Before January 1999, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi had only served on one jury in his life — a trial in which no verdict was reached.
A boy in Wyoming was being tried for the criminal act of poaching six deer out of season. The jury heard all of the evidence — of how the boy was caught red-handed in the family’s barn with a .22 rifle and two deer hanging from a post to be butchered — as well as the boy’s argument that, upon his arrest, he hadn’t been properly read his rights.
The boy’s father, Enzi remembered, rose at that, asking the judge if he could speak with his son privately. A few minutes later, the pair emerged from the hall and the boy plead guilty, telling the judge, “In our family we don’t believe in getting off on technicalities.’’
“A successful trial,” Enzi recalled to his colleagues from the rostrum at the center of the Senate chambers that day. “I watched a boy become a man.”
The stakes were considerably higher the next time Enzi served as a juror: the impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton. And the longtime senator will soon become a juror for the third time in his life, when the case against President Donald Trump is decided sometime next year in the U.S. Senate.
True to form, Enzi, who announced his retirement from Congress earlier this year, has avoided the limelight as the case against Trump moved forward. When the president was impeached Wednesday night, the rest of Wyoming’s congressional delegation were quick to comment publicly on the matter. Not Enzi.
“In the past, he’s said that if there’s ever another impeachment, he will do what he did before — he will be a jurist, listen to the evidence, and once all the evidence is in, he will make a final decision,” a spokesman in his office told the Star-Tribune.
While Enzi has chosen to wait until the trial to share his thoughts, he is one of a minority of senators who participated in Clinton’s impeachment trial. Enzi’s comments from those proceedings may offer insight into the senator’s thinking when he helps decide the case against Trump next year.
The trial of Bill Clinton
In the winter of 1999, Enzi was barely two years into his time as a U.S. senator. A longtime Wyoming legislator, a former mayor and, before then, a shoe salesman, he was a quiet presence on Capitol Hill, known more for his depth of knowledge and insight on the budget and economy than for partisan theatrics.
Enzi had generally shied from the national spotlight up to that point, preferring to focus his communications on constituents and their concerns while establishing his reputation as “the most effective senator you’ve never heard of.”
“The old joke around Washington was the most dangerous place to be was in between Chuck Schumer and a camera,” recalled Jimmy Orr, a former D.C. flack working as a lobbyist at the time. “But you could insert any number of politicians into that joke and still have it be accurate. There are plenty of politicians who simply aren’t there for public service. But Enzi has always been there to make things better — he has never had an ego.
“He never cared about the credit,” Orr added. “He’s just different that way. You can say that about very few people in D.C.”
It was also a time when Wyoming’s politics were shifting, its leaders in the mid-to-late 1990s looking to move the Republican Party away from a fixation on national issues to those pertaining to Wyoming.
“What we were going to do was just put out our ideas on who we are,” Wallace Ulrich, the chairman of the Wyoming GOP in those days, said in an interview. “The idea was ‘Let’s just talk about what Wyoming’s about, not get dragged into that mess.’”
But in 1999, impeachment was at the forefront of everyone’s mind — both nationally and in Wyoming.
A news release from that period stated Enzi received more than 3,600 pieces of correspondence from around the country relating to impeachment and — with an opportunity to weigh in on the first Senate impeachment trial since Andrew Johnson in 1868 — Enzi found himself with the rare opportunity to speak for an entire state.
He questioned whether the president’s crimes rose to the level of impeachment, as well as the integrity of the spin coming from the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He pondered what the nation’s founding fathers would have thought and, despite the nation’s strong economy at the time (which he acknowledged), lamented the cost at which it came: the decline of American morality and a future where we’re left to tell our children “they have to follow the law until they become powerful enough, or clever enough, or rich enough to violate the law with impunity.”
But Enzi also offered a window into how he perceived whether Clinton’s actions had, “abused or violated some public trust,” which Alexander Hamilton considered a baseline for impeachment.
