WASHINGTON — Nebraska’s two U.S. senators backed opposing verdicts at the end of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial — Republican Chuck Hagel voted guilty and Democrat Bob Kerrey voted not guilty.
But in World-Herald interviews this week, both former lawmakers were in agreement that the Clinton process was a far cry from how President Donald Trump’s trial is shaping up.
Hagel recalled how Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., gathered all 100 senators behind closed doors to hash out a bipartisan consensus on the resolution establishing the Clinton trial rules.
The result was a unanimous 100-0 vote supporting the resolution. Lott and Daschle most likely already knew how they would vote on the final conviction question, Hagel said.
“But what they wanted to do was preserve the dignity and the integrity of the United States Senate,” Hagel said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., unveiled his resolution for Trump’s trial shortly before it got underway Tuesday with a series of strictly party line votes.
Republicans repeatedly shot down Democratic amendments to the resolution that called for additional witness testimony and documents.
As of press time, the four Republican senators from Nebraska and Iowa had stood united with their party leaders on those votes. They have expressed support for McConnell’s plan to decide questions such as new witnesses later in the trial.
Sen. Deb Fischer released a column this week in which she said Democrats have been looking to impeach Trump since he took office and faulted them for not fighting harder through the courts for the additional information.
“As disappointed as I am in the way the proceedings were conducted in the House, I must now fulfill my constitutional duty as a juror in the Senate trial,” Fischer wrote.
Hagel criticized McConnell’s approach to the trial, including statements the majority leader has made about working with the White House.
“When McConnell says well, essentially, I’m taking my orders from the president, I mean, my goodness, come on,” Hagel said. “The Senate is an independent body, first article of the Constitution on three co-equal branches of government. This is supposed to be a fair trial, and that just went out the window.”
Trump’s defense team says the president did nothing wrong and that the push for documents and witnesses at this stage shows that House Democrats rushed through a partisan process and are now asking the Senate to do their work for them.
Both Hagel and Kerrey said the Trump administration has stonewalled Congress on documents and witnesses in ways that Clinton did not.
If Trump did nothing wrong, it makes no sense for him to block his own officials from coming forward to clear his name, Hagel said.
Hagel also noted that new information has come out in the past few weeks regarding Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Why not call witnesses for both sides?
“I just can’t fathom why Republicans are so afraid of that — other than the fact they must think Trump’s guilty,” Hagel said. “It takes some courage, and courage has never been a common commodity in Washington D.C. Today, I don’t see any courage in the Republican Party.”
Both Hagel and Kerrey declined to say whether they would vote to convict Trump, but Hagel said the House has assembled a “pretty strong case” and Kerrey said a president steering foreign aid to help his reelection campaign would warrant removal.
“If it’s demonstrably true that that’s what he did, he should be convicted,” Kerrey said. “Because no president should be allowed to do that.”
Kerrey noted other differences in the circumstances surrounding the Clinton and Trump trials. The rise of social media today has ramped up the intensity of outside influences for the current trial, for example.
And he noted that he and other Senate Democrats were sharply critical of Clinton’s behavior even as they found that it did not rise to a level that warranted removal.
Kerrey said his own approval ratings back in Nebraska took a hit after he voted not guilty. And Kerrey recalled serving on a special commission that interviewed Clinton as part of its examination of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Clinton insisted that he wasn’t affected by the impeachment trial, Kerrey said.
“I said on the record, ‘It may not have affected you, buddy, but it sure as heck affected me,’ ” Kerrey said. “Because I gave a fair amount of time to try and evaluate whether or not you should be convicted. And I gave a fair amount of my capacity to get other things done away by voting no.”