Columns » Ernest Dumas

Deja vu re Trump

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For a couple of million Arkansawyers, this fabulous circus of Russians, Trump, Mueller and Stormy is approaching deja vu.

The president, who had already lawyered up like no president and few potential criminal defendants in history, added a former independent counsel to his ever-changing legal team this week, prefiguring the great constitutional crisis that everyone knows is coming.

Real Arkansawyers have been there, or close enough. They, through their homegrown son, were in the eye of one of the half-dozen constitutional crises in American history when the country had to decide whether a president could or should be removed from office for having a sexual dalliance with a White House employee and then prevaricating about it both publicly and under oath.

The salacious stuff came after a five-year investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in a money-losing real-estate investment in 1978 on the White River that was pursued by two successive Republican independent counsels. More than a dozen Arkansawyers were charged with some violation of the law in the long investigation, although most had nothing to do with the Clintons. After the Clintons left the White House, the final Whitewater counsel acknowledged that in the investigation's eight years they had found no illegalities by the Clintons in the land deal or any of the dozen or so other matters except the president's prevarications about sex, which were the basis of impeachment articles for perjury and obstruction of justice.

All of this tiresome history is only prologue for the Trump ordeal, which follows generally the same matrix as Whitewater: an investigation with political overtones into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election run by an independent counsel appointed by the Justice Department that veered into ancillary matters — fraudulent deeds by the president's men who associated with the Russians and now, perhaps, by the president himself. And then, maybe, sex.

Clinton's and Trump's ordeal differ so far in two ways: the length of the inquiries and the presidents' handling of them. Robert Mueller's Russia investigation approaches a year. The investigations by Robert Fiske and Kenneth Starr into the old land deal and the suicide of the Clintons' friend and White House lawyer, Vince Foster, had lasted more than four years when Starr found sex. In 1998, Starr and his men, including the FBI, were lying doggo, waiting for something to do, when Linda Tripp exposed her friend Monica Lewinsky, who boasted about having oral sex with the president. Starr beseeched Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, to let him expand his probe to White House sex and she agreed. Sex with an employee was not illegal, but Clinton might be induced to commit a crime by lying about it to FBI agents, a grand jury or a court and thus set himself up for a perjury charge or obstruction of justice. He bit.

That is the mortal danger that Trump's lawyers are trying to forestall. Knowing Trump's propensity to lie about even the most trivial matters, they are trying to strike a deal with Mueller to sharply limit the matters they will ask Trump about when he is under oath — obviously, nothing about Trump finances or taxes or, to be perfectly safe, sex.

By word and deed, Trump already has far exceeded the threshold for obstruction of justice established in the Clinton impeachment. His firing of the FBI director and attacks on Mueller, his staff, his own Justice Department appointees, his appointed FBI director and the FBI itself, all to halt or limit the Russian investigation, go well beyond Clinton's quibbling about sex.

Trump last week said the investigation was invalid because Democrats were involved. Everyone who has run or overseen the investigation — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Mueller, James Comey, the recently fired Andrew McCabe and Trump's FBI director Christopher Wray — are Republicans. The two men who ran the Whitewater investigation were Republicans as were their staffs (one of Starr's assistants claimed to have voted for Democrats) as were five of the six other independent counsels Reno appointed to run investigations of administration controversies. Clinton complained about the breadth and length of the investigations but not much about their partisan taint.

What if Mueller is another Starr and wades into the Stormy Daniels affair? Would he need to seek Rosenstein's permission, and would it be given? The grounds are far more serious. As Deep Throat said, follow the money.

The porn actress, who claims to have had sex with Trump often in 2006 and 2007, has been paid $130,000 by the Trump lawyer who handles his amorous affairs not to talk about the trysts that Trump says didn't happen. To launder the bribe, Trump's lawyer set up a Delaware company and created false names for Trump and Stormy and now threatens her with $20 million of damage claims if she talks.

Fraud, perjury, obstruction of justice? Mueller may be too loyal a Republican to follow Starr's precedent or Rosenstein and Sessions to let him. But someone else?


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