You remember the years-long Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who indicted more than a dozen small fish — a land appraiser and a real-estate agent who had never met Clinton, a Republican or two and even old political enemies of the president — to get them to flip on higher-ups until they eventually got some goods on the president himself. The memory also haunts President Trump, who, after all, shrewdly proclaimed that his friend Clinton's only mistake was ever admitting that he had sex with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky," because it got him impeached. If you need to lie, stick to it.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller isn't following the Starr route. He went straight for the people close to the president, indicting his campaign manager and a foreign-policy adviser who tried to set up Trump contacts with the Kremlin. Trump is sick about it, and he should be. He tweeted madly this week that they should be going after Hillary Clinton and the Democrats instead of his campaign aides and, obviously, him. Rupert Murdoch's U.S. media — Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — joined him and called on Trump to fire Mueller, pardon everyone, including himself, and order up a special counsel to go after Hillary Clinton.
This is not going to turn out well.
As everyone figured from the outset, the former FBI director is not another artless Kenneth Starr. You may recall Starr's bumbling prosecution of the owners of the tiny bank at Perryville for reporting a loan to Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in 1990 to the wrong federal agency and his charging Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a Clinton political foe, with violating a federal tax law that didn't exist. All of it still elevated Starr's career until he was fired as president of Baylor University for covering up sexual assaults by the school's athletes last year, the same week Trump made Paul Manafort his campaign chairman.
Mueller's first indictment, on the other hand, went to the heart of the matter. A young campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos, whom Trump last year called "an energy and oil consultant — excellent guy" in bragging about his foreign-policy team, pled guilty to making contacts with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton for the Trump campaign and lying to the FBI about it. Papadopoulos' work preceded the meeting with Russians by Trump's son, campaign manager and others to get dirt on Clinton. Russians had hacked into the emails of Clinton's campaign manager and the Democratic National Committee and subsequently fed them to WikiLeaks.
Trump tweeted that Papadopoulos was a liar who was a minor volunteer in his campaign. He said all of Manafort's illegal activities — earning a fortune representing dictators and Kremlin-backed oligarchs and laundering the money to avoid federal law — preceded his running the presidential campaign. Moreover, he said, Manafort's work for him was brief and insignificant. Trump had long maintained that the whole story about Russia's intervening in the presidential campaign to defeat Hillary Clinton was a complete hoax in spite of the conclusion by all the nation's intelligence agencies that it was real.
Papadopoulos' correspondence with top campaign officials, including Manafort, verified it. He messaged campaign officials that the Kremlin wanted meetings with Trump or campaign officials. One with the subject line "Request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump" went to Manafort, who replied that Trump would not go and that "It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal." Trump's campaign co-chair, Sam Clovis, sent Papadopoulos an email urging him to go to Moscow and work with the Russians "if it is feasible," but that Trump himself should not go.
Trump's account that his association with Manafort was fleeting and inconsequential looks weak. Manafort had monetized his association with the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole into a lucrative worldwide lobbying company. Trump had employed him to lobby Florida officials to steer air traffic at Miami-Dade airport away from Trump's Mar-a-Lago home. (Trump apparently stiffed the company on the lobbying fee.) Manafort kept a condo in Trump Tower. He asked Trump for a top campaign job and said he didn't want to get paid. He clearly hoped to monetize his association with Trump as he had with other Republican bigwigs. When his massive payoff for managing the political affairs of the ousted Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president came to light in a New York Times article, he quickly resigned as campaign chairman. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, thought Manafort had bungled the Republican National Convention, so Trump let the poor guy go.
If only Kenneth Starr were in charge of this investigation, the prospects would be infinitely better.