Media Matters founder David Brock knows from impeachment. He was deep inside the Republican camp in the 1990s, when the infamous "vast right-wing conspiracy" formed to take out President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton became only the second president ever impeached by the House, but Republicans got nowhere close to a conviction in the Senate. Brock was already beginning to sour on the conservative movement, which he saw as plagued by corruption, and believed that the impeachment of Clinton backfired.
Because of that history, Brock has been openly skeptical of the potential impeachment of Donald Trump. That is, until last week, when Democratic leadership in the House decided to open an official impeachment inquiry after Trump's apparent effort to extort the Ukrainian president into offering illegal election help in 2020. I talked to Brock shortly after Nancy Pelosi's announcement that impeachment was on. I wanted to know why he had changed his mind, and how he thinks Democrats should proceed while avoiding the mistakes Republicans made in 1998.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You used to be an impeachment skeptic, and now you have moved to the column of supporting this impeachment effort. Why?
Let me go back to my thinking prior to the whistleblower story breaking. I was a skeptic from pretty much the time that the Democrats took the House, through last week. There were a few different reasons for that. One was that the Democrats campaigned mainly on health care. They certainly didn't campaign on Russia or impeachment.
But the bigger one was the lessons that I drew from the Clinton impeachment. I think some of us who lived through that period suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome over that era. And the lesson I drew was that the Republican effort to impeach Clinton backfired politically, and I didn't want the same thing to happen to Democrats. Clinton's approval rating had a slight uptick after he was impeached and the Republicans obviously had a setback in the 1998 midterms, which was historically unusual. They should have gained seats and they lost seats.
Then the Mueller report came out and there were a couple of problems, I think, with the Mueller report. One is substantive and one is more atmospherics.
While the Mueller report found 10 persuasive instances where Trump obstructed justice, in the first part of the investigation on the Russian intervention and collusion and conspiracy, they didn't find that Trump committed any crimes. And I think that's just a harder leap for people to make.
Probably the more important thing was that right out of the gate, Trump and Bill Barr spun the Mueller report very hard to say, "No collusion and no obstruction." And I think Democrats were caught flatfooted by the spin coming out of the White House and didn't create their own story. The story was basically that the Mueller report was a dud. I think the position of the Democratic leadership during that period was correct, to be very cautious about this.
You had people who were coming on board with impeachment or an impeachment inquiry, who were seen as doing their duty and doing the right thing regardless of the politics. Then you have the people who are advocating to go slow, who were basically being accused of being too political about the whole thing. But the reality is that impeachment is a political process. I think it would have been malpractice for the leadership not to factor in the politics of all this, and the politics until last week just weren't there.
What has changed is that, one, you have a very clear story of incredibly egregious behavior by Trump, in Trump's own words.
You have an alignment now of doing the right thing and good politics. There are certain advantages now, politically, that I think Democrats will have by going down the road of impeachment that I don't think they would have had otherwise. We can already see them.
One is that the story that the press wanted to write about Democratic division and dithering is gone. It's been replaced by 24/7 coverage of Trump and corruption. Now the Democrats, in the spin wars, have the upper hand. Trump and his supporters right now are struggling to come up with a counter-narrative, and I think they're having a lot of trouble doing that.
Two, you have to consider what would have happened if an accusation like this, of this magnitude, had come out and the Democrats didn't do anything. That would have depressed the Democratic base, I think.
The third thing is the Senate. I think it's a very narrow path for the Democrats to get the majority back, and there didn't look like there was a very good strategy for doing that. It's possible that impeachment is the strongest strategy for Democrats, because the senators who are vulnerable are in more purplish areas rather than deep red areas. In those areas, those senators are going to have a very tough choice to make.
If they stick with Trump, I think they're going to look like they're participants in a cover-up at worst and that they're in the tank for Trump. They're toadies, etc., and that's not going to play well with the swing voters. If they separate from Trump, there'll be a backlash among Trump supporters.
We're already seeing, in the very first round of polling since the House opened the impeachment inquiry, that numbers are moving toward more people favoring impeachment. I think that will continue.
This idea that Trump welcomes impeachment, I think, is just completely disingenuous spin. I don't think any president wants to run for re-election with the impeachment stamp on his forehead.
This election, as much as Democrats want to make it about issues, it's going to be a referendum on Trump. That's why I came around to the idea that Democrats should go full-on with impeachment proceedings.
