Then and now: How lawmakers characterize impeachment as a ‘coup’ to protect their own

October 9 at 3:31 PM

The day before the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton in December 1998, it engaged in a nearly 13-hour debate that at times did not look all that dissimilar from the current impeachment debate.

Then, as now, House members opposed to impeachment characterized the proceedings as a “coup” meant to overturn the results of the previous presidential election, examples of which you can watch in the video above.

“Not all coups are accompanied by the sound of marching boots and rolling tanks,” Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor on Dec. 18, 1998.

“I rise in strong opposition to this attempt at a bloodless coup d’etat, this attempt to overturn two national elections,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said.

“You may have the votes, you may have the muscle, but you do not have the legitimacy of a national consensus or of a constitutional imperative,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said at the time. “This partisan coup d’etat will go down in infamy in the history of this nation.”

At least 11 House Democrats at the time called the Clinton impeachment proceedings a “coup,” including then-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). In her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” Hillary Clinton called the impeachment of her husband an “attempted Congressional coup d’etat.”

Engel and Nadler are now leading the impeachment inquiry of President Trump along with House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Republicans are now taking a page from the Democratic “coup” playbook.

At least six House Republicans have called the Trump impeachment inquiry a “coup” in the two weeks since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally launched the inquiry, according to a Fix analysis, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Trump himself has called the inquiry a “coup” and no fewer than 18 Fox News hosts and guests have referred to the inquiry as a “coup,” echoing White House and Republican National Committee talking points.

“Coup” comparisons also persisted in the years after President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation stemming from impeachment proceedings. Vice President Spiro Agnew called the process a “coup d’etat” in 1980, as did Nixon speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan in 1997.

The impeachment rhetoric reversals are revealing, if not surprising, given that impeachment is an inherently political process with few set procedures. Indeed, much of the rhetoric employed by Republicans and Democrats in 1998 about obstruction of justice and criminality can be flipped to match what lawmakers are saying about the same issues in 2019.

At an anti-impeachment rally two days before the House impeached Clinton in 1998, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) laid into Republicans.

“They hate Bill and Hillary Clinton so much, they will stop at nothing to bring him down,” Waters said at the time.

Nineteen years later, Waters was singing a different tune just two weeks after Trump was sworn in as president.

“I hope he’s not there for four years,” Waters said in Feb. 2017. “ … My greatest desire is to lead him right into impeachment.”

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