It was an echo across two decades, one of many Starr made in a 54-minute presentation that was billed as a treatise on the history and constitutional grounding of the congressional impeachment power, but also one that aimed to walk a razor-thin line — seeking to explain to senators why the 1998 Clinton impeachment was justified beyond pure partisanship, while the current one is not.
That task, for the most part, did not include reckoning with his role in overseeing a boundless probe that expanded from scrutiny of a failed real estate deal in rural Arkansas to a larger review of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s business and political dealings before culminating in a probe of the 42nd president’s sexual misconduct.
Starr’s findings ultimately became the basis for two articles of impeachment — rooted not in the sex but in the steps Clinton took to hide it from the public. The Senate ultimately found Clinton not guilty on bipartisan votes in February 1999.
Starr acknowledged the bitterness of the Clinton impeachment Monday, if only to throw the case against the Trump impeachment into relief.
“We are living in what I think can aptly be described as the age of impeachment,” he argued. “How did we get here, with presidential impeachment invoked frequently in its inherently destabilizing as well as acrimonious way?”
He urged the Senate to “close this chapter, this idiosyncratic chapter on this increasingly disruptive act” and “let the people decide.”
Democrats in the room, listening for any sense of personal accountability on Starr’s part, expressed bewilderment.
“He has given new meaning to the term irony — maybe even hypocrisy,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who was serving as his state’s attorney general during the Clinton trial. “It was really incredibly surreal to see him talking about impeachment as something that should be done with solemnity and restraint. If they had chosen a worse spokesman on that topic, they would have had to search very hard.”
“Good lord, he hasn’t changed,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who voted for Clinton’s acquittal. “Kenneth Starr has a moral compass based on what is politically what he wants.”
But to Republicans, Starr has remained a figure of considerable esteem — especially inside the conservative legal establishment, whose members move in and out of senior staff positions at the White House and in Congress. He also has remained in Trump’s good grace, thanks to frequent Fox News commentary, during which he has generally defended the president’s policies and prerogatives.
Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said Starr’s experience gave him significant credibility among Senate Republicans.
“He pointed out that it is now being used as a political weapon, and the concern is that in the future, it’s not just a once-in-a-generation event, but it is an every-election event,” he said.
Starr went on to serve as a law school dean and Baylor University president. In 2016, he was ousted from Baylor amid an unfolding scandal over the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations involving members of the football team.
In his argument, Starr drifted across 250 years of American constitutional history, quoting figures from Founding Father Alexander Hamilton to columnist Peggy Noonan while urging senators to “restore our constitutional and historical traditions above all, by returning to the text of the Constitution itself.”
Underneath the gauzy tone, the core of his message boiled down to the claim that Congress is simply impeaching too many presidents. He argued that the Clinton impeachment was mostly partisan, while the Trump impeachment has been entirely partisan.
“Like war, impeachment is hell,” he said.
Meanwhile, Starr argued that the Democratic House had denied Trump his constitutional rights by rushing into impeachment without exercising other options — going to court and performing congressional oversight — while also offering an aggressive defense of Trump’s right to wholly resist Congress’s attempt to do either of those things.
“Those of us who’ve litigated know that sometimes litigation does take longer than we would like. Justice delayed is justice denied. We would all agree with that,” he said, before invoking Winston Churchill and asking senators to “study history” for perspective.
The history he cited, however, was scant: the 1971 Pentagon Papers litigation, which — amid a disagreement between federal courts in New York and Washington — went from initial court action to Supreme Court judgment in 15 days.
Democrats have cited a more recent precedent: the House’s attempt to compel testimony from former White House counsel Donald McGahn relating to allegations of Trump’s obstruction of justice in the federal investigation into Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign. A subpoena first litigated in March is under review by an appellate court and has yet to appear on the Supreme Court’s doorstep.