Trump says 'it's a witch hunt' and Clinton said 'I have sinned': US prepares for third impeachment in its history

In September 1998, two months before he was impeached by the House, Bill Clinton stood before faith leaders in Washington DC and declared: “I have sinned”.

On Tuesday morning, a day before the House was expected to deliver a similar censure to Donald Trump, the president performed his own outreach via Twitter.

“Impeachment poll numbers are starting to drop like a rock now that people are understanding better what this whole Democrat scam is all about,” he wrote.

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Clinton’s apparent contrition – was he genuinely sorry, or simply regretful of his affair with a White House intern having been exposed is another issue – and Trump’s defiance, provide an obvious, stark contrast to the events separated by less than a generation, but which feel a lifetime apart.

Partly that is because the investigation of Clinton, his public denials (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”) the sleazy details about DNA and blue dresses, and the president’s final admission, have become part of a shared collective knowledge, complete with its sound-bites and iconography and cast of characters. It was drawn out over many months, by a prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who sought the media spotlight like a moth is drawn to the flutter of a candle flame.

It holds a similar place in our knowledge of this nation, as does George W Bush’ decision to invade Iraq, and the anger and opposition triggered by a military operation based on lies and cooked up evidence about weapons of mass destruction. (By contrast, we tend to quickly forget the victims, both the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who lost their lives, and Monica Lewinsky, now aged 46 and whose treatment by Clinton has been recently viewed through the prism of the #MeToo movement.)

Trump’s downfall has been much quicker. His controversial phone call to Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky took place on July 25, a day after Robert Mueller appeared before Congress to answer questions about his investigation into Russia’s apparent interference in the 2016 election and its possible links to the Trump campaign.  

Revelations from a whistleblower, that during that call Trump had improperly asked for Zelensky to launch an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, only emerged in September. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, long opposed to impeachment because of its unavoidable decisiveness, only launched the formal probe that same month.

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We have had a few weeks of hearings, testimony from diplomats such as Gordon Sondland, a swift mark-up of two articles of impeachment, and their approval by the House Judiciary Committee. There have been fewer “gotcha moments”, fewer instances that lodge immediately into the consciousness. 

Yet Trump’s impeachment is no less historic or momentous than that of Clinton. This political autophagy – a cleansing or removal of damaged cells to allow renewal and regrowth – is not undertaken lightly, not by Congress, or the American public. 

In 1998, only 30 per cent of Americans initially supported the impeachment of Clinton, whose approval rating stood at 62 per cent, though the figure of support for censure rose to to 44 per cent. A recent collation of polls by CNN suggests opposition to the impeachment of Trump has grown to 49 per cent, with 46 per cent supporting it – figures that are similar to those of 1998.

And despite talk of “impeachment fatigue”, the same polls suggest a similar number of Americans are watching events “very closely” – 33 per cent in 1998 and 42 per cent this time. Up to 75 per cent of Americans say they are following events at least “somewhat closely”.

All of which is to say, it does not get more serious than this. A year from now, when the nation holds its presidential election, impeachment may barely be a memory in the minds of voters, especially if the Senate, as is expected, swiftly votes against censure and Trump remains in office.

Trump has no shortage of haters and critics. Yet among most voters one encounters, from both parties, there is little glee about any of this. As president, Trump is both the nation’s most powerful politician, and its head of state. Few find anything to celebrate about a person holding that position of being accused of having breached the constitution. 

Trump once bragged he could shoot somebody dead on New York’s 5th Ave and get away with it. For a long time it seemed that way; no scandal stuck to him, no controversy would dent his base of supporters, (which remain an unchanged 40 per cent), none of the country’s famous checks and balances would hold him to account.

That has changed this week. And Donald Trump should blame nobody but himself.

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