Richard Pollock, DCNF
- Bill Clinton’s White House launched an attack on Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating scandals surrounding the president
- A media war room, staffed with 12 full-time attorneys, was created at Hillary Clinton’s request
- The media attacked Starr at the time, while modern media defends special counsel Robert Mueller
Bill Clinton’s former campaign manger, James Carville, generated headlines in the 1990s when he declared “there’s going to be a war” against independent counsel Kenneth Starr — the attorney tasked with investigating the scandals that swirled around the former president.
The tactics the Clinton White House used against Starr have faded over time and Democrats don’t raise them when they condemn President Donald Trump’s criticisms against special counsel Robert Mueller. But Clinton and his wife, then-first lady Hillary Clinton, launched a “ruthless” and “aggressive” public assault against Starr, sources from the Clinton White House and from Starr’s staff told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The campaign ranged from repeated White House condemnation of Starr in the media to the creation of a media war room in the White House staffed with 12 full-time attorneys and even to the hiring of private investigators to pry into the personal lives of Starr’s attorneys, which included current Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who then was an associate independent counsel.
One of Starr’s attorneys, Sol Wisenberg, recalled how the White House and its allies sought the destruction of Starr and his attorneys.
“The Clinton people were absolutely ruthless. Keep in mind that the attorneys around the Clintons were part of that effort,” Wisenberg told TheDCNF. “They were completely aware of it and they were complicit with it.”
A federal judicial panel originally authorized Starr in August 1994 to investigate the Whitewater scandal, a banking and real estate transaction involving Bill and Hillary Clinton’s investment in the Whitewater Development Corporation.
The probe expanded and Starr investigated additional issues, including the suicide of White House lawyer and personal Clinton friend Vince Foster, the disappearance of billing records from Hillary Clinton’s law firm, as well as the president’s sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky. Starr ultimately convicted 11 people and he referred his report to the House of Representatives, which passed a bill to impeach Clinton.
But throughout the probe, Starr’s team faced an onslaught from the White House.
“In the five weeks since Mr. Carville’s drawled declaration, the war between the President and the Whitewater independent counsel has escalated with a bitter and personal attack from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who accused Mr. Starr of being part of ‘a vast, right-wing conspiracy’ against her husband,” The New York Times reported in 1998.
The Times reported that one unnamed White House official “was blunt about the strategy, calling the coordinated hostilities ‘part of our continuing campaign to destroy Ken Starr.’” The article also said the “broadsides aimed at Mr. Starr and spearheaded by the White House have been effective.”
The conservative Weekly Standard noted in a June 1998 article, titled “Trashing Kenneth Starr,” that the anti-Starr chorus was a well-oiled coordinated attack launched by the Clinton White House.
“White House employees routinely go on television to denounce Ken Starr personally and by name,” the report said. “In a ‘Larry King’ appearance the other day, presidential adviser Paul Begala casually described Starr’s behavior as criminal, not to mention ‘frightening,’ ‘absurd,’ and ‘unfair.’”
The Clinton tactics escalated when it hired private investigators to spy on Starr’s team, according to Wisenberg.
“There’s no question, it’s intimidating. It felt like they’re gunning for usm” he told TheDCNF.
Another Starr attorney, a life-long-Democrat named Bruce Udolf, confirmed the intensity of the White House’s assault.
“They responded very aggressively,” he told TheDCNF. Asked about the use of private eyes, he replied, “That would be consistent with responding aggressively.”
One operative told TheDCNF he initially failed to grasp the gravity of the operation or its ties to the White House. But overtime, he came to find the campaign as wrong.
“It was an aggressive White House filled by groups of operators,” he told TheDCNF. “These groups of operators offered a spectrum of operational strategies that the Clintons themselves or their representatives selected.”
He requested anonymity because, even 20 years later, he still was concerned he could face professional retaliation for speaking.
One private eye the White House hired, Terry Lenzner, was known in Washington circles as “President Clinton’s private CIA,” according to a 1998 Washington Post profile.
The story quoted one of Lenzner’s long-time acquaintances, who said, “He’s certainly not characterized by restraint.” Another said, “He’s like a guy walking around with gasoline poured over him, just looking for a match.”
