IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Transcript: Like It's 1999

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Like It’s 1999.
House impeachment manager Rep. Bill McCollum, R-FL
House impeachment manager Rep. Bill McCollum, R-FL enters the U.S. House Judiciary Committee chambers on Jan. 25,1999 on Capitol Hill.Stephen Jaffe / AFP - Getty Images file


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Like It’s 1999

Archival Recording:... will make the proclamation.

Archival Recording: Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, January 8th, and here's what was happening on January 7th, 1999, almost exactly 21 years ago. It was a Thursday.

Archival Recording: All persons are commanded to keep silent on pain of imprisonment while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States.

Kornacki: The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton began in the Senate. President Clinton was charged with two articles, lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Thirteen Republican congressmen were appointed as house managers to act as prosecutors, arguing the case for the President's removal from office.

Archival Recording: The managers on the part of the House.

Archival Recording: Mr. Hyde of Illinois, Mr. Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Mr. McCollum of Florida, Mr. Gekas of Pennsylvania.

Kornacki: Representative Bill McCollum of Florida was one of them. The question over whether witnesses would be called was central to the 1999 debate, and McCollum led the fight for them. Sound familiar?

Bill McCollum: We think that it is terribly critical, not only that we are permitted to depose these witnesses, but with respect particularly to Monica Lewinsky and perhaps all three of them, that we be permitted to bring those witnesses here at the end of the day and examine them, and let the President's counsel examine them.

Kornacki: In the end, McCollum and his fellow managers did not get what they were asking for. Instead, senators heard videotaped testimony from three witnesses. None of them appeared in person for the trial.

Archival Recording: Did Mr. Jordan, durin' that meeting, making an inquiry about the nature of the relationship between you and the president?

Monica Lewinsky: Yes, he did.

Archival Recording: What was that inquiry?

Lewinsky: I don't remember the exact wording. There were two questions, and I think they were something like, "Did you have sex with the president? Or did he ask for it," or something like that.

Kornacki: So today on Article II, we're going back in time. Former Florida Congressman and Attorney General Bill McCollum tells the story of his time serving as a house manager in one of only two presidential impeachment trials in American history, at least until now.

McCollum: The question is what are we going to do now?

Kornacki: Mr. McCollum, thank you for joining us.

McCollum: Happy to be with you, Steve.

Kornacki: Take us back to the fall of 1998. Take us through what the thought process was to take that final step and go towards impeaching Bill Clinton.

McCollum: Well, there had been a lot of work done prior to that. The Ken Starr report had come to Congress and had been sent to the House Judiciary Committee on which I served. There was an enormous amount of materials in what we call the "annex" to the House office buildings.

And we spent, that is the members of the House Judiciary Committee, hours poring through those materials, the written materials. He had been accused by Starr of quite a number of possible impeachable offenses, almost all of them centered around either lying and perjury in the court of law or before a grand jury or obstruction of justice. We went through a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee and ultimately decided to send certain limited articles of impeachment to the House floor. They were voted on in December of that year, 1998.

Archival Recording: (IN PROGRESS) --historians may not look kindly on what transpired behind me here today. William Jefferson Clinton is now the first elected president to be impeached by the House, the second president in all of history. He says he will stay on the job while his fate is already lying before the U.S. Senate in the form of two approved articles of impeachment, agreed to here today.

McCollum: It was during this time that Henry Hyde made the decision as to who the trial managers were going to be. I happened to be chosen as one of those managers, and we were given assignments that we really spent a lot of time working. Looking back on it, it seems like it was a long process.

In reality, the time we were involved after the articles of impeachment were voted was a relatively short period of time, and it was over a holiday period, as well. But members who were going to be the trial team spent a lot of time, Steve, at this point in our lives.

Kornacki: The decision to make you one of the house managers, to prosecute the case in the Senate, was it something you wanted? Was it something you sought? What had been your role that made you a logical choice for that?

McCollum: Well, I was a fairly senior member of the Judiciary. I had been involved in a number of high-level investigations. I'd been on the Iran Contra Committee as a very young junior member of the Judiciary Committee. And I was very pleased to be part of it, but it wasn't something I asked to do.

