No Comparison

Kenneth Starr Was a Witch Hunter. Robert Mueller Is a Prosecutor.

Starr went on for four long years. No Republican said that was too long. And Mueller has a heck of a lot more to investigate than Starr did.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Each time a shoe drops in the Trump investigation, this time the news about Michael Cohen’s slush fund that had people paying him $1.2 million even after they determined he couldn’t do anything for them, the Trumpy snowflakes start in. Wah wah wah. Stop the investigation. Robert Mueller is another Ken Starr! It’s the most biased investigation in the history of known civilization! If Mueller doesn’t have anything, it’s time to shut it down!

It’s all ridiculous, and worse—it is designed to discredit the investigation and prop up Donald Trump, and it will have the effect, if successful, of destroying what’s left of our democratic institutions and processes, leaving them only as things to stripped bare and used for maintaining political power.

Let’s go down the list of differences.

For starters, Mueller, unlike Starr, is a member of the president’s own party. If judges had tried to appoint a Democratic independent counsel to investigate Bill Clinton, can you imagine the conservative howling? It would never even have happened. The right would have demanded that person’s immediate resignation. And The New York Times and The Washington Post would have said, well, hmmm, they have a point.

Which brings us to another key difference, the manner in which both men were appointed. Mueller was appointed by a member of the president’s own party, Rod Rosenstein. Starr was appointed by a three-judge panel of the circuit court for the District of Columbia, two of whose members were well-known activist conservatives. One of them had called liberals “leftist heretics” (Heretics! From what?!) in a journal article.

And yet, he was permitted to take part in firing the previous special counsel, a reasonable man—but let the record note, yet another Republican—and replace him with Starr. Again, reverse it, and imagine that in 1994 that three-judge panel had been dominated by two liberals, one of whom had called conservatives “reactionary heretics,” and they appointed a Democrat.

Or imagine that Barack Obama had needed to be investigated by a special counsel, and a Democratic deputy to Eric Holder appointed a Democrat. Again, the right-wing outrage machine would never have allowed it to happen. Democrats would never have dared to even try something like this anyway. Yet Mueller’s appointment was greeted with universal approval from elected Democrats.

There is just no comparison between the two men—and all that’s not to mention how Starr went on to disgrace himself in other fields, ruining not only his reputation but that of an entire university—or the way they came to their jobs.

Or the way they did their jobs, which brings us to the shut-it-down question. Mueller was appointed just under a year ago (next week brings the one-year mark, which will bring another round of cable-news segments asking whether this has gone on too long). Starr was appointed in August 1994. Do you remember when he dropped his famous report on Congress’ doorstep? September—of 1998. Four years later.

When Starr was at the same point Mueller is now, a year in, I sure don’t remember any conservatives agreeing that he had gone on too long. Indeed, all they did for the next three years was egg him on. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page was cooking up crackpot conspiracy theories by the week about the circumstances of Vince Foster’s “murder.” William Safire was doing the same with his little acre on the Times op-ed page, predicting Hillary Clinton’s imminent indictment.

And Starr pushed forward, provoked by these propagandists. In fact, it was two years in, in August 1996, that Starr lost a big case in Arkansas against two state bankers and Clinton supporters he was hoping to convict and flip. The next month, having failed catastrophically on this case, Starr sent Susan McDougal to jail, trying to force her to spill the beans on Clinton, which a) she refused to do and b) she had no beans to spill anyway since Clinton did nothing wrong.

Then, in February 1997, Starr basically admitted he had nothing and announced he was quitting and going to be dean of Pepperdine Law. And did conservatives accept this outcome? Never! Safire, the Journal, and others browbeat him into reneging on the announcement and staying in the job. He still kept turning up nothing until 11 months later, when Kellyanne Conway’s future husband told Starr’s investigators about this woman named Monica.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In other words, Starr ran a four-year campaign—and yes, that one was indeed a witch hunt—during which no one found any credible evidence that Bill Clinton did any of the many nefarious things the right wing accused him of. Yes, he lied under oath. But he did not suborn perjury. They just made that up.

Now, with Donald Trump, we have a man whom we have every reason to believe has spent the last 40 years running a business that’s been one or two steps short of a criminal enterprise. Who may very well be compromised and susceptible to blackmail by a foreign power. And we’re not supposed to investigate that?

Finally, these attacks on the probe’s integrity. No investigation run by human beings is perfect, and Mueller has surely made some mistakes. But some of these criticisms are horribly dishonest. I was surprised to see Mark Penn, Bill Clinton’s pollster, join this parade last week with a column listing some questions for Mueller. I don’t have space for all of them, but here’s one: “When you picked your team, what was going through your mind when you picked zero donors to the Trump campaign and hired many Democratic donors, supporters of the defiant actions of Sally Yates, who at the time was deputy attorney general, and prosecutors who had been overturned for misconduct?” We hear this question all the time.

I can’t speak for Mueller, but I bet I know precisely what was going through his mind: It’s unethical and illegal to in the Justice Department ask lawyers questions about their political leanings. I would guess that most of Mueller’s lawyers are in fact Democrats, because guess what? Most lawyers are Democrats! And I’d reckon that most of his investigators are Republicans, because guess what? Right. Now you’re catching on. And I note by the bye that Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, whose name you don’t know because he never says anything but “no comment,” used to work in a Senate office. Kamala Harris’? Bernie Sanders’? Nope. Orrin Hatch’s. This, somehow, is almost never mentioned in the press.

The Mueller team consists of members of both parties who are trained to be above politics and who strive to maintain that. This is of course unimaginable to people for whom everything is about political power—they can’t believe everyone doesn’t operate from the same base motives they do.

But some people actually do. And they’re doing an important job. We have credible reason to suspect that the president of the United States and/or his people and immediate family members colluded with Russia during the election campaign; laundered money to hide the president’s liaison with an adult-film star and possibly other women (and God bless Stormy Daniels; it’s so fitting, isn’t it, that the Patrick Henry of the Trump era would turn out to be a porn star); owes millions or billions of dollars to Russian oligarchs, who thus to some degree own him (as may the Kremlin itself); and has lied and obstructed justice to hide all these things from the American people.

There is ample evidence to suggest that all these matters warrant a thorough look. They’re a lot more important than lying about sex. If you want to believe this is a witch hunt, well, I’m here to tell you that sometimes, there are witches.