The death of Ken Starr–famous for being the independent counsel whose investigation led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton–invited comparisons to the present-day Trump investigations.
This was true even in the final years of Starr’s life, as he wrote a memoir of the investigation, “Contempt,” just months before the special counsel Robert Mueller released his report.
The Clinton and Trump presidencies were consumed by multiple investigations that definitely have parallels, but the comparisons are limited.
With regard to the two prosecutors, while neither harpooned the Moby Dick (president) they were seeking, Mr. Starr will be remembered for having a proven case, and a successful string of prosecutions. Mr. Mueller will not.
Mr. Starr would likely rather be remembered for his time as a federal judge and U.S. solicitor general rather than as the lawyer who got Bill Clinton impeached and also defended Donald J. Trump in an impeachment trial. His death, at 76, also comes amid a continued and unprecedented investigation into Mr. Trump.
In July 2019, on the day a seemingly bewildered Mr. Mueller struggled to answer questions before Congress about a prosecution team stacked with partisan Democrats, Mr. Starr commented, “I love Bob Mueller as a human being, as a patriot - but I think he‘s done a grave disservice to our country in the way he conducted this.”
Mr. Starr in fact identified with Mr. Mueller. Both prosecutors were accused of conducting “witch hunts.” Clinton used surrogates such as James Carville to say this about Mr. Starr. Mr. Trump just said it himself about Mr. Mueller.
Another parallel is a political one. Democrats found Trump–a crass businessman who never held public office–as unfit for office, unworthy and indecent. The same might have been said regarding how Republicans felt about an immoral Mr. Clinton with a shady past of womanizing, Arkansas political scandals and draft dodging.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Trump incited a degree of emotion on the other side of the aisle that transcended ideology.
Notably, one result of Mr. Starr’s investigation that wrapped up with the Clinton impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice regarding Monica Lewinsky, was putting Democrats on the record that the personal character of a president didn’t matter in the 1990s. Many of those same Democrats looked patently silly 20 years later complaining about Mr. Trump’s character flaws.
There are more differences between the Clinton and Trump investigations.
Most importantly, there was a predicate to commence the Whitewater investigation–which led to Filegate, Monica-gate and other gates under Mr. Starr’s purview. It involved evidence and direct allegations from a former Arkansas banker and municipal judge, as well as an investigator’s criminal referral to the FBI.
Mr. Starr never nailed Bill or Hillary Clinton. But his investigation did score successful prosecutions of more than a dozen people involved in the deal–including Mr. Clinton’s successor as governor of Arkansas, Jim Guy Tucker; as well as Clinton political supporter and Justice Department appointee Webster Hubbell.
Eventually, the Starr team pivoted to a perjury investigation into the Lewinsky matter. Mr. Clinton was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate, but he surely faced consequences.
A federal court held him in civil contempt for denying under oath his affair with Ms. Lewinsky in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. To avoid prosecution after leaving office, Mr. Clinton reached a deal with Starr’s successor Robert Ray, admitting to misleading statements and surrendering his law license.
The Mueller investigation was based on the Russia collusion narrative that lacked an evidentiary predicate for a special prosecutor. It was a probe launched on a hunch and a media desire.
The Mueller probe not only failed to nab Trump, but the convictions and guilty pleas it scored–such as Trump political allies Paul Manafort, George Papadopolous and Rick Gates were largely based on process crimes such as lying to investigators. Notably, a jury did find Roger Stone guilty of lying to Congress, but the Justice Department’s case against Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn largely fell apart. None of the convictions involved conspiracy with Russians.
Through this, Mr. Mueller didn’t seem a bad actor. Though, he should not have been named to the post. While Mr. Trump might have exaggerated Mr. Mueller‘s interest in re-assuming his job as FBI director, documents show he was interviewed to replace the ousted James Comey, and was on a White House shortlist. Mr. Starr didn’t face such potential conflicts of interest when investigating Clinton.
Though rather disparaging of Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller’s final report in March 2019 found no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Unlike Mr. Starr, Mr. Mueller’s report didn’t offer anything impeachable for Congress to sink its teeth into. So, House Democrats had to settle for a much less exciting Ukraine phone call.
When two impeachments didn’t work, in the post-presidency, elected New York state Democrat prosecutors sharpened their knives to go after Trump’s businesses, while federal prosecutors and a Georgia district attorney are targeting Trump over his actions disputing his 2020 election loss.
Most recently, a dispute between a former president and the National Archives and Records Administration escalated into an FBI raid on the president’s home.
Mr. Clinton might have been the most investigated president ever before Mr. Trump came along. Both presidents in their public statements clearly have felt put upon. But the relentless hunting of a president certainly far escalated for Trump.
• Fred Lucas, the author of “Myth of Voter Suppression: The Left’s Assault on Clean Elections,” is the manager of the Investigative Reporting Project at The Daily Signal.