In fact, I wouldn't have asked to be having this impeachment go on at all. I think most of us felt at the time this is not something we really think is good for the country to have to go through. But the Judiciary Committee members, not just the impeachment trial management but those of us who spent time with this, really went over and looked over the materials, felt very impassioned after we had seen it, with regard to the fact that the president clearly had committed crimes affecting the court, the judicial system.

So we were fixed on that as a primary reason, what motivated us. We weren't looking at the politics. We were looking at the law. We were looking at the rule of law and the fact that if we felt the president could be exonerated without being tried and having to suffer consequences for this, it would be very bad because the average citizen, Joe or Mary, who committed these offenses, would have likely gone to jail for a considerable period of time.

Kornacki: It's interesting. I understand the point of thinking of it in those terms and saying, "You know, it wasn't a political decision." But you had to be aware of it? I mean, the polling, you go back and look at this, it was, you know, 60, 65% you'd see consistently opposing impeachment. Obviously, it didn't dissuade you from going forward. Did that enter your thinking at all, just in terms of, "Geez, the country doesn't seem to want this"?

McCollum: We were really aware of it. It became more so along the way, as we went through this process, because he was a fairly popular president, if you recall. Those who were living through that time would, a very personable individual and somebody who had reached across the aisle. We'd done business as Republicans with him on several occasions, including the Welfare Reform Bill.

So he was well-liked. The issue for us wasn't his popularity or looking at the next election or what it might mean to us. It really became a matter of principle for us. So we thought this was just too much to let go. I mean, it was not like today, you can debate this, that, or the other about President Trump and the current impeachment situation and there are some gray areas. There were not real gray areas here. It was very hard to find them.

Kornacki: One of the differences between then and now has to deal with what they call "the transmission of the articles." The House passes the articles of impeachment. Then they are formally transmitted to the Senate, and the Senate would then hold the trial.

Obviously as we tape this, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, has yet to transmit those articles to the Senate. In 1998, I can remember watching this on television, the same day, Saturday, that Bill Clinton was impeached by the House, I think it was that evening Henry Hyde, Judiciary Committee Chairman, and I believe you and the other managers walked over to the Secretary of the Senate and handed him the articles that night.

Henry Hyde: Well, Mr. Secretary, my direction in the House of Representatives, in pursuant to House Resolution 614, I hereby deliver these articles of impeachment. Would you...

McCollum: That's correct. We did. There wasn't any question about it. We didn't think that there was any reason for a delay.

Secretary of Senate: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Hyde: Thank you, Sir.

Secretary of Senate: As Secretary on behalf of the Senate, I accept these into the official record of the Senate for deliberation later on.

Hyde: Thank you.

Secretary of Senate: And we thank you for your courtesy in comin' over.

McCollum: And there are rules that the Senate has, particularly involving this, but those rules are imposed, as you know, legislatively. They're not in the Constitution. There are no rules about impeachment in the United States Constitution, so it's an interesting debate we're having now, or could have more in the next few days, over that very point. But by tradition at least, one would assume that the normal thing would be to take the articles immediately over there, and then it's theirs.

Kornacki: I think it was January 7th, 1999 was the official opening day of the trial. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist back then, comes in to preside over it.

William Rehnquist: Senators, I attend the Senate in conformity with your notice for the purpose of joining with you for the trial of the President of the United States, and I'm now ready to take the oath.

Kornacki: Take us back to that day. What was that like?

McCollum: Well, it was a bracing day. It was a awesome day, in certain ways. I don't mean that in the sense of being something I was pleased to be there doing, but it was awesome in the sense that House members are not given the privilege of speaking on the floor of the Senate.

There had been a couple of impeachment trials of judges I had not participated in while I was in Congress, but as a whole, that's the only occasion when you can, as a House member, speak. So when we came in that day, just to walk in and see the atmosphere that was there, they had prepared a special table for us to sit at.

