Ken Starr on Trump: We're in 'abuse of power' territory

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Donald Trump; Ken Starr. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photo: Philip Lacovara/Bloomberg Law)

Former Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr says President Trump’s attacks on Russiagate special counsel Robert Mueller are “in the territory of abuse of power” and could justify a congressional censure of the president.

“Oh, it’s a very eerie parallel,” Starr said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast Skullduggery, when asked if he saw similarities between Trump’s relentless attacks on Mueller and the Clinton White House’s attacks on him during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations.

“I’ve seen reports that the president’s legal team were just taking a play out of the Clinton White House playbook: Attack the prosecutor, demonize the prosecutor, so yes, and I do, heartily and roundly, disapprove of it,” Starr added.

While insisting that he hadn’t yet seen evidence that would merit Trump’s impeachment, Starr did say the president’s conduct could be grounds for a formal censure by Congress. “I think we’re moving to that level,” he said.

Starr was interviewed about his new book, “Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation.” Coming out 20 years after the publication of Starr’s controversial report to Congress on the Monica Lewinsky affair, which formed the basis of impeachment charges against Clinton, the book is an aggressive defense of his own investigation and a harshly critical portrait of the former president and first lady.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

Starr writes that one impetus for him to come forward now, after all these years, was Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election, an event that he says marked a shift “in the moral compass of the country.”

And Starr uses the opportunity to unload on the Clintons in far more specific and contemptuous language than he has ever used before. He details what he views as their serial evasions and attempts to obstruct his investigations. He is especially critical of the former first lady, depicting her as an imperious and smug witness who repeatedly misled his investigators about Whitewater (an Arkansas real-estate investment that led to allegations of impropriety by Clinton, prompting the original investigation) and about how subpoenaed billing records from a Little Rock law firm mysteriously appeared in the White House residence, an event for which she had no good explanation.

Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, Sept. 20, 2000. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP)

At one point in the book, he describes her testimony as marked by “profound memory loss” and “outright mendacity,” writing that her accounts struck his prosecutors as “preposterous.” Yet, he acknowledges, he never had enough evidence to bring a criminal indictment, although one was drafted by his prosecutors.

“Talented they were, to be sure,” Starr writes in his penultimate chapter about the Clintons, “but deeply flawed, fundamentally dishonest, contemptuous of law and process. That was a personal tragedy, but even more a tragedy for our nation.”

(In a statement this week to the Washington Post, David Kendall, the Clinton’s attorney said: “The American people saw through Starr’s obsessive pursuit of President Clinton 20 years ago, and will see through his present attempt to rewrite history to vindicate his own sullied reputation.”)

Starr’s book describes in detail the White House’s attacks on him and his investigators. The president’s allies portrayed him as a politically driven partisan who was installed as independent counsel by conservative judges so he could carry on a vendetta against the president.

These attacks took their toll. Starr writes that his children were harassed in school, and he became so politically toxic that he was advised not to attend the trials of cases his own office had brought, because his jury consultant warned his presence could backfire and turn off the jurors.

When the Clintons’ former Whitewater partner Susan McDougal refused to testify before the grand jury, proclaiming that Starr’s prosecutors were biased and weren’t interested in the truth, President Clinton “shamelessly promoted” her claims, Starr writes, by telling a reporter: “There’s a lot of evidence for that.”

Starr recounts that he even pleaded with then Attorney General Janet Reno to defend his conduct in the Lewinsky investigation, noting that it was Reno herself who approved an expansion in Starr’s mandate to conduct the probe. Yet, Reno, who died in 2016, “ran for cover” and left me “in limbo,” he writes. “She deliberately sat on her hands while we twisted in the wind,” Starr writes in his book. “This was moral cowardice, and I said so to my colleagues. Frequently.”

Yet Starr’s book contains only a few glancing references to President Trump, who has repeatedly and publicly fulminated about Mueller’s investigation and even approved the release of documents that Justice Department and FBI officials warned could jeopardize it.

Although he chastises the current president for “castigating and denigrating highly respected individuals” such as the late Sen. John McCain, Starr wrote nothing about Trump’s assault on Mueller and the parallels with his own experiences while investigating Clinton.

Asked about those parallels during the Skullduggery interview, Starr was more forthcoming. He noted that the report he sent to Congress 20 years ago laying out “substantial and credible” evidence of impeachable offenses by Clinton contained 11 proposed articles, most of which involved allegations of specific crimes, including witness tampering, obstruction of justice and perjury in his testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky (in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by another woman, Paula Jones, and later before a federal grand jury).

But the 11th and last article was a catch-all labeled “abuse of power.” It alleged conduct that, while not specifically criminal, involved “abusing his power” to thwart Starr’s investigation, by such means as invoking novel claims of executive and other forms of privilege that were ultimately disallowed by the courts. (The key drafter for that portion of the report was one of Starr’s deputies, Brett Kavanaugh, currently awaiting a confirmation vote on his nomination by President Trump to the Supreme Court.)

Trump’s relentless attacks on Mueller — his tweetstorms about a prosecutorial “witchhunt” by “angry Democrats” in the special counsel’s office — “sounds in the nature of count eleven” in his impeachment report on Clinton, Starr said. He then added: “I think we’re in that territory of abuse of power.”

Still, Starr drew a distinction between what he viewed as Clinton’s abuse of power and Trump’s conduct. In Clinton’s case, “we saw essentially a crescendo of wrongdoing” that culminated in “completely made up privilege claims” in order to block testimony before the grand jury. That hasn’t been the case with Trump’s White House, he said.

“For Don McGahn, the president’s White House counsel, to be sitting down with prosecutors for interviews for 30 hours, is, to me, virtually unimaginable,” he said. “I gather from reports, that hundreds of thousands of documents have been turned over. I’ve seen no litigation over issues of access to evidence.”

“How can you say Trump is cooperating when his lawyers refuse to let him sit down for an interview with Mueller?” Starr was asked during the Skullduggery interview.

“No, there are levels and dimensions of cooperation,” Starr replied. “Obviously, there is not cooperation with respect to the interview process or whatever that process may be. So, I’m not suggesting that there is 100 percent cooperation.”

But, Starr maintained, Trump’s refusal to submit for questioning by Mueller, apparently on the strong advice of his lawyers, does not rise to the level of abuse of power in Clinton’s invoking “non-existent privileges” in an attempt to block testimony from White House aides and Secret Service agents. Starr was forced to go to court to challenge the privilege claims — and ultimately prevailed, although it seriously delayed his investigation.

Clinton’s conduct amounted to “delay, delay, delay,” Starr said. He added: “I’m not seeing that” from Trump’s White House. “If it’s happening, I’m just not seeing it at this stage in the investigation by Bob Mueller. I’ve not seen Bob Mueller say, ‘It’s time to go to court.’”

That time may yet come, as Starr might have added. But he did not.

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