It’s not every day that you read the vice president’s case for impeaching a president. On Tuesday, CNN resurfaced two columns written by Mike Pence in the 1990s in favor of the push to impeach Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. “For America to move on, and we must, the Clintons must move out of the White House,” Pence, an Indiana talk-radio host at the time, wrote. “Either the President should resign or be removed from office. Nothing short of this sad conclusion will suffice to restore the institution of the presidency to its former and necessary glory.”
Pence’s argument was multifold, with some parts more convincing than others. He detailed how Clinton had broken the law—a matter of fact, given that the president lied to a grand jury about his sexual relationship with Lewinsky. “The President’s responsibility to faithfully execute the laws of the land begins in his own administration,” Pence wrote. “The President committed perjury. Perjury is a crime. President’s who commit crimes should resign or be impeached.”
But Pence also argued that presidents should be held to higher moral standards than average citizens, and that Clinton should also be impeached because had committed moral wrongs while in office. “In a day when reckless extramarital sexual activity is manifesting itself in our staggering rates of illegitimacy and divorce, now more than ever, America needs to be able to look to her First Family as role models of all that we have been and can be again,” he wrote.
CNN focused on this latter argument, declaring in its lead sentence that “Pence once argued the president of the United States should be held to the highest moral standards to determine whether he should resign or be removed from office.” The article further described the columns as a “a far-reaching argument about the importance of morality and integrity to the office of the presidency,” and noted that Trump has been accused of multiple extramarital affairs as well as sexual assaults.
The implication was clear, and the president’s critics took the bait:
But the rest of Pence’s argument was more nuanced than some observers made it seem. He wasn’t making the case that presidents should be impeached solely because of their moral conduct, instead drawing a crucial distinction between purely private conduct that he may personally find immoral and the conduct undertaken by Clinton in his capacity as the president of the United States.
On the first count, the President has admitted to having taken advantage of a college intern working at the White House (that’s a public building) who was on the White House Staff (that’s public employment) on many occasion in and around the Oval Office (again a public building). Also, the President lied about the affair in public and (very likely) under oath in Jones [v.] Clinton. He also may have used the power of his PUBLIC office to cover up the whole sordid matter. This was not a private matter and cannot legitimately be argued as such. A truly private matter in this realm might be an affair between the President and a friend not working in the White House for whom no favors were granted and no cover-up attempted. That, it seems to me, could be argued as part of one’s (immoral) private life. Ms. Lewinski [sic] is a part of the President’s public life not his private life.
Twenty years later, it’s hard to disagree with this part of Pence’s assessment. Clinton and his defenders frequently assailed independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigations as a politicized Republican effort to bring down a Democratic president, and for good reason. At the same time, it’s clear that there was a strong case that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice in his efforts to cover up the Lewinsky saga, both of which are impeachable offenses.
Clinton’s underlying conduct was also disturbing. While facing impeachment charges in 1998, he enjoyed the near-universal support of the Democratic Party and the American left. That’s much less true amid the rise of the #MeToo movement. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said last November that it would have been “appropriate” for Clinton to resign the presidency over the scandal. What was largely seen as an act of sexual infidelity and immorality in the 1990s is seen today as an abuse of power against a female subordinate by the most powerful man in the world.
In the chaotic days that followed the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals with impunity, Pence reportedly made it known in private conversations that he would be willing to replace his running mate atop the ticket. But there was never a groundswell of support among Republicans for such a last-minute change. That November, a majority of the American electorate rejected Trump, but he and Pence won the White House anyway, thanks to a flaw in the nation’s democratic system. Today, as CNN notes, “Pence has largely remained silent on the allegations” of sexual impropriety and misconduct against Trump.
Fortunately, the Constitution anticipates that bad men will become president and structured the rest of the republic to constrain them. There’s a non-zero chance that Trump will face impeachment proceedings at some point during his presidency, especially if Democrats retake the House of Representatives in this fall’s midterm elections. There’s also a non-zero chance that special counsel Robert Mueller will uncover evidence in the Russia investigation that could persuade a sufficient number of Republicans in the Senate to support Trump’s removal from office.
If this comes to pass, and Pence remains silent, it wouldn’t be hypocritical so much as sensible: Supporting Trump’s impeachment would transmute a congressional effort to hold the president accountable for his actions into a power grab by the president’s constitutional successor. Ultimately, any hypocrisy on Pence’s part when it comes to the morality of the presidency won’t come from how he treats an effort to remove Trump from office. That ship already sailed when he helped place Trump there two years ago.