The Senate convened twenty years ago to determine whether President Bill Clinton had committed “high crimes and misdemeanors”
In 1999 Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided over the Clinton impeachment in the Senate dressed in an unusual “robe of justice” that he designed himself.
Two decades ago, Americans were treated to a bizarre and dispiriting television spectacle when Chief Justice William Rehnquist convened a special session of the United States Senate. Decked out in his trademark black robes, with four gold-braid stripes sewed into each sleeve—a nod to the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe, which premiered in London in 1882—Rehnquist became only the second chief justice in American history to impanel the Senate as a jury in a presidential impeachment trial.
The question before that body was deceptively simple: Did President William J. Clinton commit high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of his removal from office?
Clinton’s troubles had begun more than five years earlier, when Attorney General Janet Reno appointed a special counsel to investigate improprieties the President might have committed in the 1970s, when he and his wife invested in a land development deal along the Whitewater River in Arkansas. In turning the matter over to a special counsel, Reno faced a double challenge. On one hand, the 1978 statute allowing for the appointment of independent prosecutors had expired, leaving her without formal rules about how to initiate an inquiry. On the other hand, she was a member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet; accordingly, she felt obliged to go the extra mile in removing any appearance of a partisan cover-up. So she tapped Robert Fisk—a former federal prosecutor and a Republican—to investigate the Whitewater affair.
Rod Rosenstein and Brett Kavanaugh were key lawyers on the special prosecutor team investigating President Clinton.
Months later, however, Congress reauthorized the special-prosecutor statute, prompting Chief Justice Rehnquist to name a three-member panel of federal judges to appoint a new independent counsel. Their choice was Kenneth Starr, a former solicitor general in the Bush administration and a fierce political opponent of Clinton. At the time of his appointment as special prosecutor, Starr was serving as a legal adviser to Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who was suing Clinton for civil damages related to an alleged case of sexual harassment dating back to 1991.
The Office of the Independent Counsel investigating Bill Clinton was headed by Kenneth Starr (top left) and included Brett Kavanaugh and Alex Azar next to Starr, and future Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (lower right). Kavanaugh was recently elevated to the Supreme Court, of course, and Azar serves in the Trump Cabinet as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Democrats cried foul, arguing that there was nothing “independent” in Kenneth Starr’s record of partisan loathing for Clinton. But Starr remained on the job, and what came to be widely perceived as his public crusade took a heavy toll on the administration. With the President under close scrutiny, Republicans swept off-term elections in November 1994, capturing both houses of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years. Clinton then faced the unenviable position of presiding over a divided government.
If Kenneth Starr proved a thorn in his side, the President nevertheless contributed mightily to his own troubles. Between November 1995 and May 1996—while he was under investigation for possible financial improprieties—Clinton carried on a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Then the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the President didn’t enjoy executive immunity against civil claims,