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‘It’s Hovering. It’s Like This Weight’: How the Clinton White House Handled Impeachment

Former staffers reflect on keeping a besieged administration from falling apart during a scandal.

Twenty years after Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the senior aides who helped him weather the ordeal retain indelible memories of how it felt to work day by day for months on end in a White House under siege. In phone calls in recent days, nearly all of them said the source of their survival was a rigid compartmentalization of the scandal from the normal business of government, and relentless staff discipline—attributes that Donald Trump’s White House has conspicuously lacked in the best of times.

“We had a simple rule of thumb in terms of the external-facing appearance,” Doug Sosnik, who was then Clinton’s senior adviser, told me. “We could never get caught—whether the president or the staff—looking like we were even partially disabled because of the investigations. We knew that if at some point it became apparent to the public that they weren’t getting a full president and a full presidency because of these self-inflicted problems, we thought that could threaten his ability to stay in office.”

From the moment news of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky broke in January 1998 to his acquittal in a Senate trial just over a year later, his White House was forced to run on parallel tracks, with a small group of lawyers and top political advisers focused first on Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation and later on impeachment proceedings, and the rest of the staff running the day-to-day business of the most powerful government on earth. It was no easy feat.

“The people who were primarily charged with managing the legal issues, the impeachment, were sort of isolated in the counsel’s office,” recalls John Podesta, who was White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles’s deputy when the scandal began, before becoming chief of staff himself in the fall of 1998. “That was by necessity and critical to other people being able to do their jobs. But the net result is there’s also a sense that those people knew stuff nobody else knows, and you’re living in a world in which everybody’s looking for the facial expressions of the legal team to see, Okay, are we still going to be here on Monday?

Joe Lockhart, who was Mike McCurry’s deputy press secretary and then took over from him, seconded that notion. “You’re terribly frustrated, and personally you feel like you don’t know what your future is,” he told me. “The joke very early on was, ‘Hey, if you see the vice president, tell him he’s lost weight.’ I don’t think I ever thought Clinton was going to be removed, but it was a bit like it must be if you’re working at a newspaper now. You don’t know if you’re going to have a job in two months, and it has nothing to do with the job you’re doing.”

At the same time, Lockhart says, while Trump’s aides must feel a comparable sense of being under siege, he sees no parallel in this White House’s ability to manage such a crisis. “You really can’t compare these things,” he says. “They don’t have a functioning White House staff, and they don’t have a communications infrastructure. I don’t want to say anything beyond what it was like for us, because I don’t know that it applies to the present situation.”

Podesta agrees. “I think Trump will be terrible at this,” he said. “You have to have a trust relationship with the people who are actually supposed to be dealing with this. Trump has Rudy Giuliani. And the tweeting? Just imagine.”

By contrast, at the height of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the daily White House routine unfolded with military precision, aides recall. At 7 a.m., a small group—Sosnik, Podesta, Lockhart, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and a couple of others—met to cover the waterfront on foreign and domestic issues, plus the Lewinsky scandal. At 7:30, the entire senior staff met in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing for a session focused entirely on the daily business of government. Then, at 8, a small group that included Podesta and the lawyers would meet in the White House counsel’s office on the second floor to review the latest impeachment developments on Capitol Hill, and at 8:15 would go to Lockhart’s office to brief him on the questions he would likely face from reporters later that day.

“We did compartmentalize,” Sosnik recalls. “Senior staff at 8 a.m. was almost like a Potemkin village, with no discussion of impeachment. It was all about the functioning of government. If you just went to that meeting and nothing else, you wouldn’t know there was anything going on.” At the same time, Sosnik says, “it’s hovering. It’s like this weight. If you’re in the middle of dealing with this stuff, then it’s an unbelievable load and burden and never leaves you. It’s like having a chronically ill family member.”

Indeed, in at least one especially fraught moment during the scandal, three of his colleagues recalled, Bowles simply threw up.

