The Real Witch Hunt

Trump vs. Mueller is Nothing Like Clinton vs. Starr

Trump’s lie machine is about to crank up. Here’s what you need to know about the vast differences between the two special probes of sitting presidents.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The spin we’re going to start hearing now, in the wake of Thursday night’s bombshell New York Times and Washington Post stories, is that what Trump & Co. are about to do to attempt to destroy Robert Mueller’s credibility is no different from what Bill Clinton and his team did to Ken Starr 20 years ago.

The Washington Post quotes one lawyer involved in the case calling Mueller’s probe “Ken Starr times 1,000,” while The Times draws out the comparison: “By building files on Mr. Mueller’s team, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of the Clinton White House, which openly challenged Mr. Starr and criticized what Mr. Clinton’s aides saw as a political witch hunt.”

And if you stay on the most superficial level possible, there is one similarity: After news broke in January 1998 that Clinton had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, his people, led by James Carville, went on a public rampage against the prosecutor that spring and summer to try and win the battle of public opinion against him. Which they did, by roughly 50 or 60 percentage points—Clinton polled in the 60s or 70s throughout the saga, while Starr’s approval numbers just cracked 10 percent.

But that’s not what this is about. What this is about is a lie machine that’s about to crank up that has to be pre-butted. So here we go. Here are three big differences between the two situations (and there are more).

1. First of all, the actual correct comparison is not between Mueller and Starr, but Mueller and Robert Fiske. Who? Fiske was the special prosecutor originally named by Janet Reno to investigate the Clintons’ investment in the Whitewater land-development deal. In January 1994, a year into Clinton’s tenure, Reno named Fiske as the special prosecutor to look into Whitewater (and the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, which many of the same people who today defend Trump had spun into some insane conspiracy, e.g., Hillary had him snuffed out because he knew too much, etc.).

For that situation to be parallel to this one, Clinton would had to have denounced and threatened Fiske shortly after his appointment. No such thing happened. Clinton didn’t like it, but he certainly didn’t say anything inappropriate in public.

Oh and by the way: Fiske was a Republican. I mean, can you imagine if Reno had appointed a Democrat? Republicans would have howled that the fix was in. But in the current case, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointed a Republican (Mueller) to investigate a Republican president, and Democrats have done nothing but praise Mueller.

2. Speaking of which, in stark contrast to Mueller, Starr’s appointment was drenched in partisan controversy from the start. This is a little complicated to explain and thus wouldn’t make for a good TV sound bite, but it’s a crucial difference. Bear with me.

At the time Fiske’s probe was just getting underway, President Clinton was also under pressure to sign a new independent counsel law (a previous one had expired). He did so. Catch: Under the terms of the law, authority for appointing said counsel transferred from the attorney general to a panel of the D.C. circuit court. That three-judge panel consisted of two highly ideological movement conservatives, David Sentelle and Laurence Silberman.

In June 1994, Fiske released a report—the same day Clinton signed the new independent counsel law—finding that Foster’s suicide was just that. This wasn’t what the right wanted to hear. A few weeks later, the three-judge panel fired Fiske and replaced him with Starr. This was a highly partisan controversy from the start. But even so, Clinton himself said nothing in appropriate.

3. Starr spent three years leaking stuff to friendly reporters. Starr and his lieutenants always denied that they were the source of leaks, and maybe they built some buffer between themselves and the reporters in question so that that was technically true. But there was only one place a lot of the Whitewater stories of 1995, 1996, and 1997 could have been coming from. These leaks were likely illegal. We’ve seen no comparable leaks from Mueller.

That’s three years—three years of slanted and often untrue leaks (Hillary was about to be indicted and so on). Pre-Lewinsky, the Clinton White House pushed back a little with some leaks about Starr’s tactics, but certainly Clinton himself never went after Starr publicly until much later, in August 1998, after Starr made Clinton’s grand jury testimony from earlier that year public—itself a highly dubious thing for a prosecutor to do.

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There are many more differences. Clinton’s White House never said of Fiske or Starr the outrageous thing that Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday, as quoted in the Times article: “The president’s making it clear that the special counsel should not move outside the scope of the investigation.”

What? WHAT?? When did that become for a president to say? We’ve lived through six months of assertions and arguments that make us gasp, laugh, and cry all at the same time, but asserting that the person being investigated is allowed to set the parameters of the investigation or else he’ll axe the investigator is genuinely one of the most abominable yet.

What Starr did really was a witch hunt. After three and half years, he had nothing, and then lo and behold he learned of a presidential infidelity from a group of right-wing lawyers (one of whom, George Conway, would later marry Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, now the second-biggest liar in Washington) who convinced Starr’s prosecutors they could get Clinton to lie about it under oath.

What Mueller is doing is undertaking an obviously legitimate investigation. Into something that’s a lot graver than extramarital oral sex, by the way.

Starr was a total partisan (and a total “Christian” hypocrite, as his later disgrace at Baylor reminded us). Mueller is a person who’s taken pains over his career to be above partisanship and who is respected across the spectrum. There’s no comparison between the character of the two men or the probes they’re overseeing. The only question is which Republicans will be willing to say it.