A Deluge of Notes, a Call From De Niro, and a Fateful Impeachment Vote

Former President Clinton, shown here at the 2019 funeral of former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). The ongoing impeachment proceedings against President Trump have prompted former members of Congress from Maryland to recall the impeachment of Clinton. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Before Twitter, people used little paper notes to tell members of Congress what they thought about impeachment. 

Former U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Republican who represented Montgomery County in Congress from 1987 until 2003, found those notes everywhere in the weeks leading up to the impeachment vote against President Clinton in 1998.

“They left messages sometimes on my car, on the visor, and at the door to my house,” Morella told Maryland Matters. “I had caller ID, but I had to discontinue my phone for a while, so if they wanted to call me, they had to call my office.”

Morella recounted this week that it was all anyone wanted to talk about, and everyone wanted to be heard.

Even actor Robert De Niro called to try to sway Morella, who was considered a key swing vote as a left-leaning, independent Republican. 

“I didn’t believe it. Robert De Niro? Come on!” Morella said with a laugh. “But it was him. He was very much against the impeachment.”

The volume of calls was so crippling that eventually her staff installed a special phone line at her office: Press one if you support impeachment, press two if you do not. 

“It was a very difficult time for me,” Morella said of the weeks leading up to the Clinton impeachment vote. Still, she added, “It was good that people, even at that time, felt they could and should communicate.” 

House lawmakers voted, largely on party lines, to impeach Clinton, who lied about his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Senate ultimately acquitted him.

There were four Maryland Republicans in the House of Representatives at the time. Three of them crossed party lines to vote against at least one article of impeachment. Morella was one of only five Republicans in the chamber who did not support any of the four articles of impeachment. 

Maryland Matters interviewed her and two other former Maryland lawmakers this week about their experiences and their advice for current lawmakers in the midst of the Trump impeachment proceedings. 

When the House of Representatives voted last month to impeach President Trump, no Republicans voted in favor of impeachment. Maryland’s delegation split entirely along party lines. 

The Senate is at an impasse before a trial has even begun, as Republicans and Democrats have failed to come to an agreement on rules for the trial. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been waiting to formally send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, in an effort to press Senate Republicans to agree to rules. “As I said right from the start, we need to see the arena in which we are sending our managers. Is that too much to ask?” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday. 

She added, “I’m not holding them indefinitely. I’ll send them over when I’m ready, and that will probably be soon.”

Morella: ‘My country, my constituents, my conscience’

In 1998, the House of Representatives voted on four articles of impeachment against Clinton. Morella opposed all of them. She had voted earlier in favor of the resolution authorizing the Judiciary Committee to investigate for impeachment.

Former U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). State Department photo

Morella did not tell anyone her plans for the final impeachment roll call until just before she voted. Her staff wrote speeches in favor of impeachment and opposing it, to try to keep word from getting out. 

Maryland Matters: How did you make your decision? 

Morella: My Republican colleagues did not really try to coerce me into a particular vote, to their credit. I had all the facts. They decided, let’s leave Morella alone, I guess, and let her make her decision. My Democratic colleagues did contact me and say if you need any information, let us know, and we hope you vote against it.

I did a lot of studying and had to decide how I was going to vote and why. I read the House Judiciary report and the Democrats’ report and documents on impeachment proceedings. I talked to people I respected. I read newspaper op-eds and talked to constitutional law experts and listened to voters. I guess my bottom line was, this is an expression I used: my country, my constituents, and my conscience.

I decided about three days before the vote was cast what I was going to do, not early, not early. I did not want the attention. The bottom line was, what the president had done was perjurious, he had lied. But it did not imperil the nation. We needed to sanction him and move on. I still feel that was probably the better thing to do. 

MM: What advice do you have for current lawmakers?

Morella: Do all the studying you can and listen to experts, but you will make the decision, and when you do, think of why you are serving. You are serving your country, your constituents and your conscience.

Ehrlich: It was ‘all-consuming’

The Clinton impeachment vote came in the center of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s congressional career. He  represented Maryland’s 2nd District from 1995 until 2003, before he went on to serve as the state’s governor for four years.

Ehrlich, a Republican, voted in favor of the first three articles of impeachment. They charged Clinton with providing perjurious testimony and obstructing justice in the Paula Jones case and about his relationship with Lewinsky. 

