Lanny Davis Recalls What It’s Like to Defend a President Under Siege
I reached out for his insights on fighting back against a special counsel, and what the Trump team might learn from the scandals of the ’90s.
In what became famous last words, lawyer Lanny Davis told President Clinton he would be leaving his post in a month as special White House counsel because his wife was pregnant, he needed to be at home, and besides, everything was quiet. The campaign finance investigation into Clinton’s 1996 re-election had wrapped up, ending stories about “Coffeegate” fundraising and Lincoln Bedroom high-dollar sleepovers.
“All your scandals are behind you,” he told Clinton.
That was early December 1997. The following month—Davis remembers the exact date was Jan. 19, 1998—he got a call at home at 9 in the evening from Peter Baker, then with The Washington Post. “Why are you calling me?” Davis asked, puzzled since he’d left the White House. Why not call Mike McCurry, the press secretary, or John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff?
They said to call you, Baker replied. “Have you ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky?”
“No, who’s she?”
Davis would soon find out. In the first days after news broke of Clinton’s alleged sexual relationship with the young intern, Davis was pressed into action. “I was the only living human being available or willing as a friend of the Clintons who knew how to speak into a television camera,” he told The Daily Beast.
I reached out to Davis for his insights on fighting back against a special counsel, and what the Trump team might learn from the scandals of the ’90s.
His loyalty to the Clintons ran deep. They’d been friends since they were students together at Yale Law School in 1970. When the Lewinsky scandal threatened to take down the president, Davis was back on the front lines, this time as a private citizen, a volunteer. “I was supposed to be the good lawyer, sticking with the facts,” he said, while James Carville, the “Ragin’ Cajun,” another Clinton loyalist, would be the attack dog.
Their goal was to undermine the credibility of Ken Starr, the special counsel assigned to investigate the Whitewater land scandal, which had now morphed into the Lewinsky matter.
“I started out being a good lawyer, saying this is not an impeachable offense, this is personal behavior,” Davis says. “That was my message and I stayed there. But then at one point, I don’t remember why or when, I attacked him (Ken Starr) as part of the right-wing conspiracy. I didn’t quite say it that way, but I said his politics were involved in his actions.”
Soon after, Davis was in the green room at CNN waiting to go on the Larry King show. Republican Senator John McCain was there, and Davis introduced himself as a friend of Senator Joe Lieberman. “I stuck my hand out. McCain never moved a muscle. There I was with my hand extended and he hadn’t moved. I asked why, and he said ‘because you attacked Ken Starr’s motives and not his judgment.’ And that really hit me,” says Davis.
Starr had just subpoenaed the mother of Monica Lewinsky to testify before the grand jury to talk about her daughter’s sex life. “Do I attribute that to his politics, or do I say this shows his judgment?” Davis says, recalling the moment as a critical pivot in how he talked about Starr.
“That night on Larry King, I did not attack his politics. I said he was exercising very poor judgment. And bingo, I realized that was the way to reach Republicans and independents.
“We all make this mistake of attacking people’s motives.”
Davis cites Newt Gingrich, who is hard at work impugning the motives of Robert Mueller as the special counsel looks into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“Gingrich is brilliant, a political talent par excellence,” says Davis. “He could have been one of the great speakers, but his fatal flaw—he goes one step too far, he gets personal—and that’s what he’s doing with Mueller. Maybe it works with the diehards, but for the vast middle you’re trying to reach, it doesn’t work.”
The Davis-Carville strategy was to paint Starr as a sanctimonious moralist who allowed that to affect his judgment. Because he was personally offended by Clinton’s behavior, that factored into his judgment and prompted him to call the mother of a daughter before the grand jury. They focused on Starr’s lack of prosecutorial experience, said he was in over his head, surrounded by overzealous prosecutors he couldn’t control.
Davis says it’s a “myth” that Clinton loyalists destroyed Starr, though he agrees that is the perception. His argument is that Starr destroyed himself in pursuit of crimes he could not prove. Coming up empty-handed in Whitewater, he brought the Lewinsky matter to the attention of the Justice Department and got permission to expand his investigation to include Clinton’s contacts with her.
Overzealous was a word Davis used a lot to describe Starr and the team he had assembled. “They had drunk the Kool-Aid,” says Davis. “A prosecutor needs to know how not to do things.”
Some years later, when the episode was history, Davis and Starr were joint lecturers to a Washington University Law School class meeting at the Motion Picture Association (MPA) building in Washington. Davis recalls asking Starr in a conversation afterward, “I said I don’t want to open up old wounds, but do you ever think you might be sitting on the Supreme Court if you hadn’t taken on the Whitewater investigation?”
Starr had been a federal judge and President Reagan’s solicitor general, stepping stones to the High Court. Every lawyer aspires to be on the Supreme Court, Starr replied, but he expressed no regrets about Whitewater. In Davis’ telling, though, Starr indicated that expanding the investigation to include possible perjury and obstruction of justice related to Lewinsky was not a good idea.
After their cordial conversation, Davis and Starr and posed in front of an iconic movie poster at the MPA. Davis’ wife took the picture. “Behind us is Mister Smith Goes to Washington,” laughs Davis. “How perfect!” Actually, it’s the height of irony in the sense that Smith’s character, the super-idealistic Jefferson Smith, was genuinely innocent of Washington’s ways, as opposed to these two insiders.
The photo—which had a place of honor on Davis’ credenza for several years, before being relegated to a storage box in a recent office move—is emblematic of how Washington works, with adversaries finding empathy for each other once the heat of battle fades. Starr has expressed regret for the “great pain” he caused so many people, and it’s worth pointing out that at the end of the day, between Clinton and Starr, the one who actually lost his job because of a sex scandal was Starr at Baylor University.
After McCain’s green room rebuff, Davis wrote him a letter, saying how embarrassed and humiliated he was, but that he’d made the pivot to questioning Starr’s judgment, not his motives. “I got a handwritten note back, saying he would probably regret giving me that advice because it would make me a more effective advocate going after Republicans,” Davis says, treasuring McCain’s concluding words, after having watched him that night, “Now I think you’ve got it right.”
Davis tells the McCain anecdote in his 1999 memoir, Truth to Tell: Tell it Early, Tell it All, Tell it Yourself. It’s advice that may have worked in the Clinton era, where there was one discrete scandal after another.
How quaint and old-fashioned that seems compared to the interlocking scandals enveloping the Trump presidency, and the myriad conflicts of interest involving foreign investments.
It’s hard to image the moment when a lawyer could tell this client that “your scandals are behind you.”