When Bill Clinton was finally forced to admit the truth, it was not clear at first that his party would continue with him.
It was in August 1998 that, thanks to an infamous blue gown and a presidential blood sample, independent attorney Ken Starr obtained evidence that Clinton had been closely involved with Monica Lewinsky. So far, the president's insistence that "I had no sex with that woman" remained his official statement on the subject.
With his lie now exposed and his credibility destroyed, no one could be sure how the public would react – and whether Clinton's fellow Democrats could reach a breaking point.
His immediate response only made things worse. Hours after testifying before a grand jury, Clinton headed for the country at prime time.
He apologized minimally, quickly acknowledging that "I tricked people" before starting a long conversation against Starr and his team. Instead of meeting with him, leading Democrats criticized Clinton for his tone of self-pity. "You can't entirely say this is a private matter," said a Democratic Party veteran at the time.
Clinton desperately wanted to leave the scandal, but needed his party to agree that the matter had been contentious enough. And for that to happen, the Democrats demanded something from Clinton: an act of unqualified public contrition. Weeks later, before an audience of clergy at a prayer breakfast, Clinton obeyed. Invoking biblical themes, he talked about repentance and redemption and the need to ask God for help.
"I don't think there is an elegant way to say I have sinned," Clinton said. "It's important to me that everyone who gets hurt knows that the sadness I feel is genuine – first and foremost, my family, also my friends, my team, my office, Monica Lewinsky and her family and the American people." "
That was exactly what the Democrats were looking for.
Now they could condemn his actions and point to Clinton's own words as proof that he recognized the seriousness of his misconduct – and then they could advance a broader argument that this does not warrant his removal from office.
"What President Clinton did was wrong," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi. "It's a matter of embarrassment, not impeachment." This became the framework for Clinton's Democratic defense, which was challenged in a largely partisan vote in the Republican-led House and then acquitted in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The contrast with the present moment is remarkable, with a president who has shown aversion to contrition in the face of a serious impeachment campaign.
President Donald Trump is relying on this drama like Clinton's, with his own party protecting him from a Senate conviction and allowing him to paint impeachment as a partisan act. And it can end that simple.
But when it comes to defending him, Trump is not giving much space to his party.
After all, it is indisputable that Trump, in a telephone conversation in July, asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump himself now insists that the conversation was "perfect" and that there was nothing inappropriate. On Thursday, he stepped forward and publicly called on the Ukrainian and Chinese governments to investigate the Bidens. Hours later came the launch of text messages showing US diplomats pressuring one of Zelenskiy's top advisers to launch an investigation.
If Republicans are looking for the kind of compromise Democrats have taken to defend Clinton, it's hard to see any here. If Trump were, for example, willing to admit that he had misjudged his words with Zelenskiy and involuntarily ventured into territory he did not intend, it would certainly not prevent the Democratic impeachment campaign, but would give Republicans an opening to claim that Trump simply committed a error, that he had been rightly called, and that impeachment was therefore unnecessary. They could, as the Democrats did with Clinton, assure the public that they had problems with his behavior without forcing him to leave office.
Obviously, it does not seem in Trump's nature to admit mistakes and apologize. And yet, the facts still emerging from this situation could make it difficult for him to frame his conduct as a clumsy and isolated mistake – and not as part of a conspiracy to compel an investigation by Ukraine.
With Trump apologizing for nothing, Republicans can either endorse his behavior or criticize him and then face troubling follow-up questions such as: Since the president sees nothing wrong with what he did, why wouldn't he? this again? And since you see what he did as a problem, you have no responsibility to stop him? And if you see it as disturbing, what did you do to show it?
Trump's stance essentially compels any Republican to stick with him against impeachment to agree that his actions were "perfect." Republicans may do just that, especially if Trump's approval of Republican voters remains stratospheric. But it is not making it easy for them.