Gone fishin’? Not really
Did you hear what the ever-sanctimonious Kenneth Starr said the other day on CNN? Could you sense Bill Clinton’s rage when he said it?
You remember Starr, surely. Smarmy and prudish by nature, the veteran Republican lawyer was the independent counsel in the 1990s investigating anything he pleased about Clinton and the then-president’s vast and jam-packed orbit.
Starr ventured from investigating a pre-presidential real estate deal that amounted to nothing to investigating presidential oral sex that put Clinton in a perjury pickle and got him impeached. Then Starr wound up chancellor and president at Baylor University, which, in what some might call irony, he left after a football program sexual-assault scandal.
Last week, Starr did a little talkinghead appearance on CNN. Regarding the ongoing investigation by special counsel Bob Mueller into possible ties between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russian government, Starr said: “The mandate that Bob Mueller received has some broad language, including ‘related-to’ type language, which tends to open the door, but there are some checks and balances. … We don’t want investigators and prosecutors out on a fishing expedition.”
The eye rolls, groans, guffaws and screams—they registered seismically from Little Rock to Chappaqua.
There is a tricky but important distinction to be made about Starr’s mostly ignominious tenure as independent counsel bedeviling Clinton. He could argue—and I could find my way to agree—that it was his meticulous, plodding attention to his assignment to do a thorough and full investigation, not fishing, that had him still poking around in several directions as dramatic fate intervened.
He’d tried to exit early for an academic job, but his deputies had pleaded with him to see the matter to the end.
First the Paula Jones sexual-harassment lawsuit arose. Then Linda Tripp came to Starr’s people with tales and audiotapes about a Clinton affair with a young girl on the White House staff who had lied about the affair in an affidavit given to Jones’ lawyers. Tripp had also told her story to a conservative activist who shared it with Jones’ lawyers.
Then Starr went to Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, and got authority to look into those allegations. Starr decided to sit back and see if the president indeed lied about this White House affair in his forthcoming deposition in the Jones’ case. Clinton, naturally, did.
Some called that a perjury trap, though I don’t know that it was Starr’s job to call Clinton’s lawyers and tell them what he knew and encourage them to advise their client not to lie under oath in his upcoming deposition.
The real fishing expedition had been undertaken earlier by Republicans in Congress when, in 1994, they reinstated an independent counsel law to replace a less-powerful special counsel. They did so because the Reno-appointed special counsel, Robert Fiske, had already cleared Clinton on two matters and so narrowed his scope that he wasn’t likely to come to any conclusion of criminality by Clinton in an old failed land deal.
Then, under the new law, a threejudge appeals court panel in Washington, with two of the judges Republican-nominated, removed Fiske and put in Starr with instructions to do a thorough job liberated from the appearances of Fiske’s appointment by Clinton’s attorney general.
Here’s what should have happened: Fiske should have been allowed to finish the job quickly and narrowly and appropriately, perhaps with an indictment of Jim McDougal; Clinton should not have behaved in whatever way he behaved toward Paula Jones in the ’80s in the then-Excelsior Hotel; the president and Monica Lewinsky should not have cavorted as they so cavorted; the young girl should not have filed a false affidavit; and the president of the United States should not have lied in his deposition in the Jones’ case and in subsequent grand jury testimony.
The real story, though, is that none of that has the remotest relevance to Mueller’s assignment from the deputy attorney general who appointed him to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Trump is seemingly scared out of what’s left of his mind by that little phrase: “any matters that arose or may arise.”
Let’s say—just for purposes of discussion—that, to assess “links” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, Mueller believed it appropriate to seek information on Trump’s pre-presidency business dealings with Russians. And let’s say he found something worthy of further investigation.
Would he be engaging abusively in a fishing expedition or would he be investigating, per his assignment, a matter that had arisen from his central investigation?
Here’s one way to look at that: A curious old business deal between Trump and Russians with government ties—should there be one—would have more to do with “links” than oral sex in the White House had to do with a failed land-development scheme in northern Arkansas.