Penn State / Flickr kenneth starr...
Penn State / Flickr

As Donald Trump ponders his “complete power” to pardon anyone he so chooses and his lawyers gird to tar special counsel Robert Mueller’s reputation, we’re now routinely hearing that Trump’s attorneys are simply recreating the Clinton playbook against special counsel Kenneth Starr.

But anyone who actually remembers the Bill Clinton/Kenneth Starr showdown, recalls a number of distinctive differences between the two situations.

First and foremost, Clinton never once targeted, denounced or threatened to fire the special counsel who was originally appointed by then-Attorney General Janet Reno to launch an investigation into the Whitewater land deal. The counsel’s name was Robert Fiske and if you’re registering a blank, it’s precisely because the Clinton’s never went after him even though Fiske was a Republican investigating a Democratic administration.

The special counsel you probably remember is Ken Starr, who was appointed in a deeply political move by a three-judge panel that fired Fiske in 1994 just as soon he released his determination that former Clinton aide Vince Foster’s suicide involved no foul play. TPM’s Josh Marshall picks up from there:

Let’s back up and observe some key differences. Fiske was a moderate, apolitical Republican investigating a Democratic President. Clinton had the legal power to fire Fiske but the idea never even came up. Starr was a highly partisan Republican investigating a Democratic President. Clinton did not have the power to fire Starr. But by the time his White House went really into battle with Starr it was four years into the investigation after which Starr’s probe had become deeply interwoven with various politicized legal efforts against the Clintons. Just as noteworthy, over the course of these probes Clinton had developed a highly frosty relationship with FBI Director Louis Freeh. During the Lewinsky phase of the scandal Freeh sent FBI agents to take the President’s blood for Starr’s investigation! The idea that Clinton might fire Freeh never even came up.

Now, let’s consider the comparison. President Trump has already fired the FBI Director by his own account over the Russia probe. Comey’s politics are a matter of some debate. But he is in fact a registered Republican who has donated money to Republican candidates, though his supporters would say he is generally apolitical. Mueller is also a Republican, though I think most would agree he is apolitical in his law enforcement work. So, to review. A Democratic President investigated by an apolitical Republican and a partisan Republican. A Republican President investigated by an apolitical Republican after firing his registered Republican FBI Director. There is a certain basic asymmetry between these two sets of facts that I think is pretty clear for anyone to see.

Reporter Michael Tomasky fills in some more detail about the Starr years of the investigation:

Starr spent three years leaking stuff to friendly reporters. Starr and his lieutenants always denied that they were the source of leaks, and maybe they built some buffer between themselves and the reporters in question so that that was technically true. But there was only one place a lot of the Whitewater stories of 1995, 1996, and 1997 could have been coming from. These leaks were likely illegal. We’ve seen no comparable leaks from Mueller.

That’s three years—three years of slanted and often untrue leaks (Hillary was about to be indicted and so on). Pre-Lewinsky, the Clinton White House pushed back a little with some leaks about Starr’s tactics, but certainly Clinton himself never went after Starr publicly until much later, in August 1998, after Starr made Clinton’s grand jury testimony from earlier that year public—itself a highly dubious thing for a prosecutor to do.

When you get right down to it, there’s absolutely no valid similarities other than the fact that there’s an investigation under way. Mueller’s probe is in the very nascent stages rather than having dragged on for eight years while taking detours into repeated dead ends that turned up nothing until investigators finally stumbled upon Bill Clinton’s affair with Monika Lewinski.

Mueller’s investigation is being undertaken in the wake of repeated revelations involving contacts between Trump’s inner circle and a foreign power during an election in which that same foreign power launched a massive campaign to rig the election in favor of Trump. Except for in Trump’s diseased mind, there is no evidence or indication that this is the “witch hunt” the Starr probe had turned into by the time Clinton launched a PR offensive against it.

Finally, no one ever questioned whether Bill Clinton was a legitimately elected president. There’s a lingering question, however, about whether Trump was legitimately elected above and beyond the fact he undoubtedly lost the popular vote by several million. So with Trump we may have an illegitimate pr*sident who’s contemplating firing the second investigator charged with looking into whether he was illegitimately elected.

Clinton was legitimately elected and yet he never contemplated firing his investigators.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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