Early on the morning of Jan. 17, 1998, I sleepily boarded Marine Two, the vice president’s helicopter, for the short flight from his residence to Andrews Air Force Base. There were no smartphones or social media back then, and I had not checked the Drudge Report before heading out at 4:30 a.m. But internet pioneer Al Gore had. He turned to me and my colleague Mike Feldman and asked:
“Who the hell is Monica Lewinsky”?
That day launched the Clinton White House on a 13-month saga of accusations, denial, admission, impeachment, and acquittal. And while that scandal, that president, and that White House staff differed in almost every respect from the current incumbent’s, our experience could hold some lessons for the Trump team. I was far from the center of the impeachment response, but even those parts of the White House staff are in for a difficult few months. As they will soon discover, impeachment has infinite gravity and immense destructive power. It is a political black hole.
Impeachment distorts time. The entire Clinton impeachment process, from the House filing to the Senate vote, took about four months; it felt like 40 years. Every day, a new revelation emerged, an erstwhile ally changed sides, or another senator got wobbly. Time stood still as we waited to see if or how our political lives would be upended. I traveled with Gore on a pre-election swing through New Hampshire the day after impeachment articles were filed in October. Remember, Republicans controlled the Senate. We honestly had no idea if Gore would be campaigning there the following year as the hopeful successor or the incumbent president.
That uncertainty means that the impeachment black hole can tear people apart. Those of us in the Office of the Vice President were under special scrutiny. Were we eyeing better real estate, upgraded titles, and increased salaries if our boss moved into the Oval Office? In our case, the answer was an unequivocal “no.” I knew not a soul in the White House who was rooting against President Clinton, and Gore never betrayed a hint of disloyalty. That didn’t stop press and pundit speculation or avoid a bit of awkwardness between the Clinton and Gore teams. This small but meaningful rift got worse during the 2000 election campaign, as Gore sidelined Clinton for fear of the taint of scandal.
The impeachment black hole disrupts the space around it. The White House—or at least a normal, pre-Trump White House—sits atop a vast federal bureaucracy that is relentlessly churning out ideas. Some demand the attention of senior White House aides or the president himself. Even regular business felt pointlessly off-topic in a building consumed with other things. This impeachment, like Clinton’s, is being launched in the fall. That means the White House staff will be under that cloud during intense talks with the agencies over the president’s annual budget submission—due right around the time that a trial could be kicking off in the Senate.
Perhaps worst of all, impeachment has an event horizon, and beyond it, no light can escape. You’ve got a domestic trip planned? Good luck with that. Never mind garden-variety tours of factories or visits to union halls; Gore was bombarded with impeachment questions even when we went to console survivors at the site of catastrophic tornado damage in Tennessee.
Heading abroad? Bon voyage, but don’t bet on checking off those items on the State Department’s “To Do” list. As we planned events and travel for White House principals, we had to factor in awkward encounters. During the impeachment proceedings, Gore met with world leaders at, among other things, a summit in Malaysia (subbing for Clinton), the World Economic Forum in Davos, and at Number 10 in London, alongside Prime Minister Tony Blair. In each case, he had to dodge questions about impeachment.
History rhymes: In the heat of the scandal, we even traveled to Ukraine, where Gore met with President Kuchma.
For White House staff, there’s no real escape from all that impeachment gravity. Friends and family hunger for details. Reporters, desperate for morsels to advance the only story that matters, are relentless in their pursuit of inside information. And everyone is on edge. In one staff meeting, a very senior staffer announced that anyone who leaked misgivings about the president would be fired. He went on to note that he would make it his personal mission to ensure that any perpetrator would never work in politics again.
But upon reflection, maybe things won’t change that much after all for the intrepid travelers on the Starship Trump. They have labored for two-and-a-half years in a swirling cloud of chaos, anger, and dissension. The general law of political relativity has always been suspended for them. They have dealt with supernovas of presidential anger and seen legions of dwarf stars hurtling out of their orbit. Most of all, they have grown accustomed to watching all light and heat sucked inexorably into the center of their galaxy: the supermassive black hole of President Donald J. Trump.
—Matt Bennett, an executive vice president of Third Way, served as trip director for Vice President Gore and as a deputy assistant to the president in the Clinton White House.