PROVIDENCE – As a member of the US House of Representatives during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, Asa Hutchinson recalls making it clear to anyone who would listen that he had no interest in prosecuting Clinton’s case before the Senate.
Hutchinson, a Republican who now serves as governor of Arkansas, knew it could be political suicide to serve as an impeachment manager in a case involving a president from his home state. But his experience as a former US attorney made him uniquely qualified to do the job, and he ultimately agreed to join the team.
“I knew it was bad politically, but I wanted to help our country get through a difficult time,” Hutchinson told the Globe in a recent telephone interview.
Now, as the country braces for the impeachment trial of President Trump, US Representative David Cicilline has emerged as a potential candidate to serve as one of the individuals to prosecute the president in the Republican-led Senate once the House forwards its articles of impeachment to the upper chamber.
The role of the House in that trial is to make the case for why the president should be convicted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has the final say over who will serve as an impeachment manager. There is no limit to the number of managers who can be selected and the only requirement is that they must be members of Congress. The Senate decides the rules of the trial.
While Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who regularly appears on cable news as a critic of Trump, is unlikely to face any political consequences from his own state for playing a role in the trial, Hutchinson said it’s important for any House member selected to try the case to understand the gravity of the situation and try to avoid delving too far into politics during the process.
“It’s a risk because if you’re going to actually try to win the case in the Senate, the only way you can do that is to bring along the American public,” Hutchinson said. “The American public is not going to move from their present position if they don’t.”
Cicilline hasn’t publicly acknowledged whether he is seeking to be an impeachment manager, but multiple news outlets identified him as potential candidate for the job after he received significant face time during the House impeachment hearings.
So if Cicilline is tapped by House leadership to be an impeachment manager, what can he expect?
Hutchinson was one of 13 impeachment managers during Clinton’s Senate trial, a number he now says “everyone would agree is way too many.” Clinton was acquitted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges following what Hutchinson calls the “most exhausting and draining” trial of his career.
Hutchinson said the House articles of impeachment are like a grand jury indictment, whereas the Senate trial is akin to a standard criminal trial. For Clinton’s trial, the managers were split into teams to handle various aspects of the case. He was part of the group that actually tried the case – he focused on the obstruction charge – while others focused on the constitutional argument for impeachment.
While he acknowledged that there is more political “gamesmanship” in an impeachment trial than in a typical legal proceeding, he said he approached his role like “a trial lawyer and as a prosecutor.”
“We just divided the responsibilities up,” he said. "That’s really important. Even though it’s a slow trial, it’s quick moving.”
Cicilline, a Georgetown Law graduate, does not have the same prosecutorial experience as Hutchinson, but he knows his way around the courtroom, having worked as a criminal defense attorney while he served in Rhode Island House of Representatives. He went on to serve two terms as mayor of Providence before being elected to Congress in 2010.
He has quickly risen the ranks in recent years, and now serves chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. He also has high-profile role on the House Antitrust Subcommittee, which is currently investigating the world’s largest technology companies.
The House voted to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Dec. 18, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t forwarded the articles of impeachment to the Senate as she seeks to negotiate how the trial process will work.
Reached Tuesday, Cicilline declined to say whether he is seeking to serve as an impeachment manager, but he said he supports Pelosi’s decision to hold off on sending the articles to the Senate until she learns more about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plans for the trial.
“It makes perfect sense for the speaker to say she needs to know what the rules are and what the arena looks like because she has to pick managers,” Cicilline said.
McConnell said Tuesday he has the votes to begin the trial once the House sends the article to his chamber, but he hasn’t said whether he’ll allow former national security adviser John Bolton to testify. The Senate is widely expected to clear Trump of any wrongdoing.
As for Hutchinson, he’s now in his second term as governor.
Lindsey Graham, another impeachment manager in the Clinton trial, now serves in the US Senate. Charles Canady is now the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
In the end, Hutchinson said the Clinton impeachment trial proved a lot about the country.
“Our constitution works, our democracy is resilient, and even as traumatic as an impeachment proceeding is, as long as you follow the constitution and its process, we do bounce back very quickly,” he said.