The Media Today

Recurring narratives and characters link the Clinton and Trump impeachments

December 9, 2019

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, comparisons to Richard Nixon and Watergate have proliferated in our media. Trump’s firings of James Comey and Jeff Sessions were “a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre”; multiple of his officials were, or could have been, John Dean. In recent weeks, as the House has marched inexorably toward Trump’s impeachment, a different historical comparison—to Bill Clinton—has been widely aired, too, including in an interview with Clinton on CNN last month. We’ve heard that Trump is taking a page from Clinton’s impeachment playbook—travel and photo ops designed to show his “relentless” focus “on doing the business of the American people”—and that actually, he’s not doing that at all. Late last week, Politico’s John F. Harris, who covered the Clinton impeachment, wrote that such comparisons have had things somewhat backwards. “People for the most part misremember that time,” Harris wrote, of the ‘90s. “The mythology that Clinton was a disciplined compartmentalizer… has an element of truth. But it has an equal or greater element of fiction. Impeachment consumed a year of his public and private life, and by all evidence it is doing the same to Trump.”

Beyond the presidential comparisons, a cast of recurring characters links the late ’90s and now. In recent days, some of them have come to the fore. Last Wednesday, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee called Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, as their witness at a hearing focused on the constitutional grounds for impeachment. In 1998, Turley had testified in favor of impeaching Clinton; not doing so, he feared, would “expand the space for executive conduct.” Last week, he expressed his opposition to the impeachment of Trump, noting his concern about “lowering impeachment standards.” Turley stressed that Trump’s dealings with Ukraine were not “perfect”; still, members of the media seized on his U-turn. CNN’s John Avlon called Turley’s recent remarks “an amazing impeachment flip-flop.” Writing for The Nation, Elie Mystal called Turley a “shameless hack” who had “beclowned himself.”

ICYMI: The Rise and Fall of Facts

Some of the recurring characters can be found in Congress. In recent days, discrepancies in their records have been flagged, too. Late last week, Nancy Pelosi objected to a question, from Sinclair’s James Rosen, as to whether she was impeaching Trump because she hates him; “As a Catholic, I resent you using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me,” she said. Afterward, a clip of Pelosi saying, in 1998, that Republicans were “paralyzed with hatred” of Clinton did the rounds online, and on Fox News. (Asked to comment, Newt Gingrich, who was speaker back then, said Pelosi was part “of the left’s effort to rewrite history.”) It wasn’t just right-wing media that was at it. On the Sunday shows yesterday, Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chair of House Judiciary, twice faced questions—from CNN’s Dana Bash and NBC’s Chuck Todd—about his remarks, also in 1998, on the perils of pursuing impeachment without bipartisan support. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos raised similar Clinton-era comments by Zoe Lofgren, another Democratic member of House Judiciary. “What I should have said… was first, you need a high crime and misdemeanor,” Lofgren replied. “Lying about sex is not an abuse of presidential power.”

Politicians’ past statements are fair game—raising them is often instructive. The same is true of history more broadly. Still, when citing the past, context is key. References to the proceedings against Clinton (and Nixon) should emphasize, not elide, the extreme differences we face in Trump’s case. (Points about bipartisanship, in particular, should note the warping effect of our present information hellscape; as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it yesterday, in the 1990s, “the internet was barely a powerful force yet,” but is now “an extension of our brains and bodies.”) We should emphasize, too, that impeachment is a flexible measure. The past can elucidate ways forward, but it can also be used to muddy them, as has been the case with several Republican arguments alleging that Trump’s process rights are being abused.

Most simply, the facts we’re dealing with here are very different, too. In his Politico piece, Harris flipped the script on the Trump-emulates-Clinton narrative by imagining if Clinton had emulated Trump: “Imagine the White House releasing a transcript… of his erotically charged morning phone calls with Monica Lewinsky. Or picture Clinton striding to the South Lawn microphones to say that, yes, indeed, he had a sexual relationship with the former intern, that it was his right as commander in chief to have affairs, and that their furtive West Wing liaisons had been ‘perfect.’” Such “parlor games,” Harris wrote, have a serious point: “Whatever similarities exist between Trump and Clinton, they are minor compared to the differences in American political culture.”

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Below, more on impeachment:

  • Department of both sides: Yesterday, Clinton comparisons featured in a New York Times piece stating that impeachment has devolved into a “partisan brawl.” That framing got some flak on Twitter. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, said he read the piece as a “confession” from the Times: “We’re out of ideas. ‘Both sides’ and ‘so divided’ is all we got.”
  • Investigating the investigators: The House Judiciary Committee will hold its second public impeachment hearing today, to take evidence from lawyers for the Democrats and the Republicans. Also today, Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, is expected to publish his report on the circumstances of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia in 2016. According to the Post, Horowitz will criticize certain FBI officials, but assert that the bureau had adequate cause to open its Russia probe. Attorney General William Barr is reportedly unhappy with that finding.
  • “We’ve seen enough”: Over the weekend, the editorial boards of the Boston Globe and the LA Times both called for Trump to be impeached. Yesterday, Fox cited the editorials as evidence of media bias, running the chyron: “MEDIA DECLARES TRUMP SHOULD BE IMPEACHED.” CNN’s Stelter has more.
  • Slow Burn: If you have time (and haven’t listened already), Slate’s Slow Burn podcast walked through the Nixon and Clinton scandals in finegrain detail, and is worth a listen. The parallels—and differences—with the Trump era are obvious.

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ICYMI: Has our investment in debunking worked?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.