Two senators from Illinois compare Trump impeachment to Clinton's
Will civility win out in the U.S. Senate during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump as it did with President Bill Clinton?
The two U.S. senators from Illinois who participated in the 1999 event aren't holding their breath.
"I hope we won't see theatrics," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield said. "I think the Senate can rise to the occasion. The American people demand it."
But "there was not quite the acrimony then that there is now," said former Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who held office from 1999 to 2005.
The acrimony is just beginning, it appears. After impeaching Trump Wednesday for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, House Democrats took the unusual step of holding on to the articles instead of delivering them to the Senate in order to negotiate with Republicans about the terms of the trial.
Asked if the Democrats' strategy would backfire in the November 2020 election, Durbin bristled.
"It's not a question of backfiring -- that suggests a political calculation," he said.
"This is about our Constitution. It's one of the most serious things that can happen under our Constitution and calls into question the continued leadership and tenure of a sitting president.
"I think issues have reached that level of gravity and seriousness."
But Fitzgerald, a former Inverness resident, said "it's simply partisanship that's driving the impeachment, and I think that's poor judgment. There is zero chance there will be a conviction in the Senate, so it's wasting the country's time."
House Democrats say evidence shows Trump abused his power by withholding financial military aid from Ukraine to pressure its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate a political foe. Trump denies any wrongdoing.
Clinton admitted to lying about an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s but did not believe his actions merited losing the presidency.
Durbin recalled all 100 senators meeting privately in the old Senate chamber before the Clinton trial and choosing two opposites -- former Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democratic icon, and conservative Sen. Phil Graham -- to work out a process.
And unlike the acidic relationship between congressional leaders now, GOP Senate President Trent Lott of Mississippi and Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota "got along well," Fitzgerald recalled Tuesday.
One similarity will be that Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the trial, as did former Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 1999.
"I really do remember Chief Justice Rehnquist arriving on the scene in his black robe and yellow braid," Durbin said. "The mood of the chamber changed instantly. Everyone realized it was not business as usual."
Fitzgerald was new to the Senate in 1999 but saw a familiar face at the trial -- Republican U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde of Wood Dale. The House Judiciary Committee chairman and chief prosecutor had given Fitzgerald a crucial endorsement in 1998.
But "it was clear from the moment it began, there was no chance of ever getting a conviction," Fitzgerald said. "I wondered, 'Why are we going to do this? Not one Democrat will vote for impeaching Clinton.'"
Testimony by Lewinsky and deliberations were closed to the press, which meant Fitzgerald's maiden Senate speech never saw the light of day.
The sex scandal "was tawdry and we didn't want to make a media circus out of it," Fitzgerald said.
"I'm an attorney, so I gave a fairly legalistic argument. I felt that President Clinton had perjured himself and obstructed justice."
Durbin recalled that 10 Republicans joined 45 Democratic senators to oppose removing Clinton for lying under oath in 1999, and five GOP senators also voted with Democrats against an obstruction of justice conviction.
"It was a bipartisan response," Durbin said. "I can only hope the same thing happens now."
Fitzgerald voted for removal. "I thought (Clinton) had perjured himself and we needed to show that no man is above the law," he said.
Fast forward to 2019 and "the weakness in the Democrats' articles is that there is no crime," Fitzgerald said, arguing the abuse of power charge is too vague.
Durbin, second-ranking member of the Senate and Democratic whip, doesn't expect to play a high-profile part.
"I'm one of 100 jurors. That's my role," he said. "I don't have any special authority or responsibility beyond it, but I take it very seriously."
The Democrat quoted Founding Father Alexander Hamilton's opinion that the Senate offered a tribunal that was "independent and dignified."
"We better prove Alexander Hamilton right," Durbin said.
Nearly a year after his impeachment vote, Fitzgerald spent time on Air Force One with Clinton, who was delivering a speech in Quincy on Jan. 28, 2000.
"He was very charming," Fitzgerald recalled. "He never seemed to hold a grudge."