Throwback Thursday: Chuck Grassley on Bill Clinton's impeachment trial

“We are here because the President did wrongful acts, and he admits that,” U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said in February 1999, when explaining his votes to remove President Bill Clinton from office.

It’s a far cry from the statements he released in September, accusing U.S. House Democrats of “searching for any reason to impeach President Trump since his inauguration because they couldn’t accept the results of the 2016 election.”

With prospects growing that the Democratic-controlled House will vote out articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, it’s worth revisiting in detail how Grassley approached the Senate’s last impeachment trial.


Current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell buries most legislation and resolutions that come out of the House, but he has said, “I would have no choice but to take it up” if the lower chamber votes to impeach Trump. On the other hand, Senate rules don’t appear to prevent Republicans from dispensing with impeachment quickly: “How long you’re on it is a whole different matter,” McConnell told CNBC last month. Some analysts have speculated Republican senators would vote to dismiss all charges against Trump without holding a trial.

When the Senate considered two articles of impeachment against Clinton, Republicans including Grassley voted down two Democratic motions about the proceedings. Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin moved to debate impeachment in open session, and Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia moved to dismiss the charges against the president.

Grassley explained his vote against holding an open trial in this written statement.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa issued the following comment regarding his vote this afternoon against the motion to open deliberations in the Senate impeachment trial. The motion was defeated by a vote of 57 to 43.

“On January 7th I took a special oath along with 99 other United States senators to ‘do impartial justice.’ In the spirit of that oath, I have worked to achieve an impeachment court that emulates the courtroom as much as possible. And that means leaving Republican and Democratic labels at the door of the Senate as we seek the truth and make sure the President gets a fair trial.

“I also supported modeling the impeachment process after the procedure used every day in courtrooms across the country, with the case argued in public, the jury deliberating in private and the verdict announced in public. I’m an outspoken advocate for letting the sun shine in on the legislative process. However, this is not a legislative situation. It is an impeachment trial. Considering the potential political grandstanding, I also think that turning the cameras on senators during deliberation would detract from a judicious process where we get to the truth and get the trial over with as quickly as possible.”

Regarding his vote against dismissing charges, Grassley noted that the Senate “has never before dismissed a Constitutional impeachment, and it would have trivialized the process and set a bad precedent to do so today.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa issued this following statement regarding his votes today against dismissal and for deposition of witnesses in the impeachment trial.

“These two votes were about standing up for principles. They were not votes about guilt or innocence.

“The first, a motion to dismiss, was about whether perjury and obstruction of justice are impeachable offenses. The Senate has never before dismissed a Constitutional impeachment, and it would have trivialized the process and set a bad precedent to do so today. I work hard to make government more accountable and want to make sure that future generations can rely on the integrity of the Constitutional process of impeachment as envisioned by our founding fathers.

“The second vote, to depose witnesses, was about using a tightly disciplined legal process to get the information needed to help clear up important discrepancies on the record. Witnesses will not be called simply for the sake of calling witnesses. Seeking this information is important to a process that is judicious.

“The job of the United States Senate is to find the truth in an expeditious way that is also fair.

“It is important for Iowans to know that key legislative issues are being addressed along with the impeachment trial going on. I’ve been involved just this week in Senate hearings on concentration in agri-business and the impact on family farmers, efforts by the U.S. government to open new markets for our Iowa products, saving Social Security, paying down the federal debt, and reducing taxes on hardworking families.”


The Senate deliberated for three days behind closed doors before voting to acquit Clinton on February 12, 1999. The vote took place in open session, and you can view the C-SPAN video here. Like most of his GOP colleagues, Grassley voted to convict Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice, but on both charges Republicans fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president from office.

Senators were able to submit their comments about those votes to be printed in the Congressional record. Grassley’s office published his full statement as a February 11, 1999 news release. The senator began by defending the legitimacy of the impeachment proceedings.