Lanny Davis, Clinton’s special counsel and his main spokesman on the many alleged scandals facing the White House, confirmed the use of private operatives.
“I heard rumors about investigations. I know they did hire investigators,” Davis said.
He also confirmed that Lenzner was on the Clinton payroll, but said he didn’t know anything about the investigators spying on Starr’s attorneys.
“I’m pretty sure Lenzner was given an assignment and it was to investigate something to do with Whitewater,” Davis told TheDCNF. “I do believe that Lenzner looked into a lot of the people in Arkansas who were planting these false stories” that painted the Clintons in a negative light.
Davis also said the idea of a media war room “was Hillary’s Clinton’s idea.” He said the former first lady wanted a group of lawyers “who knew how to do media, who knew how to talk to reporters who were trying to kill Bill Clinton.”
“I implemented it in a much more aggressive way,” Davis said. The media team worked independently of White House press secretary Mike McCurry, but Davis said they did confer with him.
Wisenberg told TheDCNF that the Starr attorneys were astonished that the Clintons assembled a team of lawyers to staff the media war room to attack the independent counsel around the clock.
“It’s undeniable if you know the history of it that the attorneys were aware and ultimately approved” of the campaign against Starr, Wisenberg told TheDCNF.
Weisenberg said he believed the operatives were looking into every Starr attorney, including Kavanaugh.
“Our view was they probably had files on all of us. They probably did at least some kind of a cursory look at all of us,” Weisenberg told TheDCNF.
Carville, in his book, “The People v. Ken Starr,” continued to denounce Starr in graphic terms, calling the independent counsel a “creature from the Black Lagoon, hell-bent on terrorizing the inhabitants of Little Rock in a single-minded quest to defame the President of the United States.”
Wisenberg said he is surprised that today’s media has reversed itself, which is now saying Trump’s attacks are off limits. He told TheDCNF that wasn’t the case during the Clinton presidency.
“All the national media ganged up against us,” Wisenberg said. “Now you have people saying on CNN, ‘Oh it’s terrible to go after law enforcement.’ They weren’t saying any of that when we were being attacked.”
The New York Times, for example, editorialized in May that Trump was hurting the nation’s law enforcement agencies with his repeated attacks on Mueller.
“This self-interested assault is doing incalculable damage to the integrity of American law enforcement,” The Times wrote. “It’s up to those people who have devoted their lives to the nation and to the rule of law, like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the FBI director, Christopher Wray … to stand up to the president and defend these institutions.”
In June, Trump escalated his charges, calling Mueller’s appointment “unconstitutional.”
The appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL! Despite that, we play the game because I, unlike the Democrats, have done nothing wrong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2018
The liberal news outlet Vox responded that Trump’s attitude in June resembled the tactics of former President Richard Nixon, who, following the Watergate scandal, became the only president to resign. Meanwhile, Starr’s investigation led to Clinton’s impeachment.
“Trump’s legal team has taken the position that Trump is perfectly free to launch investigations into anyone he wants, to end any investigations he dislikes, to fire anyone who won’t carry out his wishes, and to pardon anybody at any time,” Vox reported. “These claims are all disputed by legal scholars, but they echo Nixon-era arguments that the president is above the law.”
But while legacy media has defended Mueller, the attacks against Starr were plentiful.
Starr’s “abuses were driven by an obsessive — and, for a prosecutor, entirely inappropriate — determination to force President Clinton from office by any means available,” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in 1998.
And “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather said in a 1994 broadcast that “Starr is an ambitious Republican partisan backed by ideologically motivated, anti-Clinton activists and judges from the Reagan, Bush, and Nixon years.”
NBC’s Bryant Gumbel asked Susan McDougal in 1996, “Have you any doubt that Kenneth Starr and his deputies are pursuing an agenda that is purely political?” McDougal had already been convicted of four counts of fraud and conspiracy due to the independent counsel’s investigation by the time she appeared on the “Today” show with Gumbel.
Meanwhile, Davis told TheDCNF that it’s fine to criticize Mueller and prosecutors.
“They have a right to criticize Mueller,” he said. “This is America. Nobody is above criticism, including a prosecutor.”
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