mueller report

Remembering the Starr Report As We Await the Mueller Report

Robert Mueller isn’t likely to match Ken Starr in creating a sensation. Photo: Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News via Getty Images; Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The upcoming release of the full (if redacted) Mueller report is bringing back memories of another famous presidential investigation connected to bad behavior and impeachment speculation: the Ken Starr Report of 1998, involving William Jefferson Clinton.

You think people have obsessed about Robert Mueller and what his findings might suggest about Donald Trump? It’s nothing compared to the furor unleashed just over 20 years ago when the book-length Starr Report went public (after a hasty vote in Congress to release it). T.A. Frank recently remembered the moment:

On September 11, 1998, millions of Americans took a break from their daily newspaper to rush online and download the “Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, § 595(c).” At several hundred pages, the Starr Report dwarfed the capacity of a print edition, plus everyone wanted to skip to the dirty stuff.

Frank wasn’t exaggerating. An estimated 20 million people read the Starr Report online (or from printed downloads) within two days. Government servers crashed, and media sites scrambled to offer alternative feeding tubes for the insatiable demand. This was when less than half the U.S. population was online, and there was no social media to goose things along.

So far as we know, the Mueller report won’t have one key feature that made the Starr Report sensational reading: accounts of presidential sex. Starr’s account went into intimate and prurient detail about Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky, to a degree that exceeded anything necessary to support the essential claim that he had lied about his sex life in a sworn deposition in an unrelated case, and later in grand jury testimony, as one sober observer later explained:

The Starr Report, however, went far beyond establishing that the President lied when he denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky, and included sexual details of various encounters that suggest the Report also had as its purpose to embarrass Clinton and thus limit his effectiveness as President. Perhaps no detail revealed in the Starr Report better illustrates this prosecutorial overkill than the decision to include a description of Clinton putting a cigar in Lewinsky’s vagina, then putting it in his own mouth and saying that it “tastes good” (3-31-96). The cigar incident would inspire countless jokes by late-night comics and greatly weakened the ability of the President to ever again be seen as “presidential.”

Much later it became a matter of considerable interest that at least one Starr staffer who argued for the humiliating level of sexual detail was a young attorney named Brett Kavanaugh. Whatever the Starr team’s motives, it produced a tome that Time magazine described as “a fetid blend of libido and legalese that reads like Jackie Collins by way of the Congressional Quarterly.” And however eagerly the public snapped up the document and waded through the turgid language of the law looking for the nasty bits, there’s no question its scope and voyeurism significantly discredited the report and the Republican House that used it to impeach its chief subject. Even Starr eventually regretted the whole thing.

At the time, though, the Starr Report was the culmination of a four-year investigation that began with the alleged Whitewater land deal in Arkansas and then drifted, uncontrolled, into all sorts of reports and rumors about the Clintons, eventually settling on his much-discussed if poorly documented sexual dalliances. Then Starr received tips involving evidence turned up during a lawsuit against Clinton by alleged Arkansas sexual-assault victim Paula Jones, and soon the story broke, first as secondhand buzz in the Drudge Report, and soon in the Washington Post and Newsweek, when America first heard the name Monica Lewinsky.

As it happens, I was working at the Democratic Leadership Council, a political group closely associated with Clinton, when that first front-page story appeared in the Post on January 21, 1998. It was so alarming that the senior staff of the DLC assembled after close of business at our CEO’s home to discuss the implications. After years of hearing talk about sexual allegations against Clinton, we all instinctively knew this was the one that might stick:

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has expanded his investigation of President Clinton to examine whether Clinton and his close friend Vernon Jordan encouraged a 24-year-old former White House intern to lie to lawyers for Paula Jones about whether the intern had an affair with the president, sources close to the investigation said yesterday …

The expansion of the investigation was prompted by information brought to Starr within the past few weeks by a former White House aide who surreptitiously made tape recordings of conversations she had with the former White House intern describing a relationship with Clinton.

Thus began a cat-and-mouse game involving Starr’s pursuit of his quarry in the demilight of legal proceedings and political maneuvering — including, famously, Clinton’s public denial of “having sex with that woman,” with bits and pieces of the actual story dribbling out, some of it leaked by Starr’s own team. Republicans lined up in judgment of the president, while Democrats defended him (often after ritualistically condemning his behavior) as new revelations of sex and lying emerged.

Nearly nine months later, the long gestation period of Starr’s investigation and report finally ended, and it felt like the political system and the country it governed was slipping down a rabbit hole into unforeseen territory. Republicans behaved like they were in the grip of a weird compulsion, recognizing that much of the public thought they had no business prying into the president’s “private life” but moving toward a doomed effort to remove Clinton from office based on legal arguments few understood and even fewer thought sufficient. This became especially clear less than two months after the Starr Report was filed, when Republicans became the first non–White House party to lose House seats in a midterm election since 1934, forcing Clinton’s nemesis Newt Gingrich (who appeared to explain the disaster on Election Night before a background emblazoned with the unfortunate slogan “America’s Victory”) to resign as House Speaker the very next day. Yet House Republicans, whose leadership seemed to get hit with reports of their own sexual infidelities almost every day, went ahead and impeached Clinton, who was promptly acquitted by the Senate.

The differences between the Starr Report and the Mueller report are many, beginning with the very different legal authorizations that produced them. Starr was an “independent counsel” under a much-criticized and subsequently lapsed law that made him entirely separate from the Executive branch and the criminal-justice system (while being ultimately responsible to a three-judge panel), with a particular obligation to report evidence of impeachable offenses to Congress — the actual mandate for the Starr Report. Mueller is a “special counsel” appointed by and accountable to the attorney general. His report, accordingly, was made to William Barr, who unlike the eager congressional Republicans who encouraged maximum exposure of Starr’s sensational conclusions, succeeded in pre-spinning Mueller’s report with a highly exculpatory “summary of principal findings.” Barr has since wrestled with congressional Democrats over redactions that could hide a lot of damaging-to-Trump material.

There are some similarities between the Mueller and Starr processes, too. Neither, under long-established Justice Department policies, could indict a sitting president. Both prosecutors are career Republicans.

And to the extent their inquiries were adversarial, neither could “bag” its target. Bill Clinton served out his term and left office with a 66 percent job-approval rating and a robust political, diplomatic, and charitable career still ahead of him. While we won’t know until tomorrow at the earliest what the final Mueller report will have to say about Donald Trump (and some Mueller staff are hinting that it’s more damaging than William Barr has indicated), it’s not likely to revive flagging Democratic interest in impeaching the 45th president. Trump’s own consistently poor job-approval ratings (which have never been within shouting distance of Clinton’s post-impeachment numbers) represent the main threat to his presidency — along with congressional investigations that may push them even lower.

When the Mueller report does go public, in whatever redacted manner Barr insists upon, it’s unlikely that servers will crash or that any adolescents will embarrass their parents with pointed questions about cigars or oral sex (Trump has already exasperated parents via his comments in the famous Access Hollywood video that went public in 2016). Mueller himself is 74 and probably close to retirement; at the time of his report, Ken Starr was 52, with a long future in the public eye — including, most recently, a forced resignation as president of Baylor University following a scandal involving the cover-up of rapes and other sexual assaults by football players.

Clearly, Starr has never handled male sexual misconduct very well. Yet he’ll be most remembered for authoring one of the best-selling dirty books of all time. Robert Mueller will probably be happy to fade into obscurity with less drama, and so long as voters deny Donald Trump a second term, he’ll be forgiven by Democrats for disappointing them so sorely.

Remembering the Starr Report As We Await the Mueller Report