There are many losers and no winners in this impeachment trial. There are no heroes. There are lots of lessons to be learned. My prayers for healing go out to all those who were ensnared in this web of controversy.

In reflecting on this case, and my role in it under the Constitution, the word “sad” comes to mind. I did not relish sitting in judgment of a twice-elected, popular president. I would prefer to make history in other ways. I also regret the nature of the subject of this case. It’s not easy having our entire society suddenly thrust into an open, non-stop debate about things that usually make us blush.

Some say that this impeachment effort is part of a right wing conspiracy. A Republican plot to get a Democrat president. Let’s look at how we got here, and see if that argument holds up.

We are here because the President did wrongful acts, and he admits that. We are here because of the independent counsel law.

The President himself led the charge to reauthorize the Independent Counsel Act. Thirty-three of my colleagues on the other side were in the Senate at the time. All but one voted for reauthorization.

On June 30, 1994, the President signed the reauthorization bill. He issued a statement. Here’s what he said:

“This law, originally passed in 1978, is a foundation stone for the trust between the Government and our citizens… Opponents called it a tool of partisan attack against Republican Presidents and a waste of taxpayer funds. It was neither. In fact, the independent counsel statute has been in the past and is today a force for Government integrity and public confidence.”

Those were the President’s own words.

Before reauthorization, it was the President himself who advocated appointment of a Special Prosecutor. That appointment was made by the President’s own Attorney General. After reauthorization, the Attorney General supported the appointment of an Independent Counsel. The Independent Counsel was then appointed by a special three-judge panel, as required by the law.

Also under the law, the Attorney General can initiate the dismissal of the Independent Counsel if he oversteps his bounds or acts improperly. Not only was this never done by the President’s Attorney General, but in contrast, she even agreed several times to expand his jurisdiction, including to cover the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Also under the law, the Independent Counsel is obliged to send to the House of Representatives any evidence of crimes that might be impeachable.

In short, this case came about through a legitimate, legal process. It’s a process that historically was vigorously defended by the other side. There are various checks and balances built into the process. They are designed to prevent abuse by the Independent Counsel. But they were never triggered, even though the President’s own Attorney General could move for dismissal.

No, this President is in this predicament because of his own wrongdoing. There is no conspiracy.


Next, Grassley turned to the damage Clinton had allegedly caused the institution of the presidency. It’s worth noting that Clinton’s approval rating stayed well above 50 percent–by most measures, above 60 percent–throughout his impeachment process. In contrast, Trump’s approval rating has never been above 50 percent at any point during his presidency.

Going back to Grassley’s remarks of February 1999:

The President’s actions are having a profound impact on our society. His misdeeds have caused many to mistrust elected officials. Cynicism is swelling among the grassroots. His breach of trust has eroded the public’s faith in the office of the presidency. The President’s wrongdoing has painted all of us in Washington with a rather broad brush.

In the past 12 months, thousands of Iowans have registered their opinions. One letter from a middle school principal speaks volumes.

At an assembly to mark the new school year, a video was presented to the student body. It was called, “Attitude is Everything.” The video was about all-American heroes. College athletes; Olympic medalists; astronauts; world leaders.

Logically, the video also included President Clinton. The school principal wrote to me the following. He said, when the President’s picture appeared, the entire student body — ages 11 to 14 — snickered. He said their spontaneous reaction struck a chord. He wrote:

“Although they may not fully understand the adult connotations and political ramifications… they do know that if you want to be trusted and respected, you must tell the truth… [A]s an educator in Iowa’s public schools for the past 16 years… our students’ reaction to President Clinton’s picture is one of the saddest moments I can recall. In that instant, I realized how deeply his conduct has affected our country.”

There’s that word “sad” again. It seems to come to the fore in people’s minds over this case. Over this President’s conduct. And over the impact it’s had on our country.

The true tragedy in this case is the collapse of the President’s moral authority. He undermined himself when he wagged his finger and lied to the nation on national TV, denying a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. That did more damage to his credibility than any other single act.

