On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to take a historic vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Twenty-one years ago, almost to the day, the U.S. House voted to impeach another U.S. president, Bill Clinton. Then, as now, the Minnesota delegation was split on this momentous congressional action.
In 1998, only two of Minnesota’s eight House members, the First District’s Gil Gutknecht and the Third District’s Jim Ramstad, were part of the House Republican majority that controlled the impeachment process. That year, on Dec. 11 and 12, the House Judiciary Committee voted out four articles of impeachment against Clinton for his actions related to the Monica Lewinsky affair and the Jones v. Clinton case. Only two of the four, perjury and obstruction of justice, were ultimately approved by the full House.
Early on, Gutknecht signaled his support for impeachment, but he waited until Dec. 15 to announce his position in formal terms. In a letter to his First District constituents, the Minnesota Republican did not spare words as he took aim at Clinton. “Having illicit sexual relations with an intern in one’s office would cause any other American to lose his job. A president should not be held to a lower standard than a manager of the local McDonald’s. But Mr. Clinton compounded his problem. He lied under oath before a federal judge in a civil rights lawsuit. He lied to the country. And worse, he lied under oath to a federal grand jury. That is perjury and perjury is a high crime. Mr. Clinton has offered no real defense. We must conclude that the facts are not in dispute.”
Ramstad, considered a Republican moderate, was more circumspect. As the House floor debate was scheduled to begin, Ramstad was part of a small group of House Republicans who had not yet committed themselves to support the Judiciary Committee’s actions.
Ramstad waited until Dec. 18, the day before the House floor vote, to take a stand on the four articles. In a House floor statement, Ramstad said his impeachment vote was “the most difficult, gut-wrenching decision I have made in my 18 years of public service. In my decision, I have been obliged to put personal feelings and political concerns aside to focus solely on my constitutional obligation.”
Ramstad declared that he had “objectively reviewed all the evidence “ and concluded that “sufficient evidence of perjury exists to send this matter to the Senate.” But he went on to say that Articles 2 and 4 “did not present clear and convincing evidence of impeachable offenses by the President.” When the roll was called, Ramstad was the only Minnesotan to split his votes on the Judiciary Committee articles, voting for Articles 1 and 3, but against Articles 2 and 4. Ramstad was one of 28 House Republicans to vote against Article 2 and one of 81 Republicans to vote against Article 4, both of which failed on the House floor.
Ramstad strained to conclude his floor speech on an upbeat note, declaring, “long after the words spoken today have faded and long after the painful ordeal is concluded we remain a nation of laws. That means we must sometimes make difficult decisions to insure that our national principles survive and public trust is maintained.”
The Minnesota Republican’s Democratic colleagues from his home state, all of whom voted against impeachment, were anything but upbeat as the House floor debate on got under way. (The six Minnesota Democrats included the Seventh District’s Collin Peterson, who has said that he likely will also vote against Trump’s impeachment.)
In 1998, the Star Tribune’s Greg Gordon and Angela Greling reported that members of the state’s DFL delegation “shared a somber mood of disbelief and anger as they heard the reading of the articles of impeachment against Clinton.”
“It’s surreal,” the Eighth District’s Jim Oberstar told Gordon and Greling. “You looked at this and say it can’t be happening but it is.” Later, after the House votes were finished, Oberstar was still venting. “Time will tell who is right on this, but the process has been so unfair, so unjust that the vote to impeach cannot be seen as anything but a brash, brazen partisan initiative,” he declared.
Twenty-one years later, many of these same words would be echoed by today’s Republicans as another House of Representative prepares to vote on impeachment of another American president.