Top Dem struggles to explain why Clinton impeachment bad, Trump impeachment good

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Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, forcefully opposed the impeachment proceedings against former President Bill Clinton as futile -- but in an interview Sunday, he struggled to explain why the current inquiry against President Trump presents a meaningfully different situation.

Appearing on ABC News' "This Week," Engel, D-N.Y., who leads one of the four panels probing Trump, looked on stone-faced as anchor George Stephanopoulos showed Engel a clip of his 1998 argument against impeachment.

"No one believes that the president will ultimately be removed from office, so we will have dragged this country through a six-month trial in the Senate, and Bill Clinton will still remain president," Engel said in the clip. "What good does that do?"

"Aren't we facing a similar situation right now?" Stephanopoulos asked, noting that Republicans command a majority in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be needed to convict and remove the president from office.

"Well, we're not. First of all, I like the way I looked 20 years ago," Engel responded. "Look, we have a constitutional responsibility, as members of Congress. The president says that Article II of the Constitution allows him to do anything. But Congress is there to -- to -- to prevent the president from doing things that are illegal."

Engel later expounded on that point, arguing that "the Congress appropriated money for foreign aid for Ukraine, and the president illegally withheld that money, and then threatened the Ukrainians."

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But Stephanopoulos pushed back in real-time on Engel's assertion that Trump's conduct was illegal, prompting Engel to backtrack.

"Well, I -- I think it's illegal, because why -- why would you be allowed to just take that money and play with it as you -- as you please?" Engel said.

Career officials at the Justice Department determined that no crime occurred during Trump's July phone call with Ukraine's leader, and Ukraine has consistently denied feeling any pressure from the Trump administration.

Despite the lack of Republican support for impeachment in the Senate, Engel insisted that "it's not a matter of Republican support. It's a matter of what the president did."

Also appearing on "This Week," Louisiana GOP Rep. Steve Scalise argued that the current impeachment inquiry has bucked precedent, and doesn't even potentially guarantee the president's counsel the right to call witnesses until hearings move to the Judiciary Committee.

"First of all, this is nothing like the Clinton and the Nixon impeachment," Scalise said. "Both sides got to call witnesses under Clinton and under Nixon. The president's legal counsel was in the room, able to ask questions to the witnesses. ... In fact, the resolution they just passed in a very partisan way gives the chairman the full discretion to kick the president’s legal counsel out of the room and to veto any witnesses that we would call. That was in the resolution. "

Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, outlined his concerns with the impeachment process on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures."

"The closed-door depositions, I'll still be able to be a part of," Jordan said. "But then when they go to the open hearings, it's just the Intelligence Committee. Adam Schiff gets 45 minutes under the resolution that passed on Thursday to ask questions. The rest, the members get five minutes. Adam Schiff gets to call the witnesses he wants. But Republicans have to first submit a list to Adam Schiff to get his approval for any witnesses we or the White House might want. So you can try to put a ribbon on a sham process, but that doesn't make it any less of a sham. It doesn't make it any less unfair in any less partisan.”

In a contentious House Rules Committee meeting that lasted into the night last week, Democrats systematically rejected GOP attempts to alter the ground rules that lawmakers will use as they consider impeachment. The rules were later passed in a sharply divided House vote.

"I think we're all expressing our own frustration here," House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, D-Mass., said as exasperation boiled over.

In a striking scene at the outset of the Rules Committee meeting, Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, who himself was impeached and removed from the federal bench in 1989 for taking bribes, outlined the alleged "high crimes and misdemeanors" that he said Trump had committed.

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Later on, Hastings seemed to relish Democrats' ability to ram through their impeachment rules, telling Georgia Republican Rep. Rob Woodall that his substantive arguments would essentially be a waste of time.

"Mr. Woodall, the Latin word that we use as a derivative, 'majority,' came from 'major,'" Hastings said, laughing. "The Latin word for 'minority' came from 'minor.' You understand?"