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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Witch hunts? Mueller and Ken Starr

Special counsel Robert Mueller delivered the results of an investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr on March 22. Two days later Barr sent his four-page summary of the report to Congress. On April 6 Trump tweeted that the investigation was a “fraudulent Russian witch hunt,” that it was run by “13 Angry Trump hating Dems,” that such a thing “must never happen to another President, and Law Enforcement must find out, HOW DID IT START?”

We all know how it started. It started during the presidential campaign as an FBI investigation into Russian interference in the election and troubling reports that people close to the Trump campaign had ties to Russians. There probably would have been no special counsel had Trump not fired FBI Director James Comey because Comey wouldn’t pledge to shield Trump.

Mueller, a Republican who served Reagan and both Bushes, had 11 deputy independent counsels during the course of his work. Of those, eight were Republicans and three were Democrats.

While its work led Mueller’s team into areas not directly related to their primary mission, such as Trump’s secret payments in 2016 to silence two women with whom he had sexual relations, thus violating campaign finance laws, the investigation kept its focus. There was a lot of “there” there. Mueller’s team indicted or accepted plea deals from 35 people. These included 13 Russian nationals for their efforts to interfere in the election and 12 Russian intelligence officers who hacked the DNC emails in 2016. The accused Americans were all charged with offenses, including perjury, related to their dealings with Russians. Mueller turned other types of offenses over to U.S. Attorney’s offices, where proceedings are ongoing (hence some of the redactions in the report sent to Congress).

Contrast all that with the Ken Starr investigation, which led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998. Disappointed Republicans in Congress called for the appointment of a second special counsel after Attorney General Janet Reno’s appointee, Robert Fiske, concluded after a six-month investigation that there had been no misconduct by the Clintons in an Arkansas real estate venture called Whitewater. Starr, a Republican, filled his staff mostly with other Republicans.

His investigation lasted from August 1994 into September 1998. That’s because he could find nothing incriminating about Whitewater, the firing of staff in the White House travel office, or aide Vince Foster’s suicide. In December 1997 he actually shut down his investigation. But a month later, Linda Tripp called one of his staff and said she had taped conversions with White House intern Monica Lewinsky about her affair with the president. Starr re-focused his investigation on Clinton’s misconduct with Lewinsky and with Paula Jones, with whom he had an affair while governor of Arkansas. Starr finally could give something to the Republicans in Congress.

Article I of the impeachment accused Clinton of lying to a federal grand jury in connection with the Lewinsky affair. This was true. Article II charged him with lying under oath in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. This also was true. Article III alleged obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury. This was proved false; Clinton cooperated with investigation, including testifying personally. Article IV alleged an unspecified “misuse and abuse” of the office.

Like Trump, Clinton claimed he was the target of partisan spite. On that occasion he was telling the truth.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.