President Donald Trump may be the one fighting in the Senate to keep his job, but on Capitol Hill and across the country, it can feel like someone else is still on trial: Bill Clinton.
Clinton’s own impeachment trial, once a fading cultural artifact in the C-SPAN archives, has suddenly received new life. The Washington figures who lived through it are enjoying a nostalgic return to the spotlight and lawmakers are squabbling over the 20-year-old event. And that C-SPAN archive is now a treasure trove for anyone looking to score political points.
Come Tuesday, the public will also be reintroduced to one of the most memorable Clinton impeachment figures — Kenneth Starr, who oversaw the most contentious parts of the yearslong probe into the Democratic president’s behavior. Trump on Friday placed Starr on his legal team, with an eye toward the TV optics of having the legal nemesis of the last impeached president now on the other side, defending this impeached president.
There are logistical reasons to revisit Clinton’s Senate trial — it’s the only modern precedent of its kind. But there are also cultural reasons — the country is trying to grapple with how Trump’s current predicament fits into the sweep of American history. In short, how did we get here?
“It’s natural to want to reach back into history and try to find parallels to the last time an impeachment happened,” said Leon Neyfakh, producer of Slate’s popular “Slow Burn” podcast series that featured an entire season focused on the events leading up to Clinton’s impeachment. “I think there’s a desire to set expectations for ourselves. We want to not only know what to expect, but we want to properly calibrate our expectations.”
It’s a phenomenon that has come to define each step of the Trump administration — the president winds up in a largely unprecedented scenario, and everyone goes looking for historical comparisons.
With special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, for example, reporters and cable TV bookers went in search of any of Clinton’s investigative antagonists, former Watergate prosecutors and pretty much anyone else who had ever probed a president.
Even without impeachment, Trump and Clinton would forever be linked in the history books, thanks to the president’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. But no matter what happens in Trump’s Senate trial, impeachment has linked the two men with President Andrew Johnson as members of a very exclusive and small club.
On Capitol Hill, Clinton’s impeachment has resurfaced mainly as a cudgel in the ongoing fight over the current impeachment process.
From Senate leaders on down to House members trying to score attention on social media, lawmakers have been scouring for nuggets from the Clinton fight that could help justify their arguments about Trump’s impeachment.