What it’s like working in the White House during impeachment
The period in early December 1998 just before the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton has been on my mind lately. I’ve been thinking about those few weeks, the most harrowing of my career, ever since House Democrats announced they would launch a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. While I may not be rooting for Trump, I have a keen sense of what his staff is going through right now.
An impeachment inquiry exacerbates all the stresses and anxieties that already exist in any White House. The media magnifies the slightest development; dire predictions of imminent demise are commonplace. As press secretary — a perilous job during normal times — I personally felt the pressure to not make a mistake from the podium, with every word I spoke analyzed for both real and hidden meanings.
Throughout, members of the press breathed down our necks, sniffing for any material that could help them characterize “the mood in the White House.” John Podesta, the chief of staff, had made clear, using quite colorful language, that he didn’t want people talking about impeachment. Not in meetings, not at the proverbial water cooler and especially not out in public, even with family and friends. It was difficult to go through this period always being watched, and always pretending it wasn’t happening.
Despite Podesta’s admonition, the few staffers working on impeachment — mostly lawyers and communications staff like me — were constantly being asked what was going on. Everyone lived off rumors and secondhand information, studying the body language of the president and senior staffers.
Several times a day, colleagues dropped by my office to “see how I was doing.” No one got much sleep. Once, I remember working until about 4 in the morning, getting about an hour’s rest, and then my wife suddenly waking me up in the shower. I had been standing under the water, fast asleep.
We all developed a certain gallows humor. Bad jokes flew around: “If you see the vice president, tell him it looks like he’s lost weight. He’ll remember you when he starts filling out his staff.”
Perhaps the defining aspect of this period was its sheer unpredictability. The best way to describe the experience is by recalling the day the president was impeached: Dec. 19, 1998. It was as normal a Saturday as you could expect, knowing that the vote was coming. We knew the outcome, and we had a strategy. We would say this was all partisan, and the president would stay focused on the people’s business.
Simple. People in the administration believed it, and that was our message for that day.
Then, just before noon, Bob Livingston, R-La., the new speaker, went to the House floor and said he’d had an affair, and that the only honorable thing he could do was resign. Which he did, right there in the middle of the debate.
Our simple message was suddenly trumped by an even simpler one: Do something wrong, get caught, resign.
I estimated that we had about 15 minutes before everyone caught their breath and the television pundits started the drumbeat for the president, too, to resign. I sprinted to the Oval Office to get President Clinton’s reaction. While waiting for other staffers to arrive, I asked him not what we should say, but what he thought, and scribbled it down. Ten minutes after the meeting, I went to White House driveway and read it aloud, word for word.
That clear statement — that it was wrong for Livingston to resign and that the politics of personal destruction had to stop — seemed to break the fever before it fully spiked. Because the media largely focused on the president’s plea for Livingston to reconsider, we avoided a full-scale outcry for him to resign.
After that, I dashed to a State of the Union planning meeting. I remember sitting there, discussing issues like health care, education and gun safety, and thinking, we are going to get through this. Then, 10 minutes in, I was pulled away to meet with the national security staff. During the lead-up to the impeachment vote, we were about 10 days into a military action against Iraq. The military action was complete, and the national security team needed the president to announce it that evening.
We had no choice but to handle what some might call a communications problem: delivering opposing messages from the president back to back. First, we had 150 members of Congress stand with the president on the South Lawn of the White House for a partisan pep rally. The impeachment was all about politics, Democrats are good, Republicans are not — that was the gist.
Then, in the time it took to carry the presidential podium no more than 100 yards away, we moved inside to deliver a slightly different message. Flanked by America’s military leaders, the president declared that we were not a country of Republicans and Democrats, but of Americans, bound together by patriotism. He proclaimed the military action successfully completed, and he departed, leaving me to explain how these two messages — us against them, and we are all in this together — could fit.
At the end of this long day, I went back to the office. Waiting for me was a close colleague with two cold beers. We sat down, and I’ll always remember what he said next: “You know, except for getting impeached, we had a pretty good day.”
Joe Lockhart served as White House Press Secretary from 1998 to 2000 during the Clinton administration, and co-hosts the the podcast “Words Matter.”
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart gestures while meeting reporters in the White House briefing room to talk about the House impeachment proceedings.