A Republican Explains Why Clinton Was Guilty and Trump Is Not

Representative Steve Chabot is one of the last two GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for impeachment in 1998.

Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio is one of just two Republicans remaining on the House Judiciary Committee who voted for Bill Clinton's impeachment. (Gary Landers / AP)

When the House Judiciary Committee meets today for the start of hearings that could lead to the impeachment of President Donald Trump, two of the 17 Republicans on the dais will find themselves in a familiar position, having been deeply involved in the last formal attempt to remove a president from office.

Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, along with Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, voted to impeach President Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. Both later played the role of prosecutors for Clinton’s trial in the Senate, where he was ultimately acquitted.

“I do stand by it,” Chabot told me. “I think he did commit an impeachable offense—that’s why I voted that way.”

Twenty years later, Chabot finds himself on the opposite side, arguing that the president does not deserve to be removed from office. He’s now a middle-of-the-road Republican, aligned with Trump but not one of the president’s most aggressive defenders. Chabot hails from a competitive district in Cincinnati: He only won reelection last year by four points, and he actually lost his seat once, in 2008, before winning it back two years later. Though he was critical of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, unlike other Republicans, he never demanded that the probe be shut down or called it a witch hunt. He said publicly he’d reserve his judgment until Mueller delivered his report. Now that he’s read it, he supports Attorney General William Barr’s decision to clear Trump of obstruction of justice. “I did not see obstruction of justice myself,” Chabot said.

The representative spoke with me by phone from Ohio late last week, in between a pair of town-hall events he was holding in his district. Throughout our interview, he hinted at findings in the Mueller report that troubled him, but he stopped short of criticizing Trump directly. I asked him to compare the cases against the two presidents, two decades apart. To Democrats, the allegations of abuse of power by Trump make the impeachment case against Clinton all the more flimsy in retrospect. One involved a president lying about a private sexual encounter, while Mueller identified multiple instances in which Trump tried to shut down investigations into himself as well as into foreign interference in a U.S. election.

Chabot, however, said it came down to perjury. “President Clinton put his hand on the Bible, swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then he lied. He perjured himself,” Chabot told me, referring to Clinton’s testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. “Trump didn’t perjure himself. He was never under oath.”

True enough: On the advice of lawyers who worried about the potential for a perjury charge, Trump refused to sit for an interview with Mueller or answer any written questions about obstruction of justice. But Mueller did document dozens of instances in which Trump or his aides and family members lied or otherwise withheld the truth. When I asked Chabot whether Mueller found anything that concerned him—even if it didn’t amount to a crime or an impeachable offense—he responded carefully. “I would just say that we ought to, at all times, be honest about all matters, particularly if they’re involved in representing the public in some capacity,” he said. “That ought to be the way we operate all the time. And I’ll just leave it there.”

I spoke with Chabot about his opinion of the president’s conduct and whether his committee should hear from Mueller. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Russell Berman: How did you consume the Mueller report? Did you read the whole thing?

Steve Chabot: Yes.

Berman: What was your takeaway from it?

Chabot: Well, it took me about two days to read it. I did read the whole thing. I thought it was my responsibility as a member of Congress, but especially as a member of the Judiciary Committee. I thought it was pretty clear that Mueller determined that there was no collusion, and he didn’t come to a conclusion of obstruction of justice, but Attorney General Barr did. So I think most Americans, and I put myself in this category, think that it’s time to move on and to focus on things that are very important, like our infrastructure and actually getting control of our southern border and keeping this strong economy moving.

Berman: Did you come away thinking, especially on the obstruction part of it, that the president did nothing wrong? That he obstructed justice as the Democrats say? Or were you somewhere in between: that he acted inappropriately but it didn’t rise to the level of a crime, or of something worthy of impeachment?

Chabot: Certainly I think anybody who reads the report is going to see that there were things that he or anyone could have done differently. But we weren’t in that same situation that he was. And the issue comes down to, did he obstruct justice? And the attorney general determined that he did not. Or at least there was, you know, insufficient grounds to prove it or make a case that he did.

