A member of the independent counsel team that recommended the impeachment of President Bill Clinton says that President Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice are “blunter by a thousandfold” than anything Clinton did and more than justifies the House Judiciary Committee opening impeachment proceedings.
In an interview with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” Paul Rosenzweig, who served as a senior counsel to Ken Starr, said that a “significant number” of his former colleagues from the independent counsel office share his views — although notably not Starr himself.
“My view is that there’s ample reason right now for the House Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment inquiry … and if it were up to me, I would recommend them to impeach,” said Rosenzweig. “I mean, if I were called to testify today at the first of those hearings, I would say that Trump’s obstruction of justice and frankly, more importantly, Trump’s dereliction of duty in failing to address the issue of Russian interference in our electoral processes, are by themselves grounds for his impeachment.
“Add to that, his recalcitrance in responding to [special counsel Robert] Mueller and his stonewalling of congressional investigations and the case becomes … much more compelling than that which attended the [impeachment] recommendation with respect to Clinton,” Rosenzweig added.
The views of Rosenzweig and others on Starr’s team could be a factor in the debate as House Democrats weigh whether to formally initiate an impeachment inquiry into the president. The Starr report’s referral to Congress in September 1998 outlined 11 possible grounds for impeachment of Clinton growing out of his attempts to conceal his sexual affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Five of the recommended articles accused Clinton of attempting to obstruct justice; a sixth asserted that he failed to fulfill his constitutional duty “to faithfully execute the laws” by, among other actions, invoking “groundless” executive privilege claims to try and prevent some of his aides from testifying.
It is a pattern of conduct that, as Rosenzweig sees it, has been repeated in spades by Trump.
The Starr referral cited — as evidence of obstruction — Clinton’s refusal to be questioned by Starr’s prosecutors for seven months — thereby delaying the Lewinsky investigation until the independent counsel threatened the president with a subpoena.
Trump refused to be questioned by Mueller at all, agreeing only to answer written questions relating to issues that arose during the 2016 campaign, but none at all relating to his conduct as president. After reviewing those responses, Mueller’s team found them “inadequate” and sought to follow up with additional questions — a request that Trump refused.
Another of the potential articles of impeachment Starr referred to Congress cited, as evidence of obstruction, Clinton’s lies to his staff denying any relationship with Lewinsky, contending that those lies were then repeated by those aides to the grand jury and the public. But Mueller found that Trump did more than that: He directed aides, former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and former White House counsel Don McGahn, to write false memos that could be used to mislead investigators.
Rosenzweig noted that, at the time, he viewed one of the more serious abuses by Clinton his questioning of his secretary, Betty Currie, the day after he denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky during his civil deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. Calling her to the White House on a Sunday, Clinton asked Currie a series of leading questions intended to bolster his denial of a relationship with Lewinsky and potentially shape her testimony, making comments to her along the lines of “you could see and hear everything” when he met with Lewinsky and “we were never really alone.”
These comments, Rosenzweig said, amounted to “one of the most palpably aggressive efforts to control the narrative, tamper with witnesses, create a false impression for the American people and a false impression for the investigation,” Rosenzweig said.
But, he added, “Trump’s efforts are blunter by a thousandfold. He doesn’t even have the sophistication and subtlety of Bill Clinton.”
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Rosenzweig pointed to Trump’s directive to McGahn to fire Mueller — an order that, according to Mueller, McGahn refused to carry out, fearing a repeat of the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” in which special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired on President Richard Nixon’s orders — after the two top Justice Department officials resigned in protest. When the New York Times later broke the story of Trump’s directive, the president, according to the Mueller report, called in McGahn and ordered him to write a memo denying that Trump ever gave such an order. But McGahn refused to do so.
As Rosenzweig noted, Trump didn’t just ask leading questions of McGahn intended to influence his testimony, as Clinton did with Currie. He didn’t say to McGahn, “I didn’t really try to fire him, ask you to fire him, did I?” Instead, “It’s, no. Create a false memo.”
Rosenzweig noted that, “to be fair,” the House didn’t “ultimately adopt many of the proposed obstruction of justice counts recommended by Starr. But, he said, Trump’s more recent decision to invoke executive privilege over his conversations with McGahn to prevent him from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on its own echoes the impeachment investigation into Nixon. Among the three articles of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 was one accusing him of “contempt of Congress” for failing to comply with “duly authorized” subpoenas from the panel.
All of this, said Rosenzweig, has resonated with his former colleagues on Starr’s staff who pushed for the impeachment of Clinton. “We’ve been talking, a number of us. I would say that there are a significant number of them who see Trump’s activities as worse,” he said.
The most notable exception, of course, has been Starr himself who, after the Mueller report was released, praised Trump on Fox and Friends his “unprecedented cooperation” with Mueller’s probe.
Calling Starr a “long and good friend,” Rosenzweig said, “I’m reluctant to criticize him and I’m reluctant to say he sold out. I would say I don’t agree with his analysis and I would love an opportunity to talk with him in some detail about how he could possibly reach a conclusion that seems to me quite fairly contrary to what he said 20 years ago.”
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