WASHINGTON – Ahead of the U.S. House vote to impeach President Bill Clinton, Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe’s office was inundated with calls from constituents hoping to sway him.
He received more than 5,000 calls, faxes, letters and notes during a single week in December 1998, he told the Associated Press at the time. He was one of a few moderate Republican House members at that time who hadn’t publicly declared whether they planned to vote to impeach Clinton. Kolbe was viewed ahead of the vote as one of Clinton’s most likely GOP supporters.
“We had to bring on temporary volunteer staff to answer phones,” the former congressman recalled to Arizona Mirror this week in an interview. Some of the comments were “angry, sometimes vitriolic, sometimes obscene,” he said.
He thinks he got more calls opposing impeachment than supporting it, but he doesn’t remember the exact breakdown.
“I think it’s a mistake for a member to ever count those kinds of things,” Kolbe said. “You have an obligation here of upholding the Constitution.”
The Arizona congressman announced days before the House vote that he planned to vote to impeach Clinton over allegations that the president had committed perjury and obstructed justice to cover up his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Kolbe said at the time that the impeachment marked “one of the saddest moments in our nation’s history,” The Washington Post reported.
“What possible respect for the rule of law can any of us have, or demand of others, if our president is not held accountable for perjury just because he is president?” he said at a Phoenix airport.
The House approved two of the four articles it considered against Clinton that year, almost entirely along partisan lines. Kolbe voted for three of the four articles.
Every other Arizona Republican serving in the House in the time also voted to impeach Clinton. The four other Arizona Republicans were Reps. J.D. Hayworth, Matt Salmon, John Shadegg and Bob Stump. (Like Kolbe, Shadegg voted for three of the four articles of impeachment; the others supported all four).
Rep. Ed Pastor, the only Democrat representing Arizona in the U.S. Congress at the time, voted against all four articles of impeachment.
Kolbe, who left Congress in 2007, said this week that he stands by those votes. He also said he sees the Clinton impeachment as “quite different” than the current proceedings against President Donald Trump, whom congressional Democrats have accused of abusing his power to pressure foreign governments to meddle in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
For one thing, Clinton was in his second term in the White House, Kolbe said, and wouldn’t be facing voters again at the ballot box.
Another major difference, Kolbe noted, was that Clinton and President Richard Nixon – who resigned during impeachment proceedings – were both accused of attempting to withhold evidence from investigators.
“What makes Trump different is that he revels in making sure that everybody knows what he’s doing,” Kolbe said.
Arizona’s two Republican senators at the time, John McCain and Jon Kyl, both voted to find Clinton guilty of both articles of impeachment. Clinton was acquitted, however, because the Senate fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.
“I don’t lightly dismiss the public’s clear opposition to conviction,” McCain said after his vote in 1999, according to the Tucson Citizen. “And I am genuinely concerned that the institution of the presidency not be harmed, either by the President’s conduct or by Congress’ reaction to his conduct.”
He added, “Indeed, I take no satisfaction at all from this vote, with one exception – and an important exception it is – that by voting to convict I have been spared reproach by my conscience for shirking my duty.”
Kyl agreed, according to the Tucson paper.
“Anyone who so willfully, callously and persistently connived to deny the federal court and grand jury the truth, and who used and abused the highest office in the land to advance his personal cover-up, is not only no longer worthy of trust – which we all agree is essential to the conduct of his office – but also much be removed to avoid the perpetuation of a legal double standard,” Kyl said in a statement.
So far, the Arizona delegation – like the rest of the U.S. Congress – appears to be again divided largely along partisan lines on impeachment proceedings for Trump.
Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego, Raúl Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick, Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton have all publicly endorsed the impeachment inquiry. None of the four House Republicans support the inquiry.
Arizona’s congressional delegation will be central to the impeachment battle that will play out on Capitol Hill in the coming months. Three House lawmakers from Arizona – Republicans Andy Biggs and Debbie Lesko, and Stanton – serve on the Judiciary Committee, which could soon vote to send articles of impeachment to the House floor. Stanton could potentially be a manager at a Senate trial over whether to remove Trump from office.
And GOP Reps. Paul Gosar and David Schweikert sit on the Oversight and Ways & Means Committees, respectively, both of which have been tasked with working on the impeachment inquiry.
If the impeachment effort moves to a trial in the Senate, Arizona’s senators could potentially represent swing votes on the issue.
Republican Sen. Martha McSally last month called the House impeachment inquiry a “kamikaze mission” that would backfire and help Republicans. But she appears to have shifted her tone, somewhat, saying this week that she wants the Senate Intelligence Committee to look into questions surrounding Trump’s behavior, The Arizona Republic reported.
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has taken a cautious approach to the issue. She said in a statement last month, “Arizonans deserve a government that upholds our Constitutional values. Partisan politics have no place in addressing these serious allegations. This process may require the Senate to fulfill a Constitutional role, so it is the duty of all Senators – including myself – to avoid pre-judging facts or reaching conclusions.”
Nixon, Johnson impeachments
Arizona lawmakers are also known for the role they played during the Richard Nixon impeachment proceedings in the 1970s, when Nixon resigned from office before articles of impeachment could be voted on by the full House.
On Aug. 7, 1974 – the day ahead of Nixon’s speech announcing his resignation – three senior Republicans visited him at the White House to tell him that impeachment was almost certain. Two of those three lawmakers were Arizonans: Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. John Rhodes, who was the House minority leader at the time. The third was Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania.
“They told Nixon there were no longer enough Republican votes to spare him from impeachment, given the release two days earlier of a 1972 tape recording contradicting Nixon’s tenacious denial of any role in cover-up of the Watergate break-in,” the Associated Press reported.
Arizona lawmakers did not play a role during the first presidential impeachment – the 1868 effort to oust President Andrew Johnson – because Arizona was not yet a state.
During the Johnson impeachment effort – in the aftermath of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination – the president’s congressional critics accused him of illegally removing the secretary of war to replace him with an official more likely to support Johnson’s agenda. The effort to convict Johnson fell one vote short (35 to 19) of the two-thirds majority that would have been needed to oust him from office.