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Starr turn in impeachment drama: Why Donald Trump’s case recalls Bill Clinton’s

Experts were divided on whether Starr would aid Trump’s defence, or prove to be a handicap as he seeks to make arguments that could be exactly opposite of what he said back in 1998.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: January 20, 2020 8:38:45 am
Starr turn in impeachment drama: Why Donald Trump’s case recalls Bill Clinton’s Ken Starr in 2014. (AP file)

Two days after the House of Representatives sent two articles of impeachment to the Senate, President Donald Trump expanded his legal team for the trial that begins on Tuesday — hiring the man who was the star actor in the drama the last time a US President was impeached.

Ken Starr, former independent counsel who will now defend Trump, carried out the investigation against Bill Clinton. Along with Starr on Trump’s team is his successor as independent counsel, Robert Ray, who had wanted to indict Clinton on charges related to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but ultimately agreed to the then outgoing President surrendering his licence to practise law and coughing up a fine of $25,000.

American media reports described the appointment of Starr as “headspinning”, and Lewinsky posted on Twitter that “This is definitely an ‘are you f***ing kidding me?’ kinda day”. Experts were divided on whether Starr would aid Trump’s defence, or prove to be a handicap as he seeks to make arguments that could be exactly opposite of what he said back in 1998.

Starr’s investigation of Clinton

Starr, now 73, was appointed independent counsel (an office created by Congress to provide reports to it) in 1994 to investigate the Whitewater scandal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton (dating to a time before he became President), and was subsequently asked to look into Clinton’s conduct in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by a former Arkansas state employee named Paula Jones. In the course of his investigations, Starr was given secretly taped conversations that brought out Clinton’s affair with White House intern Lewinsky.

Starr’s lengthy, aggressive investigation established that Clinton had lied under oath, and in September 1998, the independent counsel submitted the so-called Starr Report to the House of Representatives. In December 1998, on the basis of Starr’s findings, the Republican controlled House impeached the President. In February 1999, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate which found that his conduct did not warrant removal from office. Starr, who had testified in the House, was not involved in the Senate trial.

The Starr Report contained sexually explicit language, and Starr was pilloried as an ideologically driven, judgmental figure who was obsessed with sex. His admirers, on the other hand, saw him as the uncompromising nemesis of a morally corrupt President.

Starr, who had been a federal judge and had been appointed US Solicitor General by President George Bush Sr, was at one time believed to have had a chance of being elevated to the Supreme Court. His role as independent counsel, however, made him an untouchable among the American political class. He became president of Baylor University in Texas in 2010, but was sacked from the post in 2016 for ignoring sexual assault complaints on campus.

Also read | How Donald Trump’s impeachment differs from a criminal trial

Starr and Trump’s impeachment

After the House impeached Trump, Starr described the action as “very vicious” and “unprincipled”, and an “abuse of power”. Earlier in the impeachment process, however, he had described a top witness’s testimony against Trump as a “bombshell” that Democrats would use as proof that “the President, in fact, committed the crime of bribery”, and one that could result in Republican senators deciding to ask Trump to resign.

The New York Times quoted law professor Ken Gormley, the author of The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs Starr, as pointing out that Starr brings for Trump abundant expertise; he knows many of the senators who will be sitting as jurors; and he has worked with Chief Justice John G Roberts, who will be presiding over the trial.

Another expert quoted in the same report, Robert J Bittman, said Starr had “extensively studied and experienced the precedents and nuances of the impeachment process”.

However, law professor Paul Rosenzweig, who had been a part of Starr’s Clinton investigation, said: “Throughout the Clinton impeachment, Starr opposed the invocation of executive privilege and called for all the witnesses to come forward. Trump will have a hard time squaring that historical record with his current conduct.”

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