There was no better reason than that for resignation by this President. I did not personally call for his resignation. That’s something the President should decide on his own. But once you lose your moral authority to lead, you’re a failure as a leader. FDR once spoke of the Presidency in this way. He said, “The Presidency is not merely an administrative office… It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” Mr. Clinton should take note.


Grassley then turned to Clinton’s alleged abuses of power, in his dealings with Monica Lewinsky as well as his administration’s approach to the impeachment investigation.

Next, there’s the issue of abuse of power and authority. The President used his position to enter into an improper relationship with a subordinate. Not just a subordinate. A young intern. He later used his power to find her a job.

Another abuse of power: The full powers of the White House were unleashed to stonewall the process and to attack the credibility of all who investigated him. This White House has perfected the art of constructing stone walls around the truth. I fear that future White Houses will learn from these experts, and refine and improve their own truth-fighting arsenals. Truth and openness will be casualties.

Last, there’s the issue of the poor example the President’s actions serve for the nation, especially for our youth. Is it now okay to lie because the President does it? And in the same manner, by wordsmithing? As in, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” I received a call recently from the mother of a teenage son in Des Moines. All last year, she thought the investigation of the President was a wasteful, partisan witch hunt. She was totally against the investigation and the impeachment.

And then, her son got into some serious trouble. It involved lying. She confronted him with what he had done wrong. Her son responded, “What I told you is the truth as I understood it at that time.”

The mother grew furious, she said. At that moment, she said, she knew the damage that his conduct had done to her family, and to the country. At that point, she said, she changed her position in favor of impeachment.

These are all questions and issues that emerge from the broader contours of this case, outside the narrow charges in the articles.

You have to admit, Grassley was right about future administrations refining and improving “their own truth-fighting arsenals.” Trump has repeatedly attacked the credibility of former FBI Director James Comey and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News has amplified attacks on them and the president’s other critics. The Trump administration has also failed to comply with numerous Congressional subpoenas.

More recently, the president and some of his allies called for exposing the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the formal impeachment inquiry. (Grassley has said the whistleblower’s confidentiality should be protected.)


Finally, Grassley explained why he was voting to convict on both counts.

With respect to the impeachment charges, many of the President’s arguments are based on contorted interpretations of the facts. These interpretations aren’t credible, in my view. They represent lawyering at its best, some would say, at its worst.It is clear to me that the President committed serious crimes when he coached his secretary, Betty Currie, and when he misled his aides Sidney Blumenthal and John Podesta. Each of these aides was slated to be a witness in official court proceedings. I believe, based on the evidence before the Senate, that the President lied to these witnesses so that they would repeat those lies before official court proceedings. That is obstruction of justice.

In addition, I find it very interesting that a power lawyer like Vernon Jordan would be so active in the job hunt for Ms. Lewinsky. Regardless of what she felt or thought, I believe that the President was arranging to get her a job. That way, she wouldn’t provide harmful testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. Again, this is obstruction of justice.

These actions weren’t just outrageous and morally wrong. They were also illegal. They were a direct assault on the integrity of the judicial process. I feel I have no choice but to conclude that the President is guilty of the offenses charged under Article II.

The first Article of Impeachment charged that the President committed perjury on several occasions. While I’m not convinced that he committed perjury on each occasion charged, I believe he did commit perjury when he lied about his efforts to obstruct justice: the fourth count.

I don’t believe the President’s statement that he was merely trying to refresh his memory when he spoke with Betty Currie about his relationship with Lewinsky. And, I simply don’t believe the President’s statement that he was only trying to protect himself from embarrassment when he concocted elaborate lies about Ms. Lewinsky, and then conveyed those lies to his aides.

The President was not forthright when he testified before the grand jury. Time and time again, he gave answers that were misleading and sometimes deliberately false. The American people have a right to expect their president to be completely truthful. And the American people have a right to expect their president to be truthful when placed under oath. I voted guilty on Article I as well.

