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Four things Donald Trump can learn from Bill Clinton’s experience with impeachment — but probably won’t

How can a White House endure a major investigation and still govern?

- October 2, 2019

Over the weekend, White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway denied that the Trump White House would reorganize itself to deal with a House impeachment inquiry announced on Sept. 24. “You’re getting that from people who want to create an impeachment war room to get back in or get through the front door in the first place,” she said. “Why would [the president] do that? He’s the most battle-tested person I’ve ever met.”

That may be so. Still, other Trump allies have warned that the president is “shellshocked” by the scandal’s rapid escalation and that (as a Washington Post article put it) “the White House, as currently staffed, is not prepared for this type of all-encompassing battle.” Reports are circulating that White House counsel Pat Cipollone and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney are planning for just that.

How can a White House manage a major investigation and still make policy? Luckily impeachment is rare, so analogues are, too. But we can turn to Bill Clinton’s experiences in 1998 and early 1999 as his administration faced independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s inquiry into the Clintons’ Arkansas investments, which expanded to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

These are detailed in a recent volume on the Clinton presidency, which draws on oral histories collected by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Any unattributed quotes below come from those histories.

So what might Trump learn from Clinton?

1. Compartmentalize your staff

The Clinton White House sought to seal off staff members working on the administration’s substantive policy priorities from those dealing with the investigation. Scandal management was parceled out to a relatively small group that did not even include the White House chief of staff. Press aide Joe Lockhart said that “this was eight to 10 people out of the entire White House, and no one else was welcome in the meetings. … And you were not allowed to weigh in.” Outside the White House, a group of private lawyers operated, and only partly coordinated with an inside group. Lockhart noted: “They just had a different mission. Ours was to preserve the President’s political standing. Theirs was to keep the President from going to jail.”

Intergovernmental affairs staffer Marcia Hale recalled that “there would be separate meetings.” On her side of the scandal firewall, “you would get enough so that you knew what was going on, but if you weren’t directly involved in the preparation of testimony or anything like that, you really didn’t go” into it.

2. Compartmentalize the president’s attention

This de facto reorganization grew from Clinton’s determination to “compartmentalize” the scandal — to put the distraction into a separate box and, as he frequently said, “have me do my job and focus on my public responsibilities.”

Journalist Marvin Kalb quoted one presidential adviser as saying that “a person who hasn’t read the papers — a visitor from Mars, say — would never, ever guess there’s anything extraordinary going on in [Clinton’s] life.” In public, the president stuck to his lines — “never read[ing] the stage directions aloud,” as David Frum recently put it.

This discipline carried over to the two detail-drenched State of the Union addresses Clinton delivered during the investigation, impeachment and trial. Pundits panned them as long and dull. The public saw them as evidence that the president was hard at work and not distracted by the crisis. Clinton’s approval ratings rose 10 points after the 1998 address, the most in 40 years of Gallup polling.

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3. It will be hard to get things done …

Of course, the doors between compartments were hardly watertight. Author Peter Baker later reported that the president was sometimes “so preoccupied that he appeared lost during meetings.” The staff had difficulties, too. Clinton aide Kris Engskov recalled that by the summer of 1998, “people were just whipped. They were just tired, and tired of dealing with it.” The time spent dealing with requests for files and testimony meant, as the president’s personal secretary Betty Currie would later put it, “I’ve got two jobs now. I’ve got this subpoena job and I’ve got my regular job.” Clinton lawyer Mickey Kantor, a former commerce secretary, put it bluntly: “The whole thing created chaos and took away from the ability … of the presidency and the White House to function. … Just out of the sheer expenditure of time, not to mention the loss of prestige, but the sheer expenditure of time.”

4. … but not impossible if you turn to executive action.

Yet policy kept being made. Domestic policy staffer Chris Jennings said that to keep working, “we did the implementation issues. … A lot more second-term executive actions.” He explained: “The President hated nothing happening on the Hill … so anything we could do to expedite his agenda through executive action was desirable.”

The action shifted to the Cabinet departments, which had often been shut out of Clinton’s centralized policymaking process and were now almost pleased by the White House’s preoccupation. Donna Shalala, then secretary of health and human services — and now a House member who will examine impeachment from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue — remembers that “people asked me during Monica Lewinsky whether it was awful and we couldn’t get anything done. I said, ‘No, we got more done,’ because the White House people were totally focused on that. … [For the Cabinet] it was a much more exciting time from the point of view of getting things done, making a … measurable difference.”

Russian TV has enthusiastically covered the Trump-Ukraine scandal.

Trump, of course, already relies heavily on administrative policymaking rather than on a legislative agenda. But it’s less clear that policymaking staff members within the White House will be able to sequester themselves from the investigation — or that an executive branch pocked with vacancies and acting officials will be able to develop independent policy to support the president’s agenda.

On the flip side, policy is less central to Trump’s brand as president than it was to Clinton’s. And Trump has an asset that Clinton, who was already serving his second term, did not: His campaign organization has become immediately engaged in defending the president. Still, the president’s Twitter feed does not suggest that he will be removing himself from the investigation. The president is “the master baker,” says one administration official, with a finger in every pie — an unlikely recipe for compartmentalization.

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