September 15, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The assassination of Trump’s character, Ken Starr-style
“Piece by painful piece.”
Ken Starr, that janus-faced moral hack, died Tuesday. I can’t add more insight to his obituary than Erik Loomis did for the Editorial Board. I can only point out something that might not be obvious. It’s thanks to Starr’s grotesque abuse of investigative procedure that Donald Trump’s influence has been fading “piece by painful piece.”
As you may recall, Starr was the special prosecutor charged with investigating an inconsequential scandal, one particular to Arkansas politics, regarding the appearance of shady real estate dealings (Whitewater) involving then-Governor Bill Clinton and his wife.
Starr’s inquiry was polyphiloprogenitive, like an algae bloom over Lake Erie. In quick time, there was no more open water in Washington, for anything. A petty impropriety blew up into a tabloid sex scandal linking a sitting president to White House intern. The issue was not that a man in a position of authority took advantage of an impressionable young woman, as you might expect it to be. The issue was the sex.
That’s the 1990s for you.
The Republicans failed to remove Clinton from office, obviously, but Ken Starr’s investigation did succeed in one important way.
It was proof of concept.
Starr demonstrated that formal investigations into Democratic administrations are damaging, even if they amount to nothing. Newt Gingrich had instilled suspicion in the public mind of deep corruption beneath all democratic institutions. Starr’s investigation, though it was petty and vile, put flesh on the bones of this doubt.
Since then, we have seen the same thing over and over. When there’s a Democratic president, there’s a Republican somewhere who calls for an investigation into this or that. It doesn’t matter that there’s no there there. (There’s almost always no there there.) What matters is the investigation itself along with the bits of information that emerge that become the regurgitated cud of the rightwing media apparatus.
We can therefore reasonably expect the Republicans, if they take the House in November, to launch an investigation into Hunter Biden’s … something, I dunno, but we can expect an investigation of whatever it is. The Republican will hope it produces “evidence” to justify a formal investigation originating from the Department of Justice.
We know this will happen.
It’s happened before.
During Obama’s presidency, there was “Fast and Furious,” which resulted in former US Attorney General Eric Holder being held in contempt of the Congress. There was the Benghazi disaster. Four American died in Libya. The Republicans blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was eventually cleared of all allegations.
But being cleared of allegations has virtually no effect on the public consciousness compared to what allegations do. This is why Donald Trump didn’t care if Ukraine’s government investigated Joe Biden. What mattered was Ukraine’s government merely saying that it was.
The allegations are, moreover, given a greater intensity, and thus life, by the rightwing media apparatus, which elevates “evidence” to such clowncar heights that the press and pundit corps can’t ignore it.
Phony scandals mostly fail to break out of the rightwing cosmos, but when they do, they’re rooted in things already believed to be true.
The best example is, of course, Hillary Clinton and the email scandal that drip-drip-dripped on her 2016 candidacy. Allegations, though baseless, were given weight by a press corps that could not fathom a philistine like Donald Trump becoming president. The FBI was also involved, giving the air of something grave, complex and serious.
But the keystone was misogyny.
Clinton is a woman. She was running for the presidency. Everyone already knows it’s true that a woman seeking power can’t be trusted.
The rest is history.
Ken Starr didn’t care about holding a president to account. He cared about abrading Bill Clinton’s public standing. It was warfare by attrition. His team, which included future Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, had that objective. In a memo, Kavanaugh wrote: “It may not be our job to impose sanctions on him, but it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear — piece by painful piece.”
The irony is that Ken Starr, who defended Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial, is responsible for a dynamic that’s how abrading the former president’s public standing. Whether the J6 committee’s investigation of Trump’s failed coup or the Justice Department’s investigation into stolen government secrets, both efforts are making “his pattern of revolting behavior clear — piece by painful piece.”
The differences should be obvious. The Justice Department and J6 committee care about procedural outcomes. They are care about doing things right, by the book and for good reasons. The point is upholding the law and ferreting out traitors to the US Constitution. The only outcome Ken Starr cared about was giving the appearance of respectability to what was in essence character assassination.
So even if these investigations come to nothing, they will still have accomplished a lot. Every painful piece of evidence that emerges is rooted in things already believed to be true about Donald Trump.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.