FLASHBACK: Media Slammed Clinton’s ’99 Trial as a ‘Stalinist’ ‘Coup’

February 11th, 2024 10:17 AM

It was exactly 25 years ago tomorrow, February 12, 1999, the U.S. Senate voted to acquit President Bill Clinton at his impeachment trial. Two months earlier, the House had approved two articles of impeachment: one charging that Clinton had “willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony” to a federal grand jury; the other said he had “willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration, impeding the administration of justice.”

In spite of his acquittal, Clinton eventually admitted that he had made false statements under oath, as part of a plea arrangement to avoid criminal indictment. So at least that element of the case against him is beyond dispute.

But unlike the two subsequent Trump impeachments, which the media had championed since before the Republican President had even taken office, journalists sneered that the trial of William Jefferson Clinton was a pointless waste of the Senate’s valuable time.

Viewers heard that it was an attempted “coup,” something “Stalinist” that evoked memories of Nazi Germany. Republicans were like KKK “night riders,” motivated by racism in their vendetta against a Democratic President. When a protester disrupted the proceedings by yelling “take the vote and get it over with,” the media treated him as a hero.

“If they had stretched this out for another two or three weeks,” the Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt claimed on CNN, “I think people may have stormed the United States Capitol.”

Four years ago, NewsBusters video editor Bill D’Agostino assembled some of the choicest media clips showing how the media in 1999 derided Clinton’s impeachment trial as a “sham,” “bogus” “political hit job.” That video is below, followed by just some of the most outrageous quotes from the media’s coverage of Clinton’s impeachment trial.



Republicans Like Nazis, Stalin

“Is or is there not some concern of the public, concern in some quarters, not all of them Democratic, that this is in fact a kind of effort at a quote ‘coup,’ that is you have a twice elected, popularly elected President of the United States and so those that you mentioned in the Republican Party who dislike him and what he stands for, having been unable to beat him at the polls, have found another way to get him out of office.”
— Dan Rather to former Senator Warren Rudman during CBS coverage of the impeachment trial swearing in, January 7, 1999.

“As she watches Republicans in Congress push ahead with impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, Ellen Mendel of Manhattan says she feels the same despair that she did as a girl in Nazi Germany when the efforts of a stubborn group of leaders snowballed, crushing the will of the people.”
— Opening to a January 25, 1999 New York Times story by Ginger Thompson on liberal Manhattanites enraged by the Republican push for removal.

“‘Uniquely stupid’ is not the word I would describe this process. It’s Stalinist. It seems as though it’s gone on behind closed doors. Everything is according to a script. It’s just arcane and impenetrable in the extreme and it has nothing to do with what we would consider normal fairness and trial procedure to be.”
— MSNBC host John Hockenberry to law professor Jonathan Turley, January 28, 1999.

Impeachment Rooted in Republicans’ Racism

“That herd of managers from the House, I mean frankly all they were missing was white sheets. They’re like night riders going over.”
Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, January 9, 1999 McLaughlin Group.

“The G.O.P. is a party, after all, that owes its post-Barry Goldwater resurgence to opposition to civil rights. And while its leaders from time to time proclaim their belief in racial justice, their pledges have been mostly lip service. They’re too genteel for a sheet-wearing bigot like David Duke but all too willing to embrace bigotry if it’s dressed in a suit and tie. [Clinton lawyer Cheryl] Mills, 33, is just the sort of hard-nosed advocate to drag such hypocrisy to the surface.”
Time national correspondent Jack E. White, February 1, 1999 “Dividing Line” column.

“Don’t you think 13 guys, all of whom, you know, are not noted for any contribution to civil rights. I’m talking about the House managers. All of whom are born-again, all of whom are right-to-lifers, all of whom are you know, anti-immigration, pro-English Only, etc, etc, don’t you think that when that face is presented, isn’t that one of the reasons the majority, the vast majority of the American people support the President? When they look at the people prosecuting, some say persecuting him, and say, wait a second, those people wouldn’t even let me into their home or their neighborhood or to work alongside them?”
— Host Geraldo Rivera on the February 2, 1999 Rivera Live on CNBC.

The Trial Is a Complete Waste of Time

“There’s a long line of the people’s business that seems to have been put aside and apparently is going to be put aside for weeks if not months now.”
— Dan Rather to Bob Schieffer at about 1:25pm ET during the signing of the oath book by Senators, January 7, 1999.

“If the votes aren’t there, why is your party dragging this thing out?...People want it over with, and if the votes aren’t there, why not, why go through all this business about witnesses? Why not just get it done?”
Good Morning America co-host Charlie Gibson to Bob Dole, January 18, 1999.

“The Republican leadership has decided, and spoken....They want the calling of witnesses and the lengthening out of the process....All important parts of the people’s business — all remain pretty much on hold, while the trial drags on.”
— January 25, 1999 “Dan Rather’s Notebook” radio commentary posted on the CBS News Web page.

Applauding the Heroic “Voice of the People”

“Good evening. We begin tonight with the voice of the people heard from the Senate gallery today during yet another procedural vote at the President’s impeachment trial....‘God almighty,’ the man said, ‘take the vote and get it over with.’ He was arrested. That’s him in the beard, slightly balding, on the right. He may think it was worth it, speaking as he does for so many Americans....”
— ABC’s Peter Jennings, February 4, 1999 World News Tonight.

“You know who the hero of this whole thing is, it’s that guy, what was his name, Richard Llamas, the guy who stood up in the Senate gallery last week and said, ‘Good God vote and get over with this, will you.’ If they had stretched this out for another two or three weeks, which if they would have had the kind of witnesses Bob [Novak] wanted to have, I want to tell you something, I think the people may have stormed the United States Capitol.”
Wall Street Journal Executive Washington Editor Al Hunt on a special edition of CNN’s Capital Gang, February 11, 1999.

Gotta Admire the Liars

“It was a weak obstruction of justice case for a couple of reasons. I think the biggest reason was the three principals involved in it — Clinton and Monica [Lewinsky] and [Clinton pal] Vernon Jordan — are pros, they know how to cover-up so there was never any, they didn’t have to do any explicit ‘now young lady, you have to lie.’ Monica’s a savvy gal. She knows how to lie when the time is right. Clinton’s been doing it all his life. And Vernon is a terrific lawyer who knew exactly how not to get himself into trouble. And with those three principals involved you were never going to pin a case on them.”
Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas, February 13, 1999 Inside Washington.

A Criminal Trial Would Be Another “Nightmare”

ABC legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin: “The interesting point to keep in mind is that this may not be the final chapter. Kenneth Starr is still investigating. He is weighing whether to indict President Clinton on these facts, so it is worth keeping in mind whether an actual jury, not a Senate jury, may yet hear the same evidence.”
Peter Jennings: “But just so that you don’t terrify people altogether, Jeffrey, this is going to be the last of the Senate impeachment trial this week as far as we know.”
Toobin: “That’s right. This national nightmare is over. We’ll see if there’s another one.”
— ABC News live coverage of final arguments, February 8, 1999.

Plotting the Democrats’ Revenge

“I can’t think of anything that would be better for the American Republic than to see some of the Republicans who brought this bogus, inflated case and have put the country through all this turmoil for the last, almost a year than for them to be sent packing and to be replaced by someone who can put this in somewhat better perspective.”
Time national correspondent Jack E. White on MSNBC’s McLaughlin Special Report prime time show, February 10, 1999.


For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.