Crying in courtrooms: Even for lawyers, impeachment is worth getting emotional about

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Gregory B. Craig, Opinion contributor
·5 min read
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Going into former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, I wondered how and whether Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., would deal with the issue of his son’s suicide. In his remarks on Tuesday, the trial's opening day, he told a story about sharing grief with his family and bringing his family to the House of Representatives for the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory, and then having to deal with the violence of the insurrection.

He broke into tears when he told the Senate that his daughter informed him that, because the events of the day, fear and violence had been so unsettling, she never wanted to come back to the Capitol, ever again. Raskin held himself together, but the tears were memorable.

Then — as if required to match tear for tear and sob for sob — David Schoen, counsel for the Trump team, appeared to break into tears as he recited — in the closing moments of his presentation — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Building of the Ship." He, too, was emotional. Totally understandable.

Getting personal — and political

Charles "Chuck" Ruff was White House counsel for President Bill Clinton and was due to give the opening argument during the Senate trial in January 1999. He was angered by Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde’s earlier reference to "countless patriots, some of whom are resting" in Arlington National Cemetery who had, he suggested, sacrificed their lives to keep America safe from threats like William Jefferson Clinton.

Then-President Bill Clinton, with first lady Hillary Clinton, thanks House Democrats who voted against impeachment on Dec. 19, 1998, at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Then-President Bill Clinton, with first lady Hillary Clinton, thanks House Democrats who voted against impeachment on Dec. 19, 1998, at the White House in Washington, D.C.

I sat with Chuck as we rolled back to the White House that day, and he said, "I wonder if I should talk about my father.” I asked what he meant. He said his father had been among those who landed on Omaha Beach on June, 6, 1944, fighting to liberate Europe from the Nazis, and he was deeply offended that Hyde would invoke the sacrifices of America’s fighting men and women — from the past — as the basis for impeaching Clinton in the present.

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Knowing that this was a deeply personal and private decision that Chuck had to make, I said nothing, other than to note, “If anyone has standing to call BS on them, it is you.”

The next day, Jan. 19, 1999, Chuck gave his opening argument in defense of the president. After a masterful review of the evidence, he got to the end of his opening and said, "I'm never certain how to respond when an advocate on the other side of a case calls up images of patriots over the centuries who have sacrificed themselves to preserve our democracy. I have no personal experience with war. I've only visited Normandy as a tourist."

He went on:

"But I do know this. My father was on Omaha Beach 55 years ago. If you want to know how he would feel if he were here today, he wouldn't fight — no one fought for one side of this case or the other. He fought as all those did for our country and our Constitution.

Chuck’s body was shaking — as were his hands — but his voice was strong:

“And as long as each of us — manager, president's counsel, senator — does his or her constitutional duty, those who fought for their country will be proud.”

Humanity in the courtroom

As I watched, I realized that Chuck was paying a high emotional price, that invoking the memory of his father was much more than an oratorical device for Chuck, that he was having difficulty regaining control. For this most dispassionate and analytical of lawyers, digging this deep was not easy. And when he had gone down that deep, it was hard for him to get back up.

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Chuck’s speech came to an end. But for us on the team, the moment carried on. Chuck was still in the throes of the memory of his father and could not control his emotions. He was in trouble. I helped him assemble his notebooks and took over pushing his wheelchair off the floor back to our work space just off the floor of the Senate.

White House counsel Charles Ruff during the first day of the defense in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 1999, in Washington.
White House counsel Charles Ruff during the first day of the defense in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 1999, in Washington.

We rolled him back into the lawyers' space, but he was still in the grips of memories of his father, bent over, and he was sobbing.

Not knowing how to help and not wanting myself to interrupt Chuck’s private moment, I went into the corridor in search of an idea. I saw Democratic Rep. Tom Barrett of Wisconsin and said, “Would you come in and say ‘Nice job' to Chuck? He needs help.” Tom did that. Chuck looked up, gathered himself, put out his hand and said, “Thank you.”

The world did not see what I saw that day, but on that first day of Trump’s impeachment trial, the lesson came home again: When it comes to events of this import and magnitude, humanity somehow shows itself. Emotions run high — even among the lawyers.

Gregory B. Craig led President Bill Clinton's legal defense against impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky matter and was White House counsel under President Barack Obama.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Raskin's emotional remarks: Impeachment is worth shedding tears over