The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Suddenly Ken Starr doesn’t like impeachment so much

Former independent counsel Ken Starr in 2018. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Is there anything Republicans won’t say to make impeachment go away?

They attack the patriotism of decorated veterans. They decry rules that they devised. And they discard long-held principles as though the past never happened.

Comes now Ken Starr, responsible more than any other person on Earth for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, to tell us what a dreadful thing impeachment is.

“It just seems we need to ratchet the conversation down because of the evils of impeachment,” the former independent counsel said during an interview with conservative writer Byron York released on Monday. “Impeachment has become a terrible, terrible thorn in the side of the American democracy and the conduct of American government since Watergate. . . . Let’s at least have a reasoned and deliberate conversation about some lesser kind of response.”

Starr thinks Congress should consider censuring President Trump, and he says Republicans in 1998 should have considered “whether something short of impeachment would be appropriate.”

Follow Dana Milbank's opinionsFollow

Now he tells us? He didn’t mention “censure” once in his referral to Congress in 1998 laying out “substantial and credible information that President Clinton committed acts that may constitute grounds for an impeachment,” nor in his November 1998 testimony. Then, Starr argued passionately that Clinton’s actions fit the “high-crime-and-misdemeanor” standard.

Starr wasn’t finished. During this week’s interview, he also absolved Trump of guilt, both for obstruction of justice in the Mueller inquiry and for wrongdoing in the Ukraine quid pro quo, saying Trump’s “intent” was pure. Starr protested that Trump “is being held to a remarkable standard” in which we are “over-criminalizing the conduct of the business of government.”

Seriously? From the man who pushed to impeach a president for lying about oral sex in a civil deposition? Back then, Starr rejected the argument that Clinton’s “intent” in lying was to avoid embarrassment, not to perjure himself.

Starr, still going, suggested this week that impeachment is a plot by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to seize the presidency. A “conflict of interest is that the speaker of the House is guiding this process when she is third in succession,” he argued. “She will do well if she can have the elimination of Donald Trump from office and then Vice President Pence somehow.”


The brazenness of Starr’s historical revision was largely lost amid a profusion of equally outrageous attempts to excuse Trump.

On Tuesday, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Iraq veteran with a Purple Heart who had come to the United States as a 3-year-old Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union, delivered damning testimony to the impeachment inquiry. In a grotesque attempt to discredit Vindman, who now serves on the National Security Council, former Wisconsin representative Sean Duffy questioned Vindman’s loyalty on CNN: “He has an affinity, I think, for the Ukraine. He speaks Ukrainian.” On Fox News, hosts Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade attempted similar smears, as did guest John Yoo. (A week earlier, the White House slimed another witness — career diplomat, Vietnam veteran and West Point graduate William B. Taylor Jr. — as a “radical unelected bureaucrat.”)

Others were just a notch below such calumny. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) alleged that Democrats, not Trump, had held up aid to Ukraine — because of a border-wall dispute over next year’s defense spending. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), after howling about the need for an impeachment resolution with transparency and due process, condemned Democrats for proposing exactly that. And Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), in the impeachment inquiry, continued his quest to unmask the original whistleblower — even though most of the information has been corroborated.

Trump himself tweeted that what Pelosi is doing is “just the oppidite” of good politics and again said “Shifty Adam Schiff . . . should be impeached” (a legal impossibility). A day earlier, Trump’s campaign began selling “Stop the Witch Hunt” T-shirts with a “Hoaxus Pocus” theme.

But in terms of audacity, it’s tough to top Starr. During this week’s interview, he argued that while the impeachment of Clinton for lying about an affair was a “matter of conscience” for Congress, the prospective impeachment of Trump for betraying national security and breaking campaign-finance law is not.

“Republicans were, in fact, proceeding in good faith and with a very substantial basis because the president was — and virtually everyone agreed with this — guilty of very serious offenses against the rule of law, particularly perjury and obstruction of justice,” said Starr, moments after dismissing the Mueller report’s evidence of Trump’s obstruction of justice.

“Everyone with reason accepted the proposition that Bill Clinton committed crimes,” he added. “There I don’t think will ever come a point where all persons of good faith agree, let’s call it a consensus, that [Trump] stepped across the line.”

This is probably true — not because Trump’s crimes are less serious, but because Republicans have abandoned good faith.

Interested in following Dana Milbank’s take on the impeachment inquiry? Sign up here to receive future installments by email.

Trump has caused more lasting damage than the surreptitious actions of Nixon, but an impeachment inquiry would be futile, argues Post columnist George F. Will. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is the classic Fox News patriot. But he’s got dirt on Trump.

Chris Coons: ‘Lock him up’? We’re better than that.

Lanny Davis and Anthony Scaramucci: We must impeach Trump. But how we remove him is another matter.

Dana Milbank: Trump’s newest impeachment defense was devised by . . . Al Gore?

The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment

Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?

See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.

Get the latest: See complete Opinions coverage from columnists, editorial cartoonists and the Editorial Board.

Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.

The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Stay informed: Read the latest reporting and analysis on impeachment from the Post newsroom.

Want even more? Sign up for the Opinions A.M. and P.M. newsletters, delivered to your inbox six days a week.