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Lessons Learned From Inside The White House During The Last Impeachment Process

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's cast our minds back to the last time an American president faced an impeachment process. That, of course, was 1998, and Bill Clinton was in the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.

KELLY: The president's press secretary at the time was Joe Lockhart, and he joins me now.

Welcome.

JOE LOCKHART: Thank you.

KELLY: So take us inside the White House 21 years ago. I guess my first question is, to what extent were you all able to get anything else done? To what extent did impeachment just overshadow everything?

LOCKHART: Well, I think impeachment really dominated the coverage of the White House. But the reality is 99% of the White House staff stayed focused on their job.

KELLY: Ninety-nine percent - really?

LOCKHART: Yeah. There really only were half a dozen lawyers and four or five political and communications people that were working on this full time. Everybody else in the White House were ordered to stay in their job. Remember, the strategy that President Clinton employed was to say that the lawyers would figure out what was going on here. But he was going to focus on the people's business, whether it be, you know, strengthening Medicare, health care reform, gun safety, all of those issues.

KELLY: Which sounds really great, but I - but I'm guessing was kind of hard in practice. I mean, how did you do it? Was there actually, like, a firewall in place to say, people who are focused on impeachment - that's their thing - and staffers working everything else, just stay in your lane?

LOCKHART: There was absolutely a firewall. And if you crossed it, you incurred the wrath of the chief of staff. John Podesta made very clear - and he told people to stay out of it, to not talk about it, to not talk to their staff about it. And if they couldn't stay focused on their work, they should go find some other work.

KELLY: Then let me just focus you on one key difference between then and now, which is you didn't have Twitter back in 1998. I mean, do you need a full war room of staffers focused on impeachment in the Twitter era where the president's Twitter account is kind of a war room in and of itself?

LOCKHART: Well, I think the president's Twitter account is a war room, and that's what they're counting on. The problem is they're only communicating with their own people.

KELLY: I don't know. I mean, I'm watching the president's Twitter account. I bet you've got an eye on it.

LOCKHART: Oh, sure. I've got an eye on it, but I don't believe a word of it. And I think that most reporters are skeptical of it because there is so much disinformation. It doesn't reach anything beyond his base as far as persuading them. And secondly, you know, there is - I mentioned before that President Clinton didn't talk about the impeachment process. President Trump can't stop talking about it, and I don't think it's helping them.

KELLY: Any lessons learned that you would pass on - anything you knew by the end of impeachment that you wish you'd known on Day 1?

LOCKHART: This - I'm going to be a broken record on this. But what I learned - and again, I have to say for the record, these are two totally separate things. One's a personal decision, and one is the president putting our national security at the beck and call of his political interests. Having said that, what I learned during our impeachment process is you can't be definitive about things you don't know because you don't know exactly where things are going. And I think this is a mistake the president is making - and his team - because they - I don't think they even know what's in all of the documents, what will come out.

KELLY: You're saying, admit when you don't know something, and maybe keep quiet until you know more.

LOCKHART: You know, admit what you don't know. Let the people who are investigating investigate. Don't delegitimize them. And focus on your strength. And for this president, his strength - listen; I don't agree with it, but, you know, he could talk about the economy. He could talk about immigration - things that resonate with his base and with a bunch of independents in this country. But that's - he's choosing not to do that. He's choosing to make this the only focus for the country, and I can't see that being a positive for him.

KELLY: Joe Lockhart - he was White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000. He is now co-host of the podcast "Words Matter."

Mr. Lockhart, thanks so much.

LOCKHART: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.