Deaths are often called untimely. But Janet Reno’s this week was anything but. She was the attorney general who refused to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Clinton administration’s fundraising — White House solicitations that metastasized into a scandal that few can remember and none can explain. It had to do with campaign advertising, but it was really just an excuse for the Gangs of Washington to duke it out.
The fuss started on Page 1 and just sort of evaporated, making it the perfect Washington scandal — high emotion, melodramatic accusations, references to Watergate and then . . . nothing. It was Benghazi before its time, the emails before they mattered any, the Clinton Foundation before Bill Clinton flew private. There was no crime. Reno, who knew the difference between the monumental and the trivial, held firm. May she rest in peace.
But she will not if she pays attention to what is about to happen in Washington. The town will honor an Election Day pause and then, much like with the Christmas truce of World War I, madness will soon resume. If Hillary Clinton is the next president, she might have to deal with a Congress gone criminally insane. It has become a ravenous parliamentary beast determined to ignore the most pressing concerns and instead traffic in investigations. She might even be impeached.
That’s a terrible thing to say, and I can’t imagine any columnist at any time in U.S. history writing such a sentence. But an intended impeachment of a President Clinton has already been promised. “I guarantee you in one year she’ll be impeached and indicted,” Rudy Giuliani vowed just last week. “It’s just going to happen.”
Giuliani has become Donald Trump’s palooka, a brawler who has taken too many punches. He’s been a very strange avatar of morality and stability ever since he called a news conference to tell his second wife he was leaving her for his third and later suggested he should be mayor of New York for life. He is the brooding Quasimodo of Trump Tower, where madness is the norm and ignorance is better than bliss — it’s policy.
Trump himself has vowed a similar persecution of Clinton, whom he routinely calls a criminal, specifying allegations of which she’s been cleared. In this he has been joined by important Republican members of Congress. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of what amounts to the Permanent Committee to Investigate Hillary (actually, the House Oversight Committee), promises investigations until the end of time or Fox News loses interest, whichever comes first. We will hear again of emails and Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation and maybe, just for a ratings punch, get an appearance by the Macbethian harridans of Bill Clinton’s interesting past. Tim Kaine, too, could be investigated on the assumption that there’s something wrong with a person who’s so clean.
Democrats, too, know how to investigate. They smeared Clarence Thomas, managing to turn a mediocre lawyer into a monumental martyr, but in general they don’t have quite the taste or talent for inquisition as does the GOP. Still, a President Trump would very quickly give them cause. Among other things, he has your average Nicaraguan army officer’s grasp of our Constitution. He might order the return of torture — measures “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” he has said. He might name Chris Christie to the Justice Department — a bridge too far? — and the two of them might round up everyone of dark complexion — Democrats of Color, they might be called — trampling on well-established rights as they muck around in the government. Democrats will fight back.
Reno’s death also serves to remind us of how unnecessarily daunting government service can be. After all, she was Clinton’s third choice for attorney general. She followed Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both of whom had picayune problems regarding nannies. Neither one of these women went to jail. The punishment was instead meted out to the nation. It was deprived of their considerable talents, and many others got a warning: Leave government service to the pure. Gather them all in a phone booth, if one still exists.
The Gangs of Washington are primed. They will fight over policy and personnel, which is standard, but also because they have no regard for what they do and the government they do it for. The Republicans, above all, play the cheater’s game: heads Trump wins, tails Clinton loses. Bad days are coming.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
Read more on this topic: