The times have officially changed. For years, Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct was questioned, disbelieved, and flatly ignored. But post-#MeToo America has made a seismic shift, and it’s now looking in the rear-view mirror right at Mr. Clinton. Now, Donald Trump’s decision to trot out Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathy Shelton at the presidential debate like a bunch of grotesque props seems almost prescient; now, the stories of those women, and the narratives of Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky, are suddenly sweeping headlines again. This might be a good time to do a little Clinton/Trump side-by-side.
Wait, what happened with Bill Clinton again?
In 1994, Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, sued President Bill Clinton for an incident of sexual harassment that Jones said took place when Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. According to Jones, Clinton propositioned and exposed himself to her while they were in a hotel. Jones’ civil lawsuit was filed in federal court, and sought $750,000 in damages. In the early stages of the Clinton v. Jones lawsuit, things did not go well for Ms. Jones; the trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Clinton based on a typical shortcoming in many sexual harassment cases – the absence of quantifiable damages. Some appeals followed, and eventually Clinton v. Jones ended up at the Supreme Court – not for the purpose of deciding whether Clinton was or wasn’t liable – but for the purpose of deciding whether a sitting U.S. President could be forced to defend a civil lawsuit during his time in office. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that even the president isn’t above the law, and that Clinton had to defend the Jones lawsuit; it did, however, make some accommodations for Clinton’s schedule. Later, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathy Shelton also publicly accused Clinton of sexual assault.
How does that compare with the allegations against Donald Trump?
They’re all bad. Trump certainly has more public accusers, and there was no tape of Bill Clinton bragging about having committed sexual assault. But overall, we can boil it down to this: a bunch of women say Clinton abused them, and a bunch of women say Trump abused them.
What’s special about the allegations of Paula Jones and Summer Zervos?
Those allegations were made in the form of lawsuits, so they have a lasting effect beyond simply affecting public attitudes toward sexual assault.
What does the Paula Jones lawsuit have to do with Donald Trump?
Clinton v. Jones should really put an end to all arguments that a U.S. president is immune from a civil lawsuit while in office. Trump’s counsel will, of course, try some crafty lawyer tricks to distinguish the Jones case from the Zervos v. Trump case – but it won’t be easy. True, Jones’ case proceeded in federal court, while Zervos’ is in state court, but that’s not likely to make much of a difference. Bottom line, the Jones case isn’t important to Trump because of what Bill Clinton did or didn’t do – it’s important because it sets out the rule that presidents aren’t immune from facing allegations.
How does Monica Lewinsky factor into all this?
Monica Lewinsky was a 21-year-old White House intern who, by all accounts, had a consensual sexual affair with Bill Clinton during his presidency. The Clinton-Lewinsky affair was problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the power differential between the then commander-in-chief, and a college intern; however, Lewinsky never claimed to have been harassed or assaulted, and never took any action against Clinton. Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky is still legally relevant in that it was discussed during depositions in the Paula Jones case. Under oath, Clinton denied the affair, and was later exposed as having lied. Cue the perjury charge, which formed the basis of Clinton’s articles of impeachment.
What does the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal have to do with Donald Trump?
Everything and nothing. If Donald Trump’s misdeeds were limited to conducting consensual relationships with adult women, he might be fairly criticized for philandering, or even for taking advantage of subordinates — but it’s doubtful that the topic of impeachment would be raised with seriousness. However, Donald Trump should look to the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal for some important data points: when sexual misconduct is at issue in a lawsuit, the sky’s the limit on what other sexual information will be relevant during discovery. Lying about that information will not be overlooked because sex is a private matter, and commission of perjury can very well result in impeachment. I don’t have personal knowledge of whether Summer Zervos was or was not sexually assaulted by Donald Trump. What I do know, though, is that Zervos’ defamation lawsuit could very well bring up misconduct just as sordid (if not moreso) than the Lewinsky-Clinton affair. And given Donald Trump’s general propensity for dishonesty, I’d be shocked if he got through discovery without committing tons of perjury.
If Trump lies at some point during the Zervos case, is he going to be impeached for perjury just like Clinton was?
Maybe. There’s no question that many Democrats and other Trump-haters will rush to impeach Trump, especially with facts so similar to the Clinton impeachment. However, impeachment is quite an ordeal for the country to endure, and the Clinton impeachment was profoundly unpopular with most Americans.
Richard Painter, an ethics chief in President George W. Bush’s administration, explained:
“I think Congress kind of got a message from the voters that impeaching Clinton just over that wasn’t that good an idea, that that’s not how the public understood an appropriate use of the impeachment clause.”
Painter is certainly right there, given that so many Americans still believe Bill Clinton was impeached for having had a secret relationship with Monica Lewinsky. However, while one can draw obvious similarities between one incident of sexual misconduct and another, I think we can all agree that Donald Trump is not Bill Clinton. Clinton was a wildly popular president whose public positions on issues showed general deference to the law. During the scandal, the investigation, and the impeachment, the vibe on the street was that Clinton was being unfairly skewered by an overzealous Ken Starr (which is sort of amusing now that Starr has shown himself to be underzealous when investigating sexual assault by anyone other than a Democratic president).
What’s the biggest difference between Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct and Trump’s?
In a word, quantity. Trump is a larger-than-life character; without minimizing the disturbing allegations against Bill Clinton, we can recognize that there just seems to be more when it comes to Trump. There are more women with more accusations and more concrete evidence. Trump has made more public statements, and created more controversy. The only thing that is less is the public’s tolerance for sexual misconduct in 2017.
When the alleged perpetrator was Bill Clinton, America was faced with a scandal it didn’t want to believe; Clinton was a political hero, and reframing him as a sexual predator went against the grain for the many who’d long admired him. By contrast, Donald Trump is a a accused of being a pussy-grabbing, tantrum-throwing iconoclast, for whom sexual misconduct would appear to round out his already crude public image.
As Richard Painter said: “the problem with President Trump is he’s got a whole bunch of problems.” No matter the fate of Summer Zervos’ lawsuit, it’s unlikely that Donald Trump will get much traction with a defense that begins, “…but Clinton…”
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.