And each of us had our own assigned chair. It was down in the well of the Senate. And after it's all over with later, Trent Lott arranged to give us the chair that we had, so I still have my chair. I don't know what quite to do with it, but I've got my chair. But it was that kind of a memento moment, if you will, that you were there.

It's hard to believe we're really here. It's like going to the World Series and your team is playing, only you're on the team. And I don't know how else to analogize this, but it was intimidating in certain respects. But I knew a lot of these senators, as did I'm sure my colleagues, so we weren't unfamiliar with the individuals. But the atmosphere was something very different, and we knew the public was watching. So it was a very dramatic moment.

Kornacki: I think that chair, by the way, you could get something good for it on eBay. That would be my-- (LAUGHTER)

McCollum: Maybe I should do that, auction it off. Probably right now is the time, you know, when everybody's thinking impeachment.

Kornacki: Yeah. Strike while the iron's hot. The senators are supposed to act as a jury. We talked on a recent episode about the oath that they take to approach this in an impartial way. Making your case to that chamber in 1999, did you feel you were talking to impartial jurors, that you had a chance of persuading?

McCollum: Yeah, we did. We actually thought we did. We thought until Senator Byrd made the motion to dismiss that we had a good chance of getting him. He was the conscience of the Senate. He'd been around a long time, institutional memory, and he certainly would not and did not approve of President Clinton in many respects. It wasn't a party question; it was his idea of what was right and wrong. It was after we had made all the opening arguments or presentations.

Archival Recording: First of all, I want you to know that I bear no personal animosity toward our president. But I happen to believe that if the president, if any president, commits the crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice and witness tampering, he should not be allowed to remain in office, for if he is allowed to do so, it would undermine our courts and our system of justice. But that's for you to determine in the end, really not me. That's my opinion, but you are going to have to weigh the evidence. You're going to have to hear the arguments and ultimately make that decision.

McCollum: And then the President's team got to make theirs.

Archival Recording: We are here today because the president suffered a terrible moral lapse, a marital infidelity. Not a breach of the public trust, not a crime against society, the two things Hamilton talked about in Federalist Paper No. 65, but it was a breach of his marriage vows. It was a breach of his family trust. It is a sex scandal.

Senator Robert Byrd: Mr. Chief Justice.

McCollum: It was after that, Senator Byrd made his motion.

Byrd: I send a motion in writing to the desk.

Rehnquist: The clerk will read the motion.

Clerk: The senator from West Virginia, Mr. Byrd, moves that the impeachment proceedings against William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, be and the same are duly dismissed.

Kornacki: And it was a surprise to you when it came?

McCollum: It was. I think we didn't know that he was going to do that. We were hoping, prior to that, that we would be able to convince him to at least vote for witnesses and that we would be able to, if we had witnesses, then convince enough senators to perhaps convict and remove.

I think once he made that announcement and came forward and made that motion, the impeachment managers realized that we were going to have a much more difficult time, not that we thought it was easy anyway, but that we had to get witnesses somehow, and we did eventually get them by deposition, but as you probably know, maybe the audience doesn't, that these were not very effective ways of doing it.

Kornacki: That's another dispute obviously that's playing out right now; to have witnesses or not to have witnesses. Who were the witnesses you wanted to have? What was that dispute like and how was it resolved?

McCollum: We were eventually allowed to have only three witnesses, and they were Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, and Sidney Blumenthal, and only by deposition. Now that was not decided at the beginning. Henry Hyde, as chairman of our committee and the leader of our trial managers, would speak regularly with Lott and others in the Senate leadership.

And we knew that there was likely to be depositions, that he didn't really want to see live witnesses, but no vote had been taken. We didn't know it was only be three at that point. We were hoping it would be five or six. But Betty Currie was one that I personally thought we should call. She was his personal secretary.

Archival Recording: There is no doubt in my mind that you need to go through the process of looking at and hearing from these witnesses to make that decision. And if you have a doubt in your own mind, maybe some of you have no doubt at all that he's guilty of any and all of these crimes, but if you think one of your other colleagues does have that doubt at this moment, for gosh sakes, let's let the witnesses come here and let us have the chance to erase that doubt in the way you normally would in a trial.

