D.J. Tice
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“America’s excruciating problem,” I wrote awhile back, concerning the approaching impeachment crisis, “is that most Americans who want the president removed from office seem to be like me in having disdained [the man] for years.”

Meanwhile, I added, most who “oppose impeachment … have in the past admired the president — or at least liked his policies well enough to overlook his personal failings … ”

Because of the bitter partisan and ideological divisions the president’s persona and politics inspired — quite apart from his lawbreaking coverup of sexual misdeeds — I argued that an impeachment could only be justified by grave abuses of presidential power, or damaging derelictions of presidential duty.

Impeachment based on anything less would, I worried, “enable countless Americans to believe that the impeachment effort is nothing more than an attempted partisan mugging …”

OK, it was more than a little while ago. These speculations actually appeared in a column I wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in December 1998 and concerned the looming impeachment of President Bill Clinton over charges of perjury arising from a lawsuit connected to several shabby sexual escapades.

The climax of that impeachment drama — weirdly similar yet quite different from what we face today — began 20 years ago this month, with the public release of a sensational investigative report from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. It ended that winter with Clinton’s trial and acquittal in the U.S. Senate.

I was inspired to go archive-diving by an impressive recent column from the New York Times’ Bret Stephens (published on Startribune.com Aug. 23 as “Case closed: Trump should be impeached”). In it, Stephens announced that after long resisting the conclusion, he had now determined that President Donald Trump must be impeached and removed from office.

For Stephens, whose yearslong disdain for Trump as a man and a president is widely shared today among the nation’s prominent political pundits, the extraordinary sanction of impeachment is required by the appearance of explicit evidence of criminal acts — the allegations of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who says his former client violated campaign finance laws in the payment of “hush money” to two former paramours.

What got my attention was Stephens’ challenge to those who have been issuing political pronouncements long enough to have taken a public position on the case against Bill Clinton. The case for Trump’s removal, Stephens wrote, should now “especially engage those conservatives who demanded Clinton’s impeachment (as I did).”

So it should. A call for integrity and consistency of principle is always in season. And for similar reasons, those of us (liberal or conservative) who argued against Clinton’s impeachment should explain, if we’re now considering supporting Trump’s ouster, why Clinton’s criminal action to conceal personal misconduct was different.

I can’t come up with much to distinguish the actual offenses now being charged against Trump from those leveled at Clinton two decades ago. It’s the broader reasons for disapproving the two men that are far from the same.

Trump‘s compulsive dishonesty and boundless self-regard run deeper than Clinton’s did. And his personality is far uglier. But those (and other) character defects were fully on display before Americans narrowly elected Trump president. And they are not the kind of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that could justify overturning the citizenry’s democratic decision to put Trump in the White House.

We are not, of course, finished with the investigations of Trump (if ever we will be). More specific misdeeds committed as president, and in wielding presidential power, may come to light, revealing plain betrayals of his sworn duty to preserve and protect the Constitution and the laws. But for now we seem to have a candidate for president (not a president), allegedly covering up embarrassing sexual antics by pouring money (perhaps simply his own money) into advancing his own campaign in a way and/or in an amount that violated hopelessly convoluted campaign finance rules.

It’s all disgraceful, unworthy, revolting, perhaps technically criminal if proven. But is it even conceivable that any Americans who voted for Donald Trump are shocked or disappointed that their bare-fisted blowhard is capable of this? They elected him for many complex reasons we needn’t examine here — but being too dignified and upright for sleaze of this caliber wasn’t one of them.

So, reaching back to my own precedent during the Clinton impeachment struggle, I must counsel caution, for now, about a rush toward impeachment of Trump. The nation’s unity is more fragile today than it was in 1998, and enabling already alienated citizens to perceive “a partisan mugging” dressed up as an impeachment could do lasting harm.

I was rough on Clinton back in the day, calling him “a weak and fraudulent man” even while opposing impeachment. I backed bipartisan congressional censure instead, hoping it might salvage a measure of national consensus, while an impeachment would only inflame resentments on both sides.

In the decades since, my estimation of Clinton’s presidency, if not his character, has risen some. Later in the proceedings, during Clinton’s Senate trial, I mused in another column that maybe the full airing of his wrongs had, after all, done the country some good. But 20 years down the road, on that last point, I’m not so sure.

Today’s toxic political atmosphere has many causes. But the malice unleashed in the battle over Clinton left its share of scars.

In its first 18 decades, the United States endured one presidential impeachment crisis, fueled by extreme Civil War animosities. We seem about to enter our third impeachment ordeal in the last 45 years, an era of comparative prosperity and peace. Each crisis seems to come a little easier.

This is not a healthy trend for a republic.

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.