The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Calls for Mueller’s removal echo complaints about another special counsel, Kenneth Starr

Kenneth Starr addresses reporters in 1997. (Jeff Mitchell/Reuters)

The call for the special counsel to resign hit many essential buzzwords: “tainted,” “collusion,” “favoritism,” “conflict.” I'm not talking about Sean Hannity's latest monologue about Robert S. Mueller III. I'm talking about a 1994 New York Times editorial about Kenneth Starr.

Starr had been in charge of the Whitewater investigation, which would eventually lead to President Bill Clinton's impeachment, for just 13 days when the Times editorial board wrote that he should step down “as a matter of public service and personal honor.” The newspaper's basic argument against Starr was the same one now advanced against Mueller by some Fox News commentators: His probe's integrity has been compromised by apparent partisanship.

The language was similar, too.

I rediscovered the old Times editorial after hearing the National Review's Jonah Goldberg remark on NPR that, in general, the current line of attack on Mueller “has Ken Starr deja vu all over it.” Goldberg has a point.

Mueller, leading an investigation of Russian election meddling and possible collusion with President Trump's campaign, is a Republican, like the president. But several attorneys on his team made donations to Trump's 2016 presidential election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. Mueller also removed from the team an FBI agent who exchanged anti-Trump text messages with a bureau attorney.

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham spoke for many Trump backers when she said on her show last Thursday that Mueller's work is “irreparably tainted.” She sounded a bit like the Times, which editorialized 23 years ago that “the appointment of Mr. Starr is fatally tainted.”

A three-judge panel appointed Starr in August 1994 to replace the original Whitewater special counsel, Robert Fiske, who had been picked by Bill Clinton's attorney general. Though Fiske was a Republican, the judges reasoned that his selection by a member of the Democratic president's administration might diminish the appearance of impartiality.

One glitch: It turned out that before appointing Starr, one of the judges, David Sentelle, had met for lunch with Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), a vocal critic of Fiske.

“Joining them in the Senate dining room was Sen. [Jesse] Helms, Judge Sentelle's political patron and one of the Clintons' most outspoken foes in Congress,” the Times editorial board wrote. “They all deny discussing the pending appointment. But the public must not be asked to take such matters on faith any more than it should have to take on faith that all the suspicious circumstances of Whitewater were innocuous coincidence. A crisis of political confidence cannot be cured by an inquiry that has the look of political collusion.”


In regard to public confidence, there is another troubling circumstance. It now emerges that Mr. Starr was working on a legal brief for a conservative women's organization opposing President Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Mr. Starr's legal view, that the president enjoyed no constitutional immunity from the suit for alleged actions when governor of Arkansas, had been well known. But by undertaking the friend-of-the-court brief, Mr. Starr passed from public commentator to litigating opponent of the president, a clear conflict with his independent counsel assignment. Though his firm has ended its participation in the Jones case, Mr. Starr's original decision to take it on further blemishes the appearance of impartiality his present assignment requires.

Democrats had other objections to Starr. He had considered running for Senate as a Republican. He had served as solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush, whom Bill Clinton defeated. He planned to work on Whitewater part-time while continuing to draw a seven-figure salary from his private firm.

“This could raise all types of conflicts, depending on who his clients are,” said Stanley Brand, an attorney for White House aide George Stephanopoulos. “This, in itself, is serious enough for him to step aside.”

The Times editorial board initially looked past Starr's GOP ties, calling him a “safe and nonpartisan” pick; its view changed within two weeks amid reports on his role in the Jones case and the pre-appointment meeting of Sentelle, Faircloth and Helms.

The relative taintings of Starr and Mueller are debatable, of course. The Times recently editorialized that firing Mueller “would be a tremendous mistake, one that ought to alarm any true liberal or conservative.” That's not necessarily inconsistent with the paper's stance on Starr, if you believe that the circumstances surrounding Starr made him less qualified to lead an independent investigation than those surrounding Mueller today.

It is worth remembering, however, that the case against Mueller echoes the case against Starr.