I remember the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. I had just started law school. I was basically a supporter of the President’s political agenda—I had voted for him twice. And I did not like what I saw as the overreach of the Independent Counsel, Ken Starr. Starr had been appointed to investigate the Whitewater scandal, and yet at the end of the day the main point of the articles of impeachment was that the President had lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And yet I was persuaded that the impeachment, no matter how tacky, tawdry, politically motivated, and inappropriate, was right. Lying under oath—perjury—is a serious crime, after all. We can’t have a perjurer as president. This is America!
My attitude, shared no doubt by many, and even by some Democrats, was music to the ears of the Republican Senators who were to vote on Clinton’s fate. Senator Orrin Hatch, who proclaimed he had “anguished” about his decision, said:
Committing crimes of moral turpitude such as perjury and obstruction of justice go to the heart of qualification for public office. These offenses were committed by the chief executive of our country, the individual who swore to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.
This great nation can tolerate a President who makes mistakes. But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up. Any other citizen would be prosecuted for these crimes.
What an honorable man! I might not have approved of his politics, but it’s hard to disagree with views like these. What has he been saying about this bombshell from the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing memorandum in the Michael Cohen case?
During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories—each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1—so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1. As a result of Cohen’s actions, neither woman spoke to the press prior to the election.
Doubtless you know this, but “Individual-1” is the President of the United States, and the two women were pornographic actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Did Senator Hatch don the toga before denouncing the President’s apparent crime of moral turpitude? According to reporter Manu Raju, he denied being concerned, saying, “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this president.” When told it was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, not “the Democrats,” making the assertions, he said: “Okay but I don’t care; all I can say is he’s doing a good job as President.”
Maybe Senator Hatch is ritually humiliating himself like this because he fears his voters. Maybe he really hasn’t considered the inconsistency in his views. Either way, the only message I can take from the affair is that in 1998 I was a sucker. When senior Republican senators claim to care a lot about the rule of law, moral rectitude, and all the other things I care about, it is wrong to believe them. I’m not claiming that the Democratic Party is now the party of moral rectitude or even that most Democratic officeholders would be comfortable talking about moral rectitude. But it does mean that the American people mustn’t be fooled again by Republican attempts to claim that mantle. It just isn’t true.