Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Kenneth Starr: Mr. President, please cut it out

By Kenneth W. Starr

July 26, 2017 at 6:54 PM

President Trump walks back to the Oval Office after speaking in the Rose Garden.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Kenneth W. Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general and federal judge, served as independent counsel in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations during the Clinton administration.

Mr. President, please cut it out. Tweet to your heart’s content, but stop the wildly inappropriate attacks on the attorney general. An honorable man whom I have known since his days as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jeff Sessions has recently become your piñata in one of the most outrageous — and profoundly misguided — courses of presidential conduct I have witnessed in five decades in and around the nation’s capital. What you are doing is harmful to your presidency and inimical to our foundational commitment as a free people to the rule of law.

The attorney general is not — and cannot be — the president’s “hockey goalie,” as new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described Sessions’s job. In fact, the president isn’t even his client. To the contrary, the attorney general’s client is ultimately “We the People,” and his fidelity has to be not to the president but to the Constitution and other laws of the United States. Indeed, the attorney general’s job, at times, is to tell the president “no” because of the supervening demands of the law. When it comes to dealing with the nation’s top legal officer, you will do well to check your Twitter weapons at the Oval Office door.

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(Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

A rich history buttresses my uninvited but from-the-heart advice. In the wake of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the colorful Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) — a hero of the long Watergate ordeal — held hearings on a newly minted proposal to create an independent Justice Department, along the lines of other independent agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission. The idea was simple: Especially in the wake of the Nixon-era scandals infecting it, the department should, to the fullest extent possible, be insulated from raw political considerations in the enforcement of the nation’s laws.

Although nobly intended, Ervin’s reform proposal went nowhere. But along the way, a national civics lesson unfolded. One of the “teachers,” so to speak, was Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s legendary speechwriter. In the hearings on the proposal, Sorensen spoke eloquently about the need for the president to have trust in the attorney general but at the same time for the attorney general to remain at arm’s length in providing honest legal guidance to the president.

This represents a paradox. As a member of the president’s Cabinet, the attorney general needs to be a loyal member of the president’s team, yet at the same time he must have the personal integrity and courage to tell the president what the law demands — and what the law will not permit. That’s especially true with respect to enforcing the nation’s criminal laws, and why — rightly — the attorney general needs to step aside on matters where his own independence of judgment has potentially been compromised.

That’s the key to solving the paradox. Independence of judgment, as opposed to blind loyalty, characterizes great attorneys general. An example from the Reagan years illustrates the point: Attorney General William French Smith sat down one-on-one with President Ronald Reagan and advised him that one of the administration’s favorite tools — the legislative veto, which was a congressional contrivance used to strike down agency regulations — violated our system of separation of powers and was thus unconstitutional.

In coming to that wildly unpopular position, Smith (I was his chief of staff at the time) had been persuaded by the department’s chief constitutional lawyer, Ted Olson. Having determined that Olson — and the entire Office of Legal Counsel — was spot on in its analysis, Smith outlined the department’s thinking in his session with Reagan in the White House residence. Reagan listened intently and immediately accepted his attorney general’s advice. No taking the matter “under advisement” or consulting with White House lawyers. As with Kennedy and his younger brother, Bill Smith and the president were close personally and politically. What the attorney general said, the president accepted. It was a matter of trust.

How to manage the paradox — loyalty to the president leavened by rock-ribbed integrity of judgment? It comes down to courage on the part of the attorney general and a willingness by the president to listen respectfully to what he may well not want to hear.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once opined that in our life as a society ruled by law, a page of history is worth a volume of logic. Experience teaches that even a 21st-century “drain the swamp” president would do well to tweet a little less and listen a little more to the voices of the past — bringing back to mind what President Abraham Lincoln elegantly described as “the mystic chords of memory.”

Trump signs an executive order for border security and immigration enforcement improvements at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool photo via Bloomberg News)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, along with their wives and two others, attend dinner at Mar-a-Lago. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Trump hugs a supporter he invited onstage to speak during a Make America Great Again rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks during his first address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capitol. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the first family take part in an egg race during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump displays an executive order reviewing previous National Monument designations made under the Antiquities Act, during a signing ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump speaks as he presents the Commander-in-Chiefs Trophy to Air Force Academys football team in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump welcomes Abu Dhabis crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, outside the West Wing of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, holds a sword and sways with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace in Riyadh. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Christian Jacobs, 6, center, hugs Trump during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Trump signs two bills at the White House: the American Law Enforcement Heroes Act of 2017 and Public Safety Officers Benefits Improvement Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump, center, greets Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), right, takes his seat during a meeting with House and Senate leadership in the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
After arriving in Cincinnati, Trump greets a family whose insurance premiums rose under the Affordable Care Act. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listen during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks on the White House South Lawn at a ceremony honoring Clemson Universitys NCAA champion football team. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump pumps his fist after signing the executive order on Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump greets visitors outside the White House after returning from Miami. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during the technology roundtable. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump arrives onstage to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Susan Walsh/AP)
George Mathew, right, chief executive of Kespry, shows Trump a drone during the event at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks with first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen, during the Congressional Picnic. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump greets Michael Verardo during the bill-signing event for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Verardo lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2010 when he served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, with Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin by his side, displays the written Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 after signing it at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton, center, at their wedding with Melania Trump, Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for LS)
From left: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Pence, Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listen during a meeting with Modi. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug while making their statements. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), speaks as he meets with Republican senators about health care at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with immigration crime victims in the Cabinet Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump holds a Chicago Cubs jersey as he meets with members of the 2016 World Series champions in the Oval Office. Cubs player Kris Bryant is holding a 45 sign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Southern Ute Councilman Kevin R. Frost, center left, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, center right, speaks with Environment Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, left, during an energy roundtable with tribal, state and local leaders at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump look on as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jeong-suk, arrive at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, delivers remarks as Vice President Pence, left, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry listen during the Unleashing American Energy event at the Energy Department in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Astronaut Dave Wolf, left, pretends to grab a pen as Trump hands it to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin after signing the order to reestablish the National Space Council, a White House-based office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump shake hands during their joint statement in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks from the Truman balcony of the White House as the first lady looks on. The president was hosting a picnic for military families for the Fourth of July holiday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump talk during a meeting in the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski a day before the G-20 summit got underway. (Jens Schlueter/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump and Macron at an official welcoming ceremony in the courtyard of Les Invalides. (Matthieu Alexandre/AP)
From left: President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, tour Napoleon Bonapartes tomb. (Pool/Reuters)
From left: First lady Melania Trump, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron watch the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. (Michel Euler/AP)
Trump sports a cowboy hat during the Made in America product showcase. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump sits in a firetruck while Vice President Pence stands below on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President shows off a presidential proclamation for Made in America Day and Made in American Week during the Made in America product showcase on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks at a luncheon with Republican leadership about health care in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: A look at President Trump’s first six months in office

Mr. President, for the sake of the country, and for your own legacy, please listen to the growing chorus of voices who want you to succeed — by being faithful to the oath of office you took on Jan. 20 and by upholding the traditions of a nation of laws, not of men.

Read more:

The Post’s View: This is not okay

Kathleen Parker: The poor members of Trump World

Ed Rogers: Jeff Sessions and others: Don’t quit!

Jennifer Rubin: How Sessions regains his honor

Kenneth W. Starr: Firing Mueller would be an insult to the Founding Fathers

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