“When you were growing up, did your mom need proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ before punishment?” Enzi asked the Senate. “Did she ever say, ‘Don’t put yourself in a position where it even looks like you did something wrong?’ Circumstantial evidence was enough. Did your mom ever say, ‘Watch out who you hang out with; it reflects on you?’ Did your mom say, ‘Watch your actions — they reflect on you and your family?’ Did your mom ever say, ‘Act so I won’t be embarrassed tomorrow reading the front page of the paper about what you did today?’”
“The president has complained that others are out to get him, that he is the most investigated president in history,” he added. “Perhaps he ought to apply the ‘Mom Test.’”
The hyperpartisan present
In several weeks, Enzi — now entering the final year of his lengthy political career — will become one of few people in American history to have ever participated in multiple trials to impeach a president, a distinction shared only by a dozen other members of the U.S. Senate.
However, the Washington of today differs greatly from the one Enzi worked in two decades ago. And what he will say in defense or scorn of Trump, or whether he will speak at all — Enzi declined to comment for this article and has remained tight-lipped on Trump’s impeachment — remains unknown. The country is also bitterly split in a way that makes even the most partisan antics of the late ‘90s seem like business as usual in modern-day Congress.
Former Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin might be one of the best examples. A typically outspoken member of the Republican majority at the time, Cubin had called for the president’s resignation once the allegations against him were made public but had been reluctant to call for Clinton’s impeachment until the release of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of the president’s activities.
“I was not anxious to impeach the president, and many people I knew who were Republicans weren’t anxious either,” Cubin said in an interview earlier this month. “But we knew we had to do the right thing.”
Though the impeachment of the president was, as Cubin admits, a partisan exercise, a number of members of both parties did break ranks. And while some reveled in impeachment, many in D.C. struck a sober posture in the lead-up to Clinton’s trial.
Some Republicans, Cubin said, did not support the double standard of impeachment, feeling the president’s transgressions in his personal life were no different than those committed by others in the political establishment. On the other side of the aisle, Cubin said there were others who — like those pushing for impeachment — saw the need to enforce the standards of law against a president who had not only lied under oath but pushed others to do so on his behalf.
“The country wasn’t nearly as at odds with one another as it is today,” Cubin said.
Handed the task of impeachment in 1999, the Senate — typically a more staid bunch than those occupying the House of Representatives — were just as reserved. Wyoming’s senior senator, Craig Thomas, played the role of cautious and methodical juror, withholding his thoughts on impeachment throughout the proceedings despite a thinly-veiled disdain for the commander-in-chief. As he said in front of a Washington Post reporter following Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union address: “How can you be kind to an (expletive) like that?”
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When given the opportunity to speak at Clinton’s proceedings, Thomas — an advocate for a speedy trial — declined. That left just one voice, Enzi, to make his case, speaking for the morality not only of Wyoming but also the nation. While Democrats could argue over the motivations of impeachment, the Republicans had the rules on their side: namely, an actual criminal action clearly defined by the constitution as an impeachable offense.
“As far as the Republicans were concerned, the facts couldn’t hurt us,” Cubin recalled. “Since Clinton lied and tried to cover it up, the facts could have hurt them. If they could have hurt us, we had to be sure we were doing the right thing.”
The rationale for Trump’s impeachment, however, is somewhat more complicated. By definition, the parameters for impeachment are rather broad, allowing for the president to be removed for treason, bribery or “other high crimes and misdemeanors,” typically outlined as non-indictable offenses including corruption and abuses of the public trust.
While Trump, who said on camera that he wanted a foreign power to investigate the son of a political rival and has thus far refused to cooperate with congressional subpoenas for documents pertaining to his case, appears to have explicitly utilized his office in an attempt to undermine an opponent, those against impeachment have argued the president was working within his authority to withhold military aid, in this case setting foreign policy by linking appropriated funds with expectations for a country wracked by corruption.
Whether the corruption involved the son of a political rival, or whether the United States has happily funded other corrupt regimes around the world with few strings attached, is irrelevant to some. Withholding aid is, in the eyes of some scholars and members of Congress, the president’s prerogative.
Kevin Gutzman, a professor of history at Western Connecticut State University and a scholar on impeachment, said that while the House of Representatives has tremendous latitude to impeach someone — including deficiencies like habitual drunkenness, demonstrable mental decline or criminal behavior — Trump’s actions do not rise to an impeachable threshold.
“It actually is a legitimate function of the president to withhold appropriated aid to foreign countries in particular circumstances,” he said in an interview. “Let’s say there were a coup in Ukraine. Would the president be under a constitutional obligation to go ahead and give the people who ran the coup the aid that we appropriated for the previous regime? Of course not. You can conjure 50 other possible scenarios in which he should withhold aid until he says it’s time for it to be spent. I don’t think that general argument that ‘Once aid has been appropriated, it must be turned over’ makes any sense.”
Others have argued the opposite. Earlier this month, more than 500 law professors from around the country co-signed a letter arguing the president’s actions do rise to that vague, impeachable standard, arguing that the circumstances of his withholding foreign aid — in their proper context and with all facts considered — can only point to impeachment.
But like the impeachment trial against the nation’s 42nd president, the case against Trump will likely be decided just as the verdict against Clinton was: well in advance and largely on party lines.
The trial of Donald Trump
In 1999, all 45 of the Senate Democrats voted to acquit the president, with a handful of Republicans handing in their own “not guilty” pleas. Republicans are still in the majority in the Senate, and observers predict a similar party-line vote. Many Republican senators have signaled their positions toward impeachment well in advance of a trial.
Sen. John Barrasso, a vocal supporter of the president, has gone on record against impeachment on numerous occasions, telling Fox News on Dec. 10 that Democrats lack sufficient support in the Senate to impeach the president.
“We are united,” Barrasso told the channel.
Enzi, so far, has remained silent publicly. His views on the matter are not yet known. However, his reasoning for impeaching Clinton at the time was clear as day: the breach of a contract between the chief executive and the people he swore to serve.
“The president’s counsel admits he lied, was evasive, misleading,” Enzi said in his speech, arguing that his lies undermined any other action the commander-in-chief could take as president.
Clinton, Enzi said, had clearly committed the crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice, demonstrating — in his words — “intentional, premeditated violations of an indispensable public trust,” crimes further solidified by the precedent of impeaching a federal judge for lying about his taxes more than a decade earlier.
Still, it was complicated.
“It was his personal life he lied about, and I don’t know how many Republicans it was — I’d say five to 10 — who voted against impeachment,” Cubin said. “Because they felt other people were doing the same thing and that this was more a political attack than a legal one.”
But impeachment has always been a partisan exercise, one often approached with tribal mentality, argues Dr. Michael P. Federici, chairman of the political science department at Middle Tennessee State University and author of a book on Hamilton. It was with this in mind that Hamilton foresaw the role of impeachment in the Federalist 65 (the same lines Enzi drew his inspiration from), writing the process was designed to “divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”
That, Hamilton wrote, was its greatest danger.
“In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence and interest on one side or on the other,” Hamilton wrote. “In such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
“Hamilton understood that the impeachment process would be fraught with partisan/party prejudice,” Frederici wrote in an email. “History verifies Hamilton’s fear.”
For Enzi, the decision to impeach Clinton was one of morality, determined — in his words — less by his guilt than by the nature of his actions.
“While the power of impeachment and removal is a strong measure and one that should never be taken gently,” Enzi said at the time, “it is an indispensable remedy in our government for those public officers who have so violated their public trust as to be unworthy to continue holding offices of public trust.
“Those who would disregard this rule of law for their own personal or political ends,” he added, “must not be allowed to remain in offices of public trust.”
Whether he — or other members of his party — apply a similar standard in Trump’s case depends on a multitude of elements.
The empirical evidence, however, already hints at the answer.
“It should be remembered that the impeachment process is a political process that pretends to be a judicial process,” Frederici wrote. “Members of Congress play the role of prosecutors, attorneys and juries. They investigate, question witnesses, draw up articles of impeachment and vote in the Senate like a jury to acquit or convict.
“At the end of the day, however, political and ideological interest, not law, determines the outcome.”