WASHINGTON – The Senate leaders who navigated the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton haven’t been asked by the current leaders for their advice.
But USA TODAY asked Mississippi’s Trent Lott, the former Republican majority leader, and South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, the former Democratic minority leader, what wisdom they could impart as their successors, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, take the lead roles Tuesday.
The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump begins in earnest after weeks of public disagreements between McConnell and Schumer, and after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate for fear Republicans were preparing for a quick acquittal.
Even now, what pressure the president put on Ukraine to investigate a top potential 2020 rival, former vice president Joe Biden, in exchange for military aid and a White House meeting remains a matter of dispute. That is but one of the many differences between this impeachment trial and the 1999 version, but there are also are similarities.
Here, in edited fashion, is what Lott, 78, and Daschle, 72, had to impart:
What lessons can be learned from the 1999 trial?
Lott: “Number one is how important it is that the leaders communicate. We had a good, easy relationship. We were honest with each other. I assured him I would try my best not to surprise him, and I do think our relationship helped us get through a difficult task.”
“You try to find bipartisan, or nonpartisan, agreement on how to proceed. I would hope that would be the case.”
Daschle: “Our experience was largely successful because Trent as majority leader showed remarkable leadership. As a result, the chemistry we created made the rest of our work possible.”
“The most important lesson from our experience is that the caucuses must work together in spite of what positions they hold on the articles of impeachment.”
What is different now? What does not apply from 1999?
Daschle: “First, this is an election year. The Clinton trial was not. A politicized environment is much more likely now.”
“Second, cable news was in its infancy and social media was virtually nonexistent. That is a profound change. Today in those media especially, truth is just an option.”
“Third, the articles of impeachment are much different. The Clinton trial was largely about personal deportment. The Trump trial is about allegations involving the president’s official government acts.”
“Fourth, Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in the Clinton trial. There was largely a coordinated effort. The Trump trial involves a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, limiting the level of coordination significantly – as we have seen in recent weeks.”
Lott: “President Clinton had already been reelected, so it was easier for us to be able to go back to work once it was over. We had the vote (to acquit the president) on Friday, and the following Thursday, President Clinton called me and wanted to talk to me about some bill … and he never mentioned the impeachment trial, never mentioned how we voted. I think it will be harder to do that when you’re in the election cycle.”
“One of the big differences I think is the media, particularly the social media, which contributes to an atmosphere that I believe is more divisive and more partisan than it was.”
“For the most part, Tom and I tried not to be talking to the press every day separately. Quite often, we did it jointly. And that was an image, I think, and an attitude that maybe permeated the whole process.”
How did you deal with issues such as witnesses, documents and motions to dismiss? Is it OK to deal with them only when they arise midstream?
Daschle: “We chose to deal with some of these issues as we went along. There was great difficulty in finding a resolution oftentimes, not because of partisanship as much as because senators on both sides had different, personal perspectives that were a challenge to resolve. Working out these agreements took time. That will happen in this trial, too.”
Lott: “We didn’t just have one vote on the rules and then go straight to the vote on the articles themselves. We had a number of other votes, including a vote to dismiss early on, which was defeated. We also had a vote later on censure, and we had another vote on how many witnesses, how to do the witnesses.”
“I had Republican senators who were pressing me to try to call Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and perhaps others, into the well of the Senate. We had quite a fracas about doing that. We did come up with a way to have some witnesses, but it was done with videotape and recorded transcripts, so senators could view it or read it.”
Unlike the Clinton trial, this one involves facts and details that are changing or remain in dispute. How much of a problem is that?
Lott: “The Senate, I think, is supposed to sit in trial on what the House did. I don’t think that the Republicans are going to be inclined to want to start down the trail of trying to develop other evidence and trying to add to what the House did.”
“I’m tiptoeing into political waters here, but my impression of what the Founding Fathers intended was the House impeach; the Senate would act on what they did.”
Daschle: “I do think it is imperative for the Senate to do all that it can to ascertain the facts and, just as we did in the Clinton trial, rely on witnesses who can contribute to achieving that goal.”
How were you able to keep the Senate under control?
Daschle: “An important key to our success and another lesson we learned was the need for inclusion. I held a caucus meeting every day, and we had a joint caucus meeting that set the tone for the entire trial. Everyone had a say, and Trent and I made a genuine effort to respond to senators’ ideas and proposals. We didn’t implement every idea, but senators felt included.”
Lott: “We have a long history of the role of the Senate being the place, supposedly, of dignity and cooling off from the hot actions of the House. I think we kept the temperature down. We were very careful to have the right decorum on everything.”
“I suspect the senators will honor and respect what the Constitution says and what the rules say about how they’re supposed to be at their desks and not be using their iPhones and iPads, and how questions only will be through the chief justice.”
How did Chief Justice William Rehnquist preside over the Clinton trial? What lessons are there for Chief Justice John Roberts?
Lott: “He went about it in the right way. He wanted to know what our thinking was. He wanted to understand what our rules were. He was very dignified, very attentive. He only injected himself very minimally along the way.”
“I don’t think you could ever ask for a chief justice to handle that difficult assignment more appropriately.”
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What gives you the most satisfaction?
Daschle: “I look back on that time with both pride and satisfaction. The Senate rose to the occasion and actually set the stage for other accomplishments to follow, not the least of which was our nation’s response to 9/11.”
Lott: “The fact that we were able to get through something that took over a month in such a way that we could go back to work and get some things done.”
What is your greatest regret? What would you do differently?
Lott: “I don’t have a lot of regrets. I regretted that we had to actually have the impeachment trial.”
Daschle: “I, too, regretted the need for an impeachment trial. But we were forced to deal with it and in so doing created a relationship that was catalytic in a number of important legislative achievements that followed. And along the way, we built a close friendship that has lasted for decades.”