Why Impeachment Is Different This Time Around

Steve Chabot, a House Republican who helped lead his party's impeachment fight against Bill Clinton, explains why he’s unconvinced by the Democrats’ case against Trump.

Representative Steve Chabot in an impeachment hearing
Alex Edelman / Reuters

President Donald Trump is on the verge of becoming the first president to be impeached by the House in more than two decades. A lot has changed in Congress since that time, but Steve Chabot, a Republican representative from Ohio, is still around.

Back then, he was one of the House Republicans tapped as an impeachment manager to prosecute the case against Bill Clinton in the Senate. Now he has been a prominent voice complaining about the process against Trump from his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, and he told me he sees no reason why this impeachment should happen at all.

Chabot’s argument: Not everything Trump did was ideal, but “Democrats have lowered the bar on what constitutes an impeachable offense.” He said he doesn’t think they have made anywhere close to a solid case against Trump, even with the deliberately narrow set of articles of impeachment they chose.

The furthest he’ll go? I asked him about the allegations that Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden and his family. “I certainly wouldn’t advise it, but I also don’t think—in fact, I know—it’s not an impeachable offense,” he said. “But obviously a majority of the Democrats apparently think otherwise.”

We spoke on Thursday morning, just before he headed over to a Judiciary Committee hearing on the articles of impeachment. Our full interview can be heard on the latest episode of Radio Atlantic. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

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Edward-Isaac Dovere: How does this impeachment compare to the last one?

Steve Chabot: One of my concerns is that I’m afraid that the Democrats this time have lowered the bar on what constitutes an impeachable offense. These [charges] are not actually crimes, and they’re supposed to be “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” And President Clinton put his hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then he lied. It was perjury. I’m concerned that in the first 200 or so years of our history, we only had one impeachment: Andrew Johnson. Two hundred years. And now in the last less than 50 years, we’re seeing our third one. So I think they’re becoming too routine. I think they’re too divisive for the country, unless they’re really necessary. And this one, I think, is not really necessary.

Dovere: You’re a Republican who was involved in impeaching a Democratic president and is now defending a Republican president from impeachment. But you supported the impeachment of Richard Nixon, the last Republican who faced it.

Chabot: This may come as a surprise to some folks, but I had voted for Nixon in ’72—that was the first president who I voted for. Four years later, I voted for Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, principally because I thought it was wrong that Gerald Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon. You know, I just thought there must have been some kind of deal there, and I just didn’t like that at all. And so I voted for Jimmy Carter. Now, I’ll also acknowledge that’s the last Democrat who I voted for.

Dovere: House Democrats are about to pick the members who’ll serve as impeachment managers, essentially the prosecutors in the Senate trial. What is that experience like?

Chabot: You know that the eyes of your constituents in your district—as well as the nation and even the world—are on you. So you don’t want to screw it up. And so I did my best to prepare. Ultimately, we were unable to persuade two-thirds of the Senate that the president should be removed from office, and he was acquitted.

Dovere: You’re warning now that Democrats will pay the price politically for this. The Republicans had a bad midterm year in 1998, in the middle of the Clinton impeachment. Was that the reason why?

Chabot: I think ultimately that’s probably what happened. I think the public got sick of this. And the majority in the public felt that the president, whereas he’d done some bad things, it probably didn’t merit impeachment. So I think the Democrats did benefit politically, at least in that election. Now, George W. Bush was elected two years later and Al Gore had a real challenge [answering questions like] “How close does he get to Bill Clinton? Does he distance himself?” And he kind of distanced himself.

I think it’s safe to say impeachment probably did benefit to some degree the Democrats [with voters] who thought that Republicans had overreached. I don’t think we did. But that’s what I think a majority in the public thought. And it’s reasonable to assume that this time around we may see somewhat of that same dynamic. I don’t think by the time the election rolls around, most people are going to think that we really should have gone through this mess—that there are so many other things that we should have been focused on.

Dovere: You’ve raised concerns about the impeachment process, but do you think it is okay for the president to ask a foreign country to investigate his political opponent?

Chabot: I certainly wouldn’t advise it, but I also don’t think—in fact, I know—it’s not an impeachable offense. Obviously, a majority of the Democrats apparently think otherwise.

Dovere: You wouldn’t advise it. But is it the wrong thing to do?

Chabot: I just don’t think it’s smart. I think it’s something that potentially could blow up in your face, and has. Although something else that I hope we learn from this is that when the leader of our country is talking to a leader of another country, I don’t think we ought to have dozens of ears listening to the conversation who then blab it out all over the place.

Dovere: One of the articles of impeachment against Trump, obstruction of Congress, is based on the idea that the White House and the president refused to comply with subpoenas and produce documents that House Democrats asked for. What do you make of that?

Chabot: I think that’s really a weak charge. I would call it checks and balances between the branches of the government. Congress is trying to go after the executive branch in demanding all these things. The executive branch is saying, “No, you’re not entitled to those things.” [Congress is] not going to get them. So what do we do? We ought to go to the courts and let the third branch decide these things. The Democrats have skipped that process, and they just indicate, “Well, we’re just going to impeach this guy.”

That's ridiculous, you know? Now, if we didn’t have an election coming up, maybe they’d let the process go out longer and go to the courts. And if the court said, “You got to turn [over] these documents; you’ve got to let these people testify,” I think the president would do that.

Nixon didn’t want to turn over the tapes. And the [Supreme] Court said, “Yep, you got to turn over the tapes.” Nixon resigned within a couple of weeks because there was a smoking-gun tape that he was trying to hide. But the Democrats have decided, rather than do what you’re supposed to do—go to the courts to make a decision, like a referee—they just decided to impeach the president. So that’s, I think, a big mistake.

Dovere: You’re pretty locked into your feelings against impeachment. Do you understand the mind-set of people who insist that Trump should be impeached?

Chabot: Certainly, I hear from them all the time. I mean, the country is divided on this ,and both sides feel very strongly. And then, of course, you have some people in the middle that aren’t really sure at this point and maybe are persuadable one way or the other. We ought to talk to each other. We ought to work together. And ultimately up here, the elected representatives of the American people out there who disagree on this will vote on it. And then we follow whatever that vote says. Now, one thing that does concern me is that assuming that the president is impeached by the House, it goes to the Senate and there are not sufficient votes. And so he’s acquitted. A Democratic member of Congress said, “Well, we’re going to keep coming back and we’re going to file more impeachment charges.” I mean, we’ve never had multiple impeachment charges one after another. But this particular member of Congress has threatened that. I think that would be a real problem.

Dovere: You have raised objections to the idea that the president’s lawyers did not get to be part of the committee process and produce their own testimony and evidence here. When it gets to the trial in the Senate, should President Trump testify?

Chabot: I doubt that that'll happen, but that’ll ultimately be up to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. I don’t want to tell the Senate what to do. They don’t listen to us here in the House anyway and usually do just the opposite.