Bill Clinton Had a Strategy. Trump Is Doing the Opposite.

During the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton focused on doing his job. Trump isn’t even pretending.

Bill Clinton pointing at the camera
Reuters TV

Donald Trump may have no impeachment war room, but he does have an impeachment strategy. He deployed it this past weekend.

It’s the same strategy he brought to his presidential campaign, then to his presidency: all base, all the time. In 1998 and ’99, Bill Clinton directed his anti-impeachment messaging to voters who did not necessarily approve of him, but who feared impeachment as disruptive. Trump’s message is aimed only at his most all-in supporters, those who see him as a victim of plots and persecution by shadowy, unseen forces.

On December 19, 1998, the day the House voted to impeach Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice, he read a short statement at the White House. He urged the Senate to adjudicate the impeachment in a “reasonable, proportionate, and bipartisan” manner. He tried to appeal to a greater good, saying, “We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity and uncontrolled anger. That is not what America deserves. That is not what America is about.”

That is not the tone we’ve heard from Trump in the past 48 hours. It’s as if the Trump campaign has read the Clinton playbook, and at every turn opted for the opposite.

At this distance of 20 years, we can reconstruct what might be called “the Clinton rules”:

1. Don’t be defined by impeachment. Bill Clinton delivered his 1998 State of the Union address exactly one week after the Drudge Report posted the sensational news of his affair with a White House intern. In his lengthy address, he did not reference the scandal at all. At intervals during the following year, Clinton made statements about major turning points in the scandal—for instance, his grand-jury testimony. But most of the time, the president took pains to show himself as engaged in anything and everything else. Message: The Republicans are obsessed with my sex life; I am focused on my job.

2. Express contrition for proven wrongdoing. After Clinton’s early denials of a relationship with the intern Monica Lewinsky were exposed as false, he expressed contrition for his offenses while arguing that impeachment represented an excessive response. “I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned,” he declared at the White House prayer breakfast on September 11, 1998. “It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine: first and most important, my family; also my friends, my staff, my Cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.”

3. Leave no fingerprints on any countermeasures. Through 1998, one Clinton accuser after another was felled or tainted by damaging revelations of sexual scandal: House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his would-be successor, Robert Livingston; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. Perhaps others in Congress were kept in line by fears that something similar might befall them. The counterattacks came from people like the Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Despite ample speculation that the White House political operation was somehow involved, nobody could ever prove a link.

4. Persuade the waverers. Clinton had a base, too, of course—those ready to believe that, at the least, there was plenty of blame to spread around. Maureen Dowd led the media pack, calling Lewinsky “a ditsy, predatory White House intern” and mocking her weight and appearance. But the Clinton impeachment strategy was not focused on his superfans. It was focused on that famous 1990s demographic bloc, the soccer moms: women who disapproved of Clinton’s character, but liked Clinton’s economy. The strategy for 1998 and ’99 always kept these waverers uppermost in mind, again and again offering them a middle way: Condemn Clinton and move on.

5. Never read the stage directions aloud. As the House of Representatives neared the end of its impeachment debate, December 16, Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, the largest U.S. air strike since the Gulf War of 1990. Clinton skeptics wondered whether the timing was a coincidence. White House officials insisted otherwise, and not a word was ever said or written to prove them wrong. Clinton held the upper hand by that point, but any suggestion that he had subordinated national security to his political needs could have upended everything for him.

Now contrast Trump’s approach.

1. Talk more about impeachment. In these precious first defining days, Trump has been raving nonstop against the whistle-blower, the House, and all his political foes—seen and unseen. His Twitter account is wholly obsessed with impeachment. He makes no pretense of focusing on the job that the American people elected him to do. It’s Nancy Pelosi who has delegated impeachment to a committee of the House while she focuses on running her chamber. He’s made it clear that so long as impeachment is even being discussed—there have been no votes yet—he cannot and will not focus on any other aspect of his job.

2. Show no contrition. Trump’s message is aggrieved victimhood. He did not try to extort the Ukrainian president into helping him politically, he insists. He likened the whistle-blower’s sources to spies. But these two defenses contradict each other. If the allegations are untrue, then he was not spied upon; if he was spied upon, the allegations are not untrue. But he does not worry about logic or consistency. His message is emotional—poor, poor me—and is aimed only at those willing to join his pity party.

3. Leave fingerprints everywhere. Trump has called for a treason trial of the House committee investigating him—and for the most heinous punishment of those who brought to light his conversations with Ukraine’s president. The whistle-blower has reportedly sought protection. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal emissary, Rudy Giuliani, has appeared on television to implicate Trump’s secretary of state in every improper action of this administration.

4. Make no attempt at persuasion. Suppose you do not like Trump much, but do appreciate the prosperity of the past few years. This White House has nothing to say to you. Unless you are up-to-speed on conspiracy theories from Infowars or QAnon, you cannot even comprehend the president’s defense—much less believe it. Trump is running an impeachment defense for the 35 percent of the country that likes him a lot, and is gambling that 35 percent will suffice.

5. Read the stage directions aloud. On September 28, Rudy Giuliani tweeted a warning that impeachment of Trump would jeopardize “domestic tranquility.” The next day, President Trump warned that impeachment would “destabilize” the United States. Team Trump is ramping up threats of disorder and potential violence—even a “Civil War like fracture”—if the president is held to account, and sending those threats from its own return address. The intended message is: Removing these people might be dangerous. But what Team Trump is really communicating is: Leaving them where they are is definitely more dangerous.

Through most of 1998, Bill Clinton’s approval rating exceeded 60 percent. On the day the House voted for impeachment, it jumped to 73 percent. Americans signaled that they opposed removing Clinton, and it didn’t happen. Trump’s approval has never reached 50 percent in any non-Rasmussen poll. Already a plurality favors impeachment. Trump supporters have taken to tweeting images of the large empty spaces of the United States to send the message that the tumble weeds and prairie dogs will be severely displeased if Trump is impeached.

At the core of Trump’s trouble is this: He seems unable to cope psychologically with the truth of his presidency’s unpopularity. He appears deeply personally committed to the fiction that his presidency musters massive public support. That fiction leads him to underestimate the danger facing him and overestimate his resources against that danger.

The odds of impeachment of course favor the president, because 67 votes to remove remains an almost certainly impassable bar. But Trump is bringing nothing else to this contest besides inertia. His own actions are the worst possible. In a fight his opponents probably cannot win, he is exerting all his manic, directionless energy to lose.