WASHINGTON -- With President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial set to begin soon in the Senate, the country is set for a front-row seat to history. Trump is just the third president to be formally impeached -- Richard Nixon having resigned to avoid the process -- and only the second in 152 years.
The process pits Trump’s presidency against charges that he’s obstructed Congress and abused his power in a scheme to condition military aid to Ukraine on an investigation into Joe Biden, the former vice president and his political rival. Impeachment managers were assigned on Wednesday, cuing a historical trial set to unfold in coming weeks.
But North Dakota’s elder statesmen remember their own front-row seats from two decades ago, when President Bill Clinton faced his own trial and eventual acquittal. And emotions ran high back then, too.
"It's the only day I served in 18 years where I physically wanted to have a fistfight," former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who represented North Dakota as a Democrat, said this week of the 1998 House vote to charge Clinton. "I thought it was a reckless abuse of process."
North Dakota’s erstwhile congressional leaders, Democrats who voted on and debated the future of a president in their own time, recall Clinton’s trial in dramatic terms -- though they still remember a process less politically tribal than the one unfolding today, and see a less grievous offense at the center.
Clinton’s impeachment, rooted in his famous sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky, hung upon perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Pomeroy recalled the day those charges were approved by the House in detail, from his “copious notes” from the House floor to his eventual trip to the White House, with dozens of other Democrats -- “better than 80 of us,” he said -- to offer their support to Clinton. Pomeroy had been a supporter of an impeachment inquiry, but did not vote to charge Clinton with a crime.
"I'm very angry that the House would vote out articles of impeachment for the second time in the history of the country,” he told the Bismarck Tribune in 1998, “and not allow us to even vote on the question of whether censure was the better alternative for this serious matter.”
That was far from what Republicans thought at the time.
''Among other things, he took an oath to God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, said at the time, charging Clinton with a serious failure to uphold the rule of law. “And then he failed to do so, not once, but several times.''
‘Hob-nobbing’ with the president
Those charges were approved by the House on Dec. 19, 1998. Not long after, the Senate took up the trial. The process, fraught with a keen sense of uncharted political territory, brought news to the fore that still sounds familiar today. Rush Limbaugh -- then, as ever, a firebrand commentator -- accused Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., of “hob-nobbing” with the president, as the Grand Forks Herald put it. The senator and some chamber colleagues had attended a White House dinner and tango party for the president of Argentina, and Limbaugh was angry at the apparent social soirée between a defendant and a juror.
"This was a state dinner to honor the president of Argentina," Dorgan said at the time. "It is traditional when foreign heads of state come to our country to honor them as they do when our president goes abroad. There was obviously no discussion about anything relating to the impeachment trial."
In late January 1999, both Dorgan and fellow Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., voted to dismiss the case against Clinton. The Associated Press recalls a statement from Dorgan that “described Clinton's conduct as terribly wrong, reprehensible, indefensible and distasteful,” and Conrad drawing a distinction between what Clinton had done and more constitutionally serious offenses.
“The president's actions were wrong, they were very wrong, but I believe the Constitution intended impeachment to be reserved for wrongs committed by the president in his official capacity,” Conrad said in the AP report.
In a separate report, Dorgan was quoted more colorfully.
“This impeachment trial is a cadaver,” Dorgan said, adding that Republicans “want to drive it around for a while to put it on exhibition. But to continue to conduct this process now means it is a trial without a purpose whatsoever.”
By mid-February, Clinton had been acquitted, with Conrad and Dorgan both voting against charges.
In coming weeks, the same result is widely expected from the Republican-held Senate, in which more than a dozen GOP members would have to break ranks with the president to remove him from office. But, Dorgan points out, there’s still much unknown about precisely what the president did and what he knew, and draws a sharp distinction between the way Clinton’s trial played out and how Trump’s trial is now unfolding.
“That (Clinton) impeachment trial came to the Congress with the record of the independent counsel, in which every witness, everyone had been under oath,” Dorgan said. “This trial is different. In this case, the president has denied and withheld documents and also denied the opportunity for members of his cabinet to testify, so there’s a lot that is still not known about exactly who did what and how it was done.”
Conrad was unable to be reached for comment this week.
Even if there is no conviction, Pomeroy said, he thinks the articles of impeachment help set a bright line for future presidential conduct.
"I would hope that this episode will be instructive,” Pomeroy said.