McCollum: We were concerned, because we were getting some vibes back from certain Republican senators, particularly concerned about having Monica Lewinsky appear live in the well, sullying, I think the word was used at that time quite a bit. "We don't want to sully the Senate with her presence."

We don't want to demean the Senate. And the most disappointing thing, by the way, was the vote on witnesses. I thought my senator, Bob Graham, would vote for witnesses, 'cause I had seen him at a football game in the Orange Bowl, as a matter of fact, during the holiday period and he said, "I can't believe we wouldn't have witnesses. It's something we've got to have." Well, somewhere along the way, he became convinced by his colleagues not to vote for them, so nobody did.

Kornacki: February 12th, 1999, that was when the Senate formally voted to acquit Bill Clinton. What was that day like?

McCollum: That was not a surprising vote at that point. It was a tense moment for us to see the countdown to it. The really interesting part of it, it had all taken place by that time, but we argued as hard as we could, because we believed that the president was wrong. And I made a 30-minute presentation at the beginning of the facts, I did a 15-minute argument for witnesses, and I did a five-minute close.

McCollum: William Jefferson Clinton is not a king. He is our president. You have the power and the duty to remove him for office for high crimes and misdemeanors. I implore you to muster the courage of your convictions, to muster the courage the Founding Fathers believed that the Senate would always have in times like these. William Jefferson Clinton has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Convict him and remove him.

McCollum: But at the end, then we were just wondering if we'd get one or two or how would the vote go. And like for example, the obstruction of justice charge wound up being 50/50, which was actually better than we thought it might be. The perjury charge did not get, you know, as many Republicans as we hoped to get.

Tom Brokaw: Good evening. Well, after all of this, more than a year of charges, investigations, rumors, sex, lies, and videotape, the second impeachment trial of an American president ended today. Ten Republican Senators voted against the case presented by the House managers on perjury, so that vote was 55 to 45, not guilty. On the charge of obstruction of justice, five Republicans crossed over. That vote was a flat tie, well short of the two thirds needed for conviction.

Kornacki: And in terms of the longer political ramifications, longer term, this is February, '99. The Senate trial ends. Bill Clinton's acquitted. November, 2000, next major election, you're on the ballot, statewide in Florida. We all remember Bush and Gore (LAUGH) in Florida in 2000, but you were on the ballot for the U.S. Senate? You were the Republican nominee running that year. We mentioned the polling on impeachment; consistently folks were against it. Was that a hurdle you faced in 2000?

McCollum: It was to some extent in the general election. I had some newspapers that did not like the vote, didn't like my presentation. They endorsed my opponent. Now I'll never know for sure because you don't have to have all the newspaper endorsements to win, but they were more influential then in the public eye than they are today, with all the other media that we have and the chat shows and everything else.

But back then, your main newspapers, your daily papers in your state were important. Can I say it had no effect? I'm sure it affected some voters. On the other hand, I had a lot of passionate people voting for me and wanting me to win because they had followed the impeachment trial, and so I think it had been an off-year election perhaps with no presidential ballot, it might've been different.

Kornacki: We're gonna take a quick break, but I think you've raised a lot of points there that connect pretty directly to some of the stuff we're talking about right now with the Trump impeachment standoff. So we'll pick those up. Stay right there. We'll be right back. (PAUSE)

One of the things that you have been talking about that stood out to me is in your view, fighting a uphill political battle, both in terms of public opinion and in terms of where the opinions seem to be in the Senate, in terms of fighting that and overcoming that, specifically getting live witnesses sounds like it was very important to you, as opposed to having, you know, depositions, you said, or any other sort of substitute?

Democrats right now fighting a similar uphill battle seem to believe the same thing. And Nancy Pelosi's strategy to bring about live witnesses is to withhold these articles of impeachment, as we mentioned earlier. Is that a strategy you wish you had employed? Is it a strategy that might work for her?

McCollum: I don't think it works for her, and I don't think we would've employed it. It was a very different scenario. Today, she's got an issue because there are a couple of people who normally would be the top witnesses in the Trump impeachment proceeding who were so close to him, being his chief of staff and national security advisor, that they are also the most protected by executive privilege.