Greg Craig, a longtime friend of the Clintons and a veteran Washington lawyer, was brought into the White House to help coordinate the work of the impeachment team. “Everything that happened went through the prism of impeachment,” he remembers, even as the president was conducting diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at Wye River, Maryland, in October 1998. “Everything that happened—all the planning, all the thinking—had to go through the prism of impeachment.”

Jennifer Palmieri, then one of Lockhart’s press deputies, recalls a particularly grim moment in December 1998 as she sat with Susan Brophy, the White House’s internal lobbyist with the House of Representatives, learning one by one of the defection of the handful of Democrats who had decided to vote for articles of impeachment on the floor. “It just felt like it was all crumbling,” Palmieri remembers. “I would call and give the news to Joe, who was on Air Force One with the president on a trip home from Israel. One time I called him, and he’s like, ‘Did we lose Gephardt?’”—meaning the House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.

Brophy has a similar memory of that time, only her bad news was the slipping away of moderate House Republicans who Clinton had hoped would stand by him, such as then-Representative Jack Quinn of Buffalo, New York. “Clinton was in Israel, and Sosnik called me and I started to give him the rundown, and he said, ‘I’m going to hand the phone to the president,’ and I told him, ‘Mr. President, we lost Jack Quinn.’ He knew what that meant.” (Quinn, whose district was the most heavily Democratic of any Republican congressional district in the nation, had grown personally close to Clinton over Ireland and other issues, and his decision to vote for impeachment emboldened other GOP moderates to follow suit.)

Perhaps the single most dangerous day for Clinton was Saturday, December 19, 1998, when the full House voted to impeach him. On the same day, the incoming Republican speaker, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, acknowledged an extramarital affair and resigned, challenging Clinton to do the same. Later that afternoon, congressional Democrats trooped to a pep rally on the White House lawn, where Clinton vowed to stay on the job. Still later that evening, the president returned to the lectern and summoned the press to announce the cessation of air strikes on Iraq—Clinton had ordered them days earlier as punishment for Saddam Hussein’s refusal to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to do their work—prompting some Republican critics to accuse him of a “wag the dog” diversion.

“Those are very perilous moments where the judgment of individuals matters a great deal,” Palmieri says. At the same time, though, she remembers Podesta’s rueful humor at the end of that long and trying day. “I was sitting in Lockhart’s office, and there was some black-tie Christmas party at the White House, and Podesta drops by and says, ‘You know, other than getting impeached, we had a pretty good day.’”

For Podesta himself, another fearful moment came in January 1999, when the Senate was bitterly divided over setting the rules for the impeachment trial. All 100 members repaired to a closed caucus in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber to try to hash things out. Suddenly word came that Ted Kennedy, the Democrats’ liberal lion, and Phil Gramm of Texas, an archconservative, had agreed on a tentative way to break the stalemate with an expeditious trial. “We had in essence marked this whole thing as what it really was, which was a partisan exercise and a fight for control and power,” Podesta recalls. “And all of a sudden we have a bipartisan process in the Senate, and somehow we had gotten to a point where everybody was feeling kumbaya.”

McCurry, who was press secretary when the Lewinsky scandal broke but left before impeachment, said that guarding his private time proved to be especially important. “My morning walks with my collies at 5:30 a.m. were therapeutic and useful,” he wrote in an email. “I’d listen to the BBC and then NPR on my ear phones and by the time I got home to take a shower and go to the White House, I basically knew about 80 percent of what I would say on that given day. Second, I took Sunday as ‘Sabbath time.’” McCurry went to church, where he said his fellow parishioners “were terrific about never hassling me on the latest headlines,” and then went home and played with his young children. “We did do an early-morning conference call Sunday mornings to get all our chat-show guests on the same page. But I did not watch or appear on the Sunday shows. I got transcripts delivered from the White House on Sunday nights. I doubt anyone at the White House these days has those luxuries. Sad! As someone might say.”

Sosnik will never forget the feeling of perpetual exhaustion, or the sense of risk. “I remember telling Clinton at one point, ‘The Republicans are never going to remove you from office; it’s the Democrats who can.’ Jihad against the enemy is kind of the easy part. The hard part is managing your friends.”