Former U.S. Rep. (and Gov.) Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.). State of Maryland photo

Ehrlich voted against the fourth article of impeachment, which said Clinton “misused and abused” his office by making misleading statements to Congress. Eighty other Republicans also voted against that article of impeachment. It failed in a vote of 148-285.

MM: What did you learn from that impeachment process?

Ehrlich: That impeachment, when I was in the House was the most all-consuming experience for a member I could imagine. I had voted on war and peace and abortion and you name it, tort reform, all sorts of things, capital punishment. I had voted in the state legislature and Congress on very emotional issues. That was the only experience I had in public life where everybody wanted to talk about it everywhere I went. Whether I was pumping gas at the gas station or at the grocery store, people wanted to be heard. They would button-hole you and they would give you their opinions. I don’t see anything like that today. Nobody brings this up when I am out speaking.

[…] I lost friends at the time with the Clinton impeachment. It was personal. It was an issue of first impression. But with the Republicans then, there was never any talk about impeachment, there was no reason, until it all went down with the dress and the testimony and perjury. Today, it is year four of this impeachment narrative.

MM: Do you have any regrets about that impeachment? 

Ehrlich: No. It was unfortunate. It was either: this is perjury, and perjury is perjury, or it was about about sex, no big deal. That is how it came down, generally to people. I do remember there were also rumors about this and that with regard to the Clintons, and the president. And when the report came out, I remember sitting in the conference and reading it. And it was only about sex. I was thinking, the politics of this are not going to be helpful to Republicans. Because it is just about sex. And some people are going to be angry, and some people would say, hey, this is only about sex. And that is what happened. 

MM: What advice would you have for current lawmakers?

Ehrlich: My only advice would be, I sat there and wrote my position paper for the rationale for my votes. It is the same advice I would give any member on any important issue, not just impeachment: make sure, this should be your words, and that position letter should reflect your words. This is not a pro-forma sort of thing. It needs to be from the heart.

Gilchrest: ‘God almighty, that blows my mind’

Wayne T. Gilchrest represented Maryland’s 1st District from 1991 until 2009. He was defeated in the Republican primary in 2008 by then-state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, who now holds the seat. 

In his retirement, Gilchrest switched parties and is now a registered Democrat. The Republican Party now is “not the one I grew up with or came in with,” Gilchrest says.

Former Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.). U.S. House photo

During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Gilchrest voted in favor of the first three articles of impeachment and against the fourth article on abuse of power. Although the impeachment debate was heated, Gilchrest says it was starkly different than the partisan rhetoric in Congress now. 

The leaders of both parties in the Senate at the time, Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), were cordial to one another and came to an agreement on the terms of the trial.

MM: What stands out to you as different in what you are observing now and the Clinton impeachment that you experienced?

Gilchrest: In the Clinton trial, there was certainly partisan politics at play, without a doubt. But the acrimony now is not tamed by the Republican leadership. They fan the flames. No matter what you say about partisan politics with Trent Lott, he was not ruthless with his vicious language, like these guys are. And for [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to say he is working with the White House? God almighty, that blows my mind.

I think it was much more mild. Clinton himself was not vicious toward Republicans. His one fault line was that he lied about having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. He should have just said, “Yes, I did, I am sorry. I made a mistake,” and it would have been all over. Republicans were looking for something that they could impeach him with, which was what he lied about.

I don’t think there is any comparison now. The process is so transparent that they want to save Trump at all costs.

MM: Do you have any regrets about your vote?

Gilchrest: I still ponder it. I think I am 50-50 on that vote. I knew Republicans did not like Clinton, and a lot of Clinton’s issues I was in favor of. But when you just lie to a grand jury, just out and out lie to the American public and a grand jury. But whether or not that was an impeachable offense because it was hiding an extramarital affair, and what did that do to national security and domestic policy? It does not compare to what Trump is doing today. 

MM: What advice would you have for current lawmakers?

Gilchrest: McConnell and [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer need to get together and be reasonable and responsible about how they construct the Senate trial, which would include bringing in witnesses, especially witnesses that were inside the inner circle of the Trump administration. We certainly know about the Ukranian quid-pro-quo and now you have John Bolton saying he would come in to testify. Why not call John Bolton? It would be ludicrous if they did not call him in. 

This is pretty insidious. It is almost, for me, it is just unbelievable the way these members of the House and Senate are acting. It’s tragic.

These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.

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