History may not always repeat itself, but it sure can rhyme.
Back in the 1990s, it was an open question whether a sitting American president was immune from a civil lawsuit, and George Conway, a rising star in the New York bar, helped guide the U.S. Supreme Court to a unanimous “yes” in the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones. Jones persevered, her case moved forward, and President Bill Clinton then perjured himself at the deposition where he offered the immortal testimony: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
(Video from President Bill Clinton’s January 26th, 1998 press conference.)
Conway was there. You see, Jones’ legal team had a public face, Gil Davis—a former federal prosecutor described by Michael Isikoff, then of Newsweek, as “genial”—aided by a deep and not so visible bench that included, among others, Ann Coulter and George Conway. Initially, it was Davis who did the talking but Conway and his crew who did the heavy legal lifting. Think of it this way: It was Conway who helped set the perjury trap that hobbled Clinton and which now could do the same, or worse, to Trump.
Flash forward to Tuesday, when NPR first reported that a private investigator, Rod Wheeler, was suing Fox News, a Fox News reporter, Malia Zimmerman, and a Dallas-based Republican financier, Ed Butowsky. According to Wheeler’s federal court complaint, Fox News, Zimmerman, and Butowsky allegedly invented quotes, placed them in Wheeler’s mouth, and somehow tied the death of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer, to an alleged and unsubstantiated relationship to WikiLeaks, in the process rejecting D.C. police reports that attributed Rich’s homicide to a burglary gone bad.
The defendants immediately denied the allegations, and in the age of Pizzagate and Kellyanne Conway’s very own “alternative facts,” the lawsuit seems almost anodyne. Except, and this a YUGE exception, the cover page of Wheeler’s complaint contained these words, previously sent to Wheeler in a text from Butowsky: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.”
Later, the complaint also drops Sean Spicer into the middle of things: “Butowsky and Mr. Wheeler met with Mr. Spicer and provided him with a copy of Mr. Wheeler’s investigative notes. Mr. Spicer asked to be kept abreast of developments…”
After having previously denied any nexus to Wheeler and Butowsky, Spicer did an about face Tuesday and issued a statement saying: “Ed is a longtime supporter of the president’s agenda who often appears in the media. He asked for a 10-minute meeting, with no specified topic, to catch up and said he would be bringing along a contributor to Fox News.”
As for Butowsky, he now claims to have simply been “kidding” about Trump driving this train. For good measure, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added this unequivocal denial, at the same press conference where she “clarified” that concerned fathers actually do massage false statements from Air Force One to protect their hapless 39-year-old sons: “The president had no knowledge of the story and it is completely untrue that there was White House involvement in the story…”
Suffice it to say, Wheeler’s lawyer isn’t buying what the White House is selling, and on Tuesday night advised Yahoo’s Isikoff that the plaintiff would be seeking to depose Trump and Spicer. If defendants cannot obtain a pre-trial dismissal of the action, Trump and Spicer remain realistic targets for deposition—because of George Conway’s efforts to get justice for Paula Jones.
In Clinton v. Jones, the Supreme Court held that Jones could proceed but declined to address whether “a court may compel the attendance of the President at any specific time or place” or to expressly hold that a president could be deposed as a non-party in a civil suit. That is not the end of the story.
Pages later, the court recalled those instances where Richard Nixon was “obligated” to produce the Watergate tapes in response to a subpoena, and when Presidents Grant, Ford, and Carter gave pre-trial testimony in criminal cases. In the aftermath the Supreme Court’s decision, Clinton was ultimately deposed on film and under oath. Ridicule, impeachment, acquittal, and redemption ensued.
The Conways, too have remained on the scene. In the aftermath of Bob Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, George Conway withdrew his name from consideration as an assistant attorney general under Jeff Sessions. Days later, Conway pledged fealty to Trump but tweeted out that the president’s tweets on immigration could undermine his case before the Supreme Court: “These tweets may make some ppl feel better, but they certainly won’t help OSG get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad.” Indeed.
Later in June, Kellyanne Conway’s name surfaced in connection with Peter W. Smith, a GOP activist who sought Hillary Clinton’s emails and who had committed suicide after prolonged illness. A September 2016 document provided by Smith to The Wall Street Journal listed her, among other senior campaign and White House officials.
Coincidentally or not, Smith had partnered with George Conway more than 20 years earlier (and well before the Conways tied the knot in 2001) to get Bill Clinton.
Some things don’t change. Including presidential depositions, and possible perjury.