakers today: “Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?”

“Peyton Place” was a steamy soap opera from the 1960s, based on a 1950s novel of the same name. The final judgment, based on the outcome of that impeachment process, was that President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was much more a soap opera than something close to the Watergate scandal that drove Richard M. Nixon from the Oval Office.

Graham, a House member who later won a Senate seat in 2002, reflected on what happened during the Clinton case for lessons on how to handle today’s investigations that have ensnared President Trump.

He is one of 31 senators who had a sense of deja vu last week as prosecutors secured a guilty plea from Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who implicated the president in a scheme to buy the silence of women who allegedly had affairs with Trump.

Of those current senators, 17 were in the Senate at the time of the Clinton impeachment and voted as jurors in the 1999 trial; 14 served in the House and voted on the articles of impeachment in December 1998 before eventually winning seats in the Senate. Two senators, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), now the minority leader, and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), participated in both processes, having won Senate races in November 1998.

Twenty years ago, Clinton was accused of lying in a deposition and before a grand jury about the affair with the White House intern and trying to obstruct justice.

The underlying Trump case involves accusations of whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russian operatives to undermine his opponent, Hillary Clinton. But the Cohen outcome felt familiar to those in Congress during Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

As lawmakers consider what happens next, some are invariably reflecting on their past views of Clinton.

“What I learned is, be careful, don’t use the term loosely. Impeachment is a serious outcome in the Constitution, maybe the most serious,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who was in his first term during the 1999 trial. “Take it seriously.”

Graham, who has flipped back and forth between Trump critic and confidant, believes that there is no chance for impeachment or removal from office if the investigation led by special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III ends up focusing on allegations of covering up an affair.

“There’s the Clinton scenario, where it broke into partisan camps and never changed,” Graham said. “If Mr. Mueller doesn’t have anything directly implicating the president on collusion, I think this thing becomes like a Clinton event.”

Most Democrats tend to agree that as long as Republican voters stick with Trump, then impeachment becomes a moot point. “No party [in the majority] has ever impeached, to my knowledge, the president of that party, and you reinforce that with this is the most head-in-the-sand, extreme party in the majority that we’ve seen in my lifetime,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.

Brown was a House member in 1998 and voted against impeaching Clinton, but the Republican-led House narrowly passed two articles, one for perjury and the other for obstruction of justice. In the Senate, where a two-thirds majority was required for a conviction and removal from office, Clinton was safe.

Just 50 senators, all Republicans, voted in favor of the obstruction charge while five GOP senators joined all 45 Democrats in opposition. Only 45 GOP senators voted to convict on the perjury charge.

Based on what is in the public realm so far, Brown predicted a similar result even if Democrats win back congressional majorities in November. “For most of us, we’re not thinking about it. There’s no reason to go through that exercise except for punditry,” he said.

The Constitution gives no real definition for what makes a “high crime” worthy of being removed from office, so even the most veteran lawmakers do not have their own bellwether for what is grounds for impeachment.

“There is no legal definition,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who voted to impeach Clinton in the House in 1998. He talked about some “level of seriousness,” before finally giving up. “No, I don’t have a precise definition.”

Does Durbin view last week’s legal developments as worthy of impeachment?

“I’m not going to make any judgment on that until all the information is in,” he said.

Graham served as one of 13 managers sent from the House to prosecute the case against Clinton, leading the obstruction portion, even though he voted against the perjury article.

“I didn’t vote for that article because I think that’s human nature to protect yourself and your family. I didn’t want that to be a high crime,” he said.

What was a high crime? Clinton’s efforts to “manipulate the legal system, like hiding evidence or encouraging people to commit perjury,” he said. “The rule of law has to be protected.”

That sounds pretty similar, then, to the accusations that Trump encouraged Cohen to break the law and make payments to his alleged mistresses — but Graham declined to say that charge, if proved, rises to that level.

Both sides agree that the case against Trump has to change the minds of conservative lawmakers and voters so they will turn on the president, the way Nixon’s GOP allies on Capitol Hill turned on him and encouraged him to resign in 1974.

“When they begin to break, that’s when it’s over,” Graham said. “What does it take for the party to break? I think it takes something like a Watergate, and in this case, to me, it would take direct involvement by the president — either he knew or should have known about an effort to collude with the Russians.”