Right now the debate is over how expansive an impeachment inquiry should be. Should it be focused on this Ukraine thing or should it be expansive? Should they look at all the various crimes before he was elected? What about his in-office corruption? I wrote an article for Salon arguing that they should be expansive. What's your opinion on this?
I would probably say that the kitchen-sink approach, while it's tempting politically, is probably more fraught because it's going to take a long time. The issues that could potentially be raised are many. They're diffuse, and there's a lot of different directions that one can go in, in terms of gathering evidence.
I think it's not really in the Democrats' interest to have a long, drawn-out process. And I don't know why you couldn't have more than one bite at the apple, but I think they should probably get this one done because as Nancy Pelosi said, "Strike while the iron is hot."
I think you just run a risk of trying to do too much and trying to persuade people of too many different things. But I think those things should all be continue to be investigated.
It's an interesting question because I think the two modern examples people are looking at are Richard Nixon, obviously with Watergate, and Bill Clinton with the Monica Lewinsky affair. And they're very different. With Nixon, they really did kitchen-sink him. The articles of impeachment were long, and involved everything. With Clinton — well, you were in the midst of it. It was just the one thing basically, right?
Right. There was like a laser-like focus on one event, right. You're right, they definitely had a full plate of things with Nixon. And with Clinton, it was a laser-like focus on the one thing.
But I don't think — I mean, I could be wrong — but I just don't think there's an appetite for months and months of investigation without a vote on resolving this particular issue. I think there's a lot of momentum. And they're not done with gathering all the evidence, but once they have it I think they need to move.
Obviously you were around for the Clinton impeachment. You were — correct me on the timeline. I feel like you were still on the Republican side then.
I was in transition, so I was still on the Republican side. But ultimately, after the Monica Lewinsky story broke was when I started to break with the right. The two things coincided.
I ended up arguing against Clinton's impeachment, based on the fact that the people that I knew and worked with, who were funding the anti-Clinton efforts, were trying to impeach him from day one and were just looking for any excuse to do so. And of course he gave them one. But they were running down every rabbit hole possible looking for an impeachable offense for seven years, before they found Monica Lewinsky.
So I came out and started to tell the story of what Hillary Clinton called the "vast right-wing conspiracy." I turned against the Republicans and around the same time against the impeachment of Clinton.
That's exactly what Mitch McConnell accused the Democrats of doing by starting this impeachment inquiry into Trump — that they wanted to impeach him from day one and were just looking for a rationale. What do you think is the difference, as someone who was there for the Clinton impeachment?
I think it's entirely different. Now, it's true that there was always chatter about impeachment around Trump, pretty much from the time he came into office. That is true. But it wasn't the view held by the people in the Democratic leadership.
If you compare Nancy Pelosi's approach to this whole thing versus Newt Gingrich's, it's night and day. She was, some would say, overly cautious, but she was cautious. She was skeptical. She was trying to protect the interests of her caucus and rightly so, which she read as, there was more political danger in going for impeachment than not. And of course that political calculus changed dramatically in about a week.
But there was not the rabid, destroy-on-any-grounds, destroy-by-any-means ethic on the Democratic side at all. I think you can see, in the tone and the tenor of the Democrats, that a lot of them are doing this reluctantly. I don't think they're happy about the course they've had to take.
It's what Trump did that forced their hand. Nobody is doing this with any sense of glee, the way the Republicans went after Clinton. I think it's a very different tone and temperament.
I'd like to ask you about the substance of the accusations as well. I'm not denying that Bill Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. So he did the crime. Trump appears to have done the crime. But I think the nature of the crime is shaping the way people are reacting very differently. Do you have thoughts about that?
Yes, absolutely. It's so much apples and oranges, if you take a look at what the offense that Clinton committed was, and what the offense that Trump committed is. That's one of the reasons why public support for Clinton's impeachment was never there. The underlying offense was really trivial compared to what we're dealing with now. That's definitely an important factor in how all this is playing out.
What would you recommend the Democrats do, structurally, in order to avoid that kind of backlash that the Republicans got for impeaching Clinton in the '90s?
It is important that they be seen as not doing this for partisan reasons. And I haven't seen that. They've been treating this with the gravity and the seriousness that it deserves. To the extent they can, even though impeachment's a political process, they have to keep this above the partisan fray.
They've got to be very tight, stay focused, stay on message and not look like they're enjoying this. Don't look overzealous.