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What Gregory Meeks, Peter King recall from the impeachment of Bill Clinton

By Tom Brune

As the House weighs filing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Reps. Peter King and Gregory Meeks bring to the deliberations their own searing memories of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.

King (R-Seaford) and Meeks (D-St. Albans) are the only Long Island representatives still in office who served during the tense and emotional impeachment of Clinton, from the start of the Judiciary Committee inquiry on Oct. 8 to the House approval of two articles of impeachment on Dec. 19.

The articles charged that Clinton committed impeachable offenses by lying about his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky to a grand jury in connection with a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones and obstructing justice.

Back then, King was a third-term Seaford Republican -- a conservative and at times outspoken maverick who worked with Clinton on brokering peace in Northern Ireland -- who split with his party to oppose impeachment and offered a resolution to censure Clinton instead.

Meeks was a Queens Democrat who had been in the House less than a year after winning a special election, in which Clinton campaigned for him. Meeks said he opposed the impeachment and joined the Congressional Black Caucus in staunchly defending Clinton.

The Clinton impeachment failed in the Senate on Feb. 12, 1999, on a 50-50 vote. But they have parted ways in the Trump impeachment inquiry -- King opposes it and Meeks supports it.

King and Meeks spoke to Newsday separately and the exchanges have been edited for clarity and conciseness.

What is your biggest memory of the Clinton impeachment?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

"That the Republicans who were going through impeachment still went to the White House [Congressional] Ball, and were drinking and taking pictures with Clinton, and trying to get certain deals and certain bills passed."

Peter King King:

“Ten days in December. Before Thanksgiving, after the election where the Republicans lost seats and [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich resigned, it was pretty much accepted that there would be no impeachment. But then there were interrogatories submitted [by the House Judiciary Committee] to Clinton and the answers he gave were so dismissive and almost insulting. [House Whip] Tom DeLay used that as an opportunity to really put pressure on Republicans and talk radio picked it up. And in a matter of days it shifted dramatically from no impeachment to almost virtually certain impeachment.”

Here is what else Meeks had to say:

Were there any specific speeches or vote that you remember to this day?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

“There was debate on the floor of the House leading up to the actual impeachment vote where most folks believed that impeachment was basically about a personal scenario that the president had that should have been taken up between him and his wife -- and that there was no direct effects to the national security or well-being of the country.”

Why did you and the Congressional Black Caucus strongly defend Clinton?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

"We felt very strongly that some of what was taking place was because they were trying to go at the heart of some of the things [like protecting affirmative action] that Bill Clinton was trying to do with the African American community at the time."

Do you think people would have had a different view of Clinton's impeachment had the #MeToo movement happened back then?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

"Yes, the times are different. But it's hard to say given that the #MeToo movement is taking place right now during the Trump administration and the number of his infidelities and how he's treated women but no one is impeaching him for that."

What was atmosphere in the House like when you weighed the Clinton impeachment?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

 "It was emotional. I was trying to figure out -- other than talking all about a personal affair and a dress -- what were the circumstances that led to an irreparable harm to the country, what was the violation of the Constitution? There were Democrats, based upon the morality issue, who were concerned. Now, it seems all of the Republicans have just decided that they're just going to be in lockstep, maintaining their support of the president no matter what."

How has the Clinton impeachment influenced your view of the Trump impeachment?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

" I try to go back to be as fair as I possibly can, which is why I was one that was not initially for impeachment. So, that Clinton experience has affected me now trying to make sure that it's a search for the facts and not just for the politics."

How does the Trump impeachment inquiry compare with the Clinton impeachment?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

"There's really no comparison. When you look at the substance and the acts, you need to look at it compared to [the impeachment of President Richard] Nixon not Clinton. The Nixon scenario was getting involved in our election -- he was trying to steal information from the Democratic committee. Similarly, you have in the Trump situation where he's publicly said he wanted the Russians and the Chinese and others to take information to benefit him and his political campaign."

What will the political ramifications be for Democrats if they vote to impeach Trump?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

"We've seen the effects in the 2018 elections, which got us into the majority of the House, and you see the effect of the recent elections, Democrats winning in Virginia and in Kentucky. I think that will continue, irrespective of the impeachment, in the 2020 election based upon his performance as president."

Did the Clinton impeachment set a standard of acceptable presidential behavior or did it lower the bar for the impeachment of future presidents?

Gregory Meeks Meeks:

"The Clinton impeachment made it so that impeachment could be utilized as a political tool -- but it should not be."

Here is what else King had to say:

You sponsored a bill to censure Clinton instead of impeaching him. What happened?

Peter King King:

“There had probably been 30 to 40 Republicans who were not going to vote to impeach. But it just never went anywhere. Each day it was like more and more Republicans just walked away. One by one, two by two. It just seemed very, very quickly the whole house of cards is coming down. It never made it to the House floor.”

You and Clinton were in touch on the process. How did Clinton take it when all but a handful of those moderate Republicans chose to vote for the articles of impeachment?

Peter King King:

"I saw him at a dinner, maybe a week or so before the impeachment vote. I spent about a half-hour with Clinton. It's tough to tell a guy "no." I felt like a doctor giving a guy a bad medical report when for some reason he thinks he's going to get a good one. He was giving all the logical reasons why these guys should be for him, but they weren't."

What was the reaction after you spoke on the House floor against impeachment — and then was one of just four Republicans to vote against all four articles of impeachment?

Peter King King:

"We had the people leaving hate mail in my mailbox and picketing my office. It was so bad during impeachment that we had to, in the same office, call each other on cellphones. Every [land] line was constantly filled up."

Do you think people would have had a different view of Clinton's impeachment had the #MeToo movement happened back then?

Peter King King:

"It would have been very, very difficult. The whole tone has changed -- think about the way Monica Lewinsky was attacked. As it was, Clinton barely survived then. It may not even made it to that stage [of impeachment] -- he may have had to even step down before that."

How does the Trump impeachment inquiry compare with the Clinton impeachment?

Peter King King:

"It doesn't have that solemnity that it had or the seriousness that it had back in. 1998, on either side. My own feeling is that to some extent it is being treated like another partisan vote. It's not the life-or-death issue that it was back in 1998."

Did the Clinton impeachment set a standard of acceptable behavior or did it lower the bar for the impeachment of future presidents?

Peter King King:

"Yes and yes. I'm saying the aftereffect of the impeachment was, as far as the country is concerned, that he was acquitted, and therefore the president is able to get away with more. On the other hand, it showed that Congress could be more willing to go against the president, even if, in the past, it would not be considered a constitutional violation. So it made it easier for Congress to move to impeach but it also made it easier for the president to get off."

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