Berman: You read the report yourself. You read the descriptions of the actions that Mueller acknowledged could be construed as obstruction of justice, and you’ve served on the Judiciary Committee for a long time. Did you personally see obstruction in those actions? Or did you see appropriate actions by the president?

Chabot: I did not see obstruction of justice myself. I’ll just leave it there.

Berman: Was there anything in that section that concerned you, whether it was the president asking the FBI director to let go of the Michael Flynn investigation or telling [White House Counsel] Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller repeatedly? Did any of those things concern you? Do you think that was the right thing for the president to do?

Chabot: I think when you study almost anybody as closely and with such a fine-tooth comb as the president was studied, you’re always going to find instances where a person’s judgment can be second-guessed. But that’s not the standard we use to determine whether we ought to impeach a president or not. It’s whether he committed high crimes and misdemeanors. And I think there’s no evidence that that’s the case, or that you could ever prove a case of that nature.

Berman: You’re obviously just one of two Republicans who are on the committee who were around for the last impeachment of a president. Do you regret that vote, or do you think that Clinton committed impeachable offenses in lying about his sexual activity, and do you stand by that?

Chabot: I do stand by it. I think he did commit an impeachable offense—that’s why I voted that way. And there are a lot of differences. President Clinton put his hand on the Bible, swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then he lied. He perjured himself. And we had hundreds of people at the time that were in jail around the country for that very thing, and so I think perjury is a high crime and misdemeanor. And that’s why I voted that way. And we had the Starr report, which was somewhat similar to the Mueller report, and there were 11 grounds on which he recommended that we move forward on impeachment. Trump didn’t perjure himself. He was never under oath. And also Mueller did not recommend that there was an impeachable offense. So both things.

Berman: If Mueller had made a decision on obstruction—if he had concluded that Trump committed a crime, even if he couldn’t charge him while in office—or if he had made a more explicit impeachment referral to Congress, would that have weighed on you?

Chabot: Certainly it would have weighed. Yeah. I can’t say definitively it would have changed where I ultimately came down. But [it] certainly would have great weight in making a decision.

Berman: You’ve said Congress should move on. Do you think the committee needs to hear from Mueller?

Chabot: I have no objection to the committee hearing from Mueller. I have no problem with that at all.

Berman: You’ve said you don’t regret your vote and you still think Clinton committed impeachable offenses.

Chabot: Yeah, I do.

Berman: With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, do you think the Republican Party made a mistake in pursuing impeachment in the way that it did?

Chabot: I don’t think it was a mistake, and I can only speak for myself. I thought it was the right thing to do because I thought the president had committed perjury and therefore deserved to be impeached. That was the decision I came to, and I’ve stood by that, and I still do. Were the Republicans hurt politically because of that? Yeah, we probably were. We were expected to pick up seats that year, and we ended up losing seats. Newt Gingrich probably lost his speakership because of that. Politically, it probably did harm the party, but nonetheless, you shouldn’t just do things based on politics. You do things based upon what’s right.

Berman: Between Clinton and Trump, do you think one is more honest than the other, or one lies more than the other?

Chabot: I would only comment on whether they perjured themselves or not. And I think one did and one didn’t.

Berman: So you’re not saying Trump has never lied. You’re just saying he’s never lied under oath?

Chabot: I would not contend that probably most politicians haven’t lied. I try not to, and I can’t think of another time that I have, but … we ought to be truthful. We ought to tell the truth all the time. All of us. And I think there are quite a few that that’s not the case.

Berman: Was there any particular thing in the report that caused you to say, That’s pretty close. It might not be a crime, it might not be impeachable, but that was wrong?

Chabot: I would just say that we ought to, at all times, be honest about all matters, particularly if they’re involved in representing the public in some capacity. That ought to be the way we operate all the time. And I’ll just leave it there.

Berman: So you don’t want to go a step further and say that perhaps the president has not been honest at all times?

Chabot: No, I’m not prepared to go there.