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How the Circumstances Around Donald Trump’s Impeachment Inquiry Differ From Bill Clinton’s

September 30, 2019, 7:28 PM UTC

With President Donald Trump facing a formal impeachment inquiry, political media and the American public are turning to the most recent historical example for a roadmap: the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

But is Trump in the same position, now, that Clinton was in 1998? Not exactly.

Here are five ways the circumstances surrounding both presidents’ impeachment inquiries differ.

1. The Economy

Trump may often remind us of how well the economy is doing, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture.

As the Republican-controlled House moved to impeach Clinton in 1998, the economy was booming. This was the time of the dot com boom: the stock market was soaring, and the GDP grew 4.5%. 

We don’t yet face a recession today, but there are indications that we soon will. The economy has begun to slow, and with a precarious trade war with China and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement uncertain, consumer confidence is rapidly dropping.

The U.S. currently has just a 2% growth rate, down from 3.1% in the first quarter of this year, and representing nearly a full percentage point below OECD forecasts for the global economy.

2. Approval Rating

A president’s approval rating, in addition to public opinion polls on impeachment, can offer a pulse of the people.

Clinton, despite facing allegations of obstruction of justice and covering up an affair, was quite popular: his approval ratings remained in the mid-60s, even jumping to 73% in the days after the Republican-controlled House impeached him in December 1998.

Trump, on the other hand, currently sees a 43% approval rating. His overall approval has never exceeded 45 or 46%, and allegations against him include withholding aid to Ukraine until the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to investigate Democratic frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden.

3. Congress

Clinton, who faced impeachment toward the latter half of his second term as president, was squaring off against a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Yet, while the odds might have appeared to be against him, just weeks after the House officially opened its impeachment inquiry, five House Republicans lost their seats to Democrats in the midterm election. This marked the first time since the early 1800s that a president’s party gained seats in the sixth year of his term, suggesting weak opposition to Clinton.

Trump faces different odds.

Democrats took back the House just months ago and Republicans still maintain control of the Senate. Growing support for impeachment from vulnerable and moderate Democrats suggest that impeachment will have traction in the House, but we have yet to see much movement among Senate Republicans, whose votes will be essential for Trump to be removed from office, not just impeached. 

4. Response Strategy

During the Clinton impeachment, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta ran a tight ship. Clinton had a war room of lawyers and communications professionals who were responsible for running rapid response. Only those directly working on impeachment were allowed to talk about it—everyone else was to remain focused on policy. 

As The New York Times puts it, Clinton aides had studied Watergate, “and their takeaway was that the public believed President Richard M. Nixon was being buried by the scandal, in part, because he talked about it endlessly. So their approach was that the only way to survive and to keep his job approval rating up was to demonstrate that the White House was still working, and that Mr. Clinton was still doing the job he was elected to do for the people.” 

Trump and his closest aides do not appear to be following Clinton’s script. They have refused to develop a team devoted to rapid response so far, with Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway calling it an “overreaction.” Instead, Trump has continued to serve as his own primary spokesman, tweeting, for example, about the Ukraine scandal and impeachment more than 80 times just this past weekend.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Grisham is currently serving not just as Trump’s official White House press secretary, but also his communications director, as well as chief spokesperson for first lady Melania Trump. Trump’s legal team is also limited: his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has been taking the lead, while the White House Office of General Counsel may itself come under scrutiny for its role in allegedly “locking down” the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky, among other possible issues.

5. 2020 Election

There is one other significant difference between the two situations: Unlike Clinton, Trump is in the midst of a re-election campaign.

While the evidence—and allegations—against Trump may be more serious than those Clinton faced, the current president nevertheless still has a strong Republican majority in the Senate and strong approval from his base.

There’s a chance that this investigation could prove helpful, rather than harmful, in his quest for a second term.

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