These were not easy decisions. They are the product of much reflection, deliberation and soul searching. And so they leave me with a good conscience. I believe my votes reflect the truth of what happened in this case.

The Senate has closed this chapter in American history. It may not be the final chapter in this story. Nonetheless, our decision in this impeachment trial will stand against the test of time. You only truly understand the present when it is past. In that respect, future generations will serve as jury. And in the end, history will serve as the final judge.

If Clinton committed a “direct assault on the integrity of the judicial process,” I wonder how Grassley will explain away the Trump administration’s refusal to provide testimony and documents to Congress, and false statements some of Trump’s associates have made to Congressional committees. We’ll likely find out in the coming months.

Postscript: statements Senator Chuck Grassley released about the current impeachment inquiry

Grassley Statement on Pelosi Announcement of Impeachment Inquiry
Sep 24, 2019
WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, issued the following statement after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally announced an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

“The president said he will release tomorrow the full, unclassified transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president. That level of transparency is extraordinary from any White House. The leadership of the Senate intelligence committee is also working to do its part and hear from the alleged whistleblower and intelligence officials.

“Unfortunately, instead of waiting to learn the facts by reviewing that transcript or hearing from the whistleblower, Democrats have moved straight to starting the impeachment process. Democrats have been searching for any reason to impeach President Trump since his inauguration because they couldn’t accept the results of the 2016 election.

“This all reeks of hypocrisy considering former Vice President Joe Biden has already said he used his office and taxpayer dollars to pressure Ukraine’s president into taking specific law enforcement actions that directly benefited his son. The attention on unverified reports instead of an on-record admission shows why Americans are so distrustful of politicians and the media.

“If Democrats use impeachment proceedings as a basis to not act on policy that will directly benefit Americans like the USMCA or lowering prescription drug prices, that would prove they’re more interested in politics and opposing the president at all costs than serving the American people. For my part, I’ll continue focusing on the issues that affect the everyday lives of Iowans. I hope my Democrat colleagues return to doing the same for their constituents.”

Grassley Statement on Ukraine Call Transcript
Sep 25, 2019
WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, today released the following statement regarding the release of a White House transcript of a call between the presidents of the United States and Ukraine.

“Speaker Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry even before seeing the call transcript or hearing from the alleged whistleblower or the director of national intelligence. That says all anyone needs to know about the legitimacy of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry: impeach now, facts later.

“I’ve read the transcript in its entirety. It shows that there was no quid pro quo. The Ukrainian President admitted problems with corruption in the country and agreed that the issue at hand warranted looking into further.

“The firing of a prosecutor looking into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son following pressure from Mr. Biden himself is worthy of investigation. That a president who ran on an anti-corruption platform would look into this matter is unsurprising and is in both the U.S. and Ukrainian national interest.

“For years, Democrats have decried foreign interference in U.S. elections. But this seems to be a one-way street. Democrats are wholly uninterested in looking into past Ukrainian efforts to help former Vice President Biden, as well as the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, which reportedly used Ukraine to undermine the Trump campaign. That’s not how the rule of law works.

“National media attention to only one side of this issue is disappointing even if unsurprising. The Obama administration used the Department of Justice and its intelligence agencies to investigate a political opponent in then-candidate Trump while using foreign government sources to further the investigation. But it’s supposedly unacceptable for the Trump administration to encourage a foreign nation to look into a matter that it was prevented from fully investigating by the previous administration with clear conflicts of interest. That’s not a standard that makes any sense.”

“Democrats’ cries for impeachment grow stronger by the day, but their case for impeachment grows weaker. Democrats should instead focus on the issues Americans care about, such as lowering prescription drug prices, rebuilding our infrastructure and passing the USMCA.”

Top: Senator Chuck Grassley’s official photo from the 106th Congress, which met from January 1999 through the beginning of January 2001.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin