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From the Clinton scandals of the 1990s to the Ukraine imbroglio of the 2010s, everything and nothing has changed in how Congress pursues presidents for their misdeeds

Open this photo in gallery:Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, shown in 1998 and 2019.

The Associated Press, Reuters

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor at Carleton University School of Journalism and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History. He covered Washington for The Globe and Mail from 1997 to 2001.

On Saturday, Dec. 19, 1998, the United States House of Representatives convened for an extraordinary session. The Senate had already adjourned for the holidays, and the House wanted to leave, too. First, though, legislators would address a solemn prerogative exercised only once in the 222 years of the republic and not since Reconstruction. They would weigh allegations of “high crimes and misdemeanours” against the President, triggering a constitutional process that his harshest critics hoped would charge, try, convict and remove him from office. This was the stark imperative of impeachment, the greatest power the House can wield short of declaring war. This was the sole order of business that overcast morning, as autumn grudgingly gave way to winter in Washington.

What happened next convulsed the country. Impeachment deepened its social and political divisions and hurled them into the future. Over the next two decades Americans would cleave into red states and blue states, “flyover country” and “New York values,” Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” and Mitt Romney’s “47 per cent,” hillbillies and Hollywood. Draw a line from the claims of “perjury” and “obstruction of justice” against the 42nd president that December to the cries of “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” against the 45th president this December. Impeachment, it seems, is the latest act in this long-running, peculiarly American melodrama – and surely not the last.

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The House chamber lies empty on Dec. 15, 1998, ahead of the debates about impeaching then-president Bill Clinton.Larry Downing/REUTERS

At 9 a.m., Reverend James David Ford, the chaplain, delivered the benediction. He asked the Lord to “be gracious unto us.” That was optimistic, given that grace had left the Capitol. There was little suspense that morning about the fate of William Jefferson Clinton, as he was called then. The Republican House would indict him. Of that there was no doubt. The Democratic Senate would exonerate him. Of that there was no doubt. The universe would unfold as it should, but not quietly, gently or conclusively. The impeachment of Bill Clinton sprang cynically from a society still riven by Vietnam, Watergate and the Reagan Revolution. In that light, we can see how the impeachment of a Democrat in 1998 made possible – even inevitable – the impeachment of a Republican in 2019.

Niccolo Machiavelli, the shrewd observer of statecraft in the Renaissance, warned that there is “nothing more difficult to plan” and “more doubtful of success” than creating a new system of government. Having written a constitution with independent branches, America’s founders knew how dangerous it would be to limb one of them. They found a way. Within their checks and balances and separation of powers, they gave both houses of Congress a role in unseating the president. It would take a majority of the House to impeach and two-thirds of the Senate to convict.

No wonder then that, for so long, indicting a president was rarer than a penalty shot in hockey. Impeachment was a last resort. In 1868, Republicans tried to force out Andrew Johnson, a racist who had been Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president. He was impeached on 11 counts and escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. When a delegation of senior Republicans told him it was over, a display of patriotism unthinkable today, he resigned. Oh, how things have changed. Republicans then came from Valhalla. Republicans today come from Vichy.

As I slipped into the Press Gallery that day in 1998, I was mesmerized. Entering a legislature – whether the House of Commons in Ottawa or the Bundestag in Berlin – was, for me, like entering a house of worship. There was a sense of decorum. I marvelled at the tableau before me: the burnished walnut, the stained-glass ceiling, the portraits of patriots, the bald eagle motif and state seals. In the land of hyperbole, where boasts and superlatives are the vernacular, impeachment was not bluster. It was real.

After all, where else in the world could one watch a constitutional coup d’état? What other republic sanctioned a bloodless transfer of power from the floor of its representative assembly? Wasn’t the (forced) succession here typically a matter of election, assassination or incarceration in other places? In this noisy, showy democracy, these proceedings were theatre. As my eyes fell on the carved desk adorned with the silver mace, inkstand and other emblems of self-government, I recalled how this had begun 11 months earlier.

On Jan. 17, The Drudge Report revealed Mr. Clinton’s affair with a White House intern, a story confirmed by The Washington Post and others. On Jan. 27, the President delivered his State of the Union Address, in this very House. It was a split-screen moment – the swelling scandal outside, the rites of the office inside. (The evening was particularly memorable for me; I rushed home to accompany my wife to the hospital, where she gave birth to our daughter the next morning.) That week marked a stormy passage that would not end until February, 1999, when the Senate acquitted Mr. Clinton. At the beginning, though, few thought it would get that far. Impeachment? Are you kidding?

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A news stand in Sacramento, Calif., announces Bill Clinton's acquittal by the Senate on Feb. 13, 1999.Bob Galbraith/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

At 11:15 a.m., Representative John Lewis addressed the House. Mr. Lewis had sat on the buses with the Freedom Riders, spoken at the March on Washington, absorbed the blows on the bridge at Selma. Now he was in despair. “Mr. Speaker, today is a very sad day for this House. This morning when I got up, I wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.”

He bemoaned a country where lawmakers had discarded the law. History, convention, tradition, civility and generosity no longer mattered in the hothouse of hysteria. Mr. Lewis recalled taking shelter as a boy in his aunt’s shotgun house in Alabama during a violent rainstorm. It was a parable for the country’s malaise: “We never left the house. The wind may blow, the thunder may roll, the lightning may flash, but we must never leave the American house. We must stay together as a family: one house, one family, the American house, the American family.”

Representative Charles Schumer, now Senate Minority Leader, lamented that a constitutional process that began with serious abuses in Watergate had “grown beyond our control, so that now we are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box. My fear is that when a Republican wins the White House, Democrats will demand payback.”

They would, though not right away. As Democrats said Republicans were out to get Mr. Clinton in 1998, Republicans say Democrats are out to get Donald Trump in 2019.

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In 1998, the impeachment case against Bill Clinton (shown at middle with wife Hillary) centred on claims that he perjured himself, and encouraged others to do the same, by lying about an illicit relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, top left, and sexual harassment allegations by Paula Jones, bottom left. Special counsel Ken Starr, bottom right, investigated Mr. Clinton's relationships with the women, and heard graphic details and surreptitiously recorded conversations about Ms. Lewinsky from her friend Linda Tripp, top right. Henry Hyde, bottom middle, was chairman of the House judiciary committee and served as chief prosecutor in Mr. Clinton's Senate trial.Reuters, The New York Times

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In 2019, the impeachment case against Donald Trump involves his communications with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, top left, and whether he obstructed justice or abused his power by pressing Mr. Zelensky for an investigation of a firm linked to the son of potential presidential candidate Joe Biden, bottom left. The articles of impeachment were drafted at the behest of Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, bottom middle, after weeks of testimony from current and former diplomats with knowledge of the matter, including Gordon Sondland, top right, and Marie Yovanovitch, bottom right.The Associated Press, Reuters, AFP/Getty Images

Two decades, two parties, two presidents. There are similarities between these two impeachments, and there are differences, too.

Mr. Clinton enjoyed a “Goldilocks” economy of low unemployment, low inflation and high growth. The stock market had more than doubled in value over the previous five years. The administration celebrated the first budgetary surplus in 30 years. On the eve of Mr. Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1999, I wrote: “The State of the Union? In a word, it is magnificent. For most Americans, life has not been this good in a generation; by most measures, life has never been better.” Abroad, the United States was supreme. “By every measure, the extent of America’s dominance astonishes,” observed the late Charles Krauthammer. “Indeed, future historians will write about this time … as a golden age of international tranquillity, order and freedom.”

Peace and prosperity buoyed Mr. Clinton. He had won re-election easily in 1996. In the midterm congressional elections in 1998, when the president’s party traditionally loses ground, the Democrats won five more seats in the House. And three days after his impeachment, his popularity hit 73 per cent, tying the highest levels of his presidency.

The charges against Mr. Clinton revolved around lying about sex, and Americans overwhelmingly opposed his impeachment. Next to the grave allegations against Mr. Trump, they look trifling. Mr. Clinton called the process “illegitimate” and driven by “partisanship,” while his wife called it “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” But a contrite Mr. Clinton said his conduct was “sinful,” and Democrats sought a motion of censure instead of impeachment. Instead, the Republicans trumpeted the lurid report from the puritanical special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, a Savonarola Machiavelli would have recognized. They were led by Newt Gingrich, a flame-thrower who would resign as speaker after the midterm elections (it would later come out that he was carrying on his own extramarital affair at the time of the Clinton impeachment proceedings). They were determined to impeach despite their reversals in the midterms. Mr. Clinton was determined to stay despite the calls to resign.

Mr. Trump also enjoys a surging economy and frothy markets. As Mr. Clinton expanded free trade in North America, Mr. Trump has renewed it. One difference: Mr. Clinton inherited a weak economy and was seen to make it grow; Mr. Trump inherited a strong economy and kept it growing. Yet his approval ratings have never reached 50 per cent.

There is no easy comparison between Mr. Trump and Mr. Clinton in intellect (Mr. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar) or experience (Mr. Clinton was a five-term governor). Both avoided military service and both were philanderers. Mr. Clinton apologized; Mr. Trump doesn’t. Mr. Clinton lied about sex; Mr. Trump lies about everything. When the founders imagined removing a corrupt president, they worried most about the kind of foreign interference Mr. Trump has solicited. It is as if they wrote their prescription with his name in mind.

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A video still from Dec. 19, 1998, shows speaker pro tempore Ray LaHood preparing to announce the result of the House's vote on the first article of impeachment against Mr. Clinton.AP Photo/APTN

At 1:22 p.m., the House approved the first of two articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton. By then, the shouting was over. From our aerie, we struggled to untangle a succession of confusing votes. The session ended with a whimper.

Then it turned surreal. The Democrats boarded buses and went to the White House. They assembled beside the President in the Rose Garden, amid the shadows of the ebbing afternoon. In Mr. Clinton’s darkest hour, it was a pep rally. Facing a Senate trial, he vowed to stay until his last day. Lamenting “the politics of personal destruction,” he called for an end to “the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity and uncontrolled anger.”

Asked how Mr. Clinton felt, a friend replied: “How do you think he feels? He reads history.” And because Mr. Clinton read history, he knew then that the first line of his obituary would be “Bill Clinton, the second president of the United States to be impeached … ”

Mr. Trump does not read history. He does care about his legacy, though, and he too knows how this will end. A man who loves setting precedent, he will be the first impeached president to seek re-election. If the Democrats do this to him, he warns, Republicans will do this to a Democrat. Of course, they already have. This time, in a more polarized country radicalized by conservative talk radio, Fox News and the Tea Party, expect few Republicans to defect. The votes in both chambers will fall along party lines.

Twenty-one years after the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, we are watching the impeachment of Donald Trump. The two proceedings are not alike in substance but they are in tone and atmosphere. So it isn’t surprising, not really, to hear that Rep. Lewis wants to impeach Mr. Trump.

“There comes a time when you have to be moved by the spirit of history,” he said.

“We must not wait. Now is the time to act.”

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