And in the House, they have not or did not choose to take the time necessary to go to court to challenge the question of privilege and would be upheld by the courts. So consequently, they have a weak legal case, if you want to call it that, and they're going into the Senate saying, "Well, we didn't get it done in the House. We didn't bring those forward. We now would like to have them produced."

In the case of the Clinton impeachment trial, we weren't looking for new faces. We were looking for the opportunity to present existing known witnesses. What we were looking for was their being on the floor of the house in person, because a live witness, as opposed to somebody by deposition or just reading a paper, a transcript, they can read body language.

I've seen that. I've tried (LAUGH) jury trials. You look at the jury and you know that they're reading, "Is the witness telling the truth? Do I really believe that?" Sometimes it's emotional. A lot of things in life are that way. Monica Lewinsky could be a very compelling person, in person; not only charming, but the hurt and the pain that she had was real.

In the deposition, she did not say that the president had told her to lie. Well, in reality, if we'd had a chance to examine her live and do it the right way, she had previously described in some detail how he set it all up. And she said, "I knew what he wanted me to do," from a particular conversation that took place at a particular point.

That just did not come across. There are a lot of things that's hard to convey, even me now verbally to you and to the audience, that would play into our thinking, that her being there live would have made a difference or probably would've.

Kornacki: Benefit of hindsight, 21 years later; do you think it was important that Bill Clinton be impeached and put on trial in the Senate? Do you look back at it in any way and say, "Here's a part of it I regret"?

McCollum: I don't regret taking him to the Senate for trial. And whether we lost or we didn't lose, I think it was important to put it on the record. I think people looking back at it today in history will look at it differently, and future generations will, too.

I think it we would've been derelict in our duty not to do that. Maybe today Democrats are gonna say that, some of them will, about Trump. I don't know. Personally, I have a hard time seeing the gravity of it, compared with Clinton. But no, I don't have any regrets about taking Clinton to trial. I think he did something and he deserved to be taken to trial, whether he was convicted or removed from office.

Kornacki: I meant that to be the last question, but one just occurred to me that I'd be really curious to ask you. Bill Clinton was impeached and put on trial... say with essentially two years left in his presidency. Early '99, the Senate trial ends. He's president 'til January of 2001.

After having tried to remove him from office, what was your relationship? What were your interactions with him like? I mean, did you have interactions with him? What were they like, and also have you had interactions with him since, since you left the House and since he left the presidency?

McCollum: The only thing that comes to mind was actually during the trial, our late governor, Lawton Chiles, passed away in office, Florida's governor. He had been a United States senator of some prominence, and there was a memorial service in one of the Senate office buildings.

And I went to that in the middle of the impeachment process. And I sat there in the second row, as did two or three other of my colleagues from Florida, and I didn't know, but the president and Mrs. Clinton came in and literally sat in front of me. And one of the more remarkable moments, I look back on this as... when he gave a great eulogy.

President Bill Clinton: I think in so many ways, God gave Florida to Lawton so that he could give himself to the people of his beloved State.

McCollum: And then when it was all over with and he came back and the whole ceremony is over with, he and Mrs. Clinton turned around and shook my hand, smiled at me, and we talked a little bit, just as though we were having a visit at the White House or wherever.

He was really a master of that, and yet you knew he didn't (LAUGH) like any of us impeachment trial managers at all. He couldn't possibly. But I didn't have any direct dealings with him after that. I'd been in House Republican leadership. I was not at that point, so I didn't go, you know, down to visit with him on any formal occasion.

Kornacki: That's a great story. The master of putting on a good public face, (LAUGH) that's what they always said about Bill Clinton. Bill McCollum, former congressman from Florida, a former State attorney general, impeachment trial manager back in 1999. Thank you so much for joining us. I really enjoyed this.

McCollum: You're welcome. Thank you.

Kornacki: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday that he has the votes to proceed with an impeachment trial without making a decision about witnesses first. But as we tape this episode, the House has yet to transmit the two articles of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.