A Starr is reborn.
Kenneth Starr, who as independent counsel was the tip of the spear in the impeachment of US president Bill Clinton, stood before the Senate on Monday and complained that impeachment has become over-used and weaponised.
As death-of-irony moments go, it would have been like Charlton Heston arguing against guns, Margaret Thatcher denouncing privatisation or Kim Kardashian suggesting that fame is overrated.
“Ken Starr calls this period ‘the Age of Impeachment,’ and asks, ‘How did we get here?’” tweeted Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser, “He then whips out a hand mirror and says, ‘Oh, right. It was me. My bad.’”
Yet all the talk in the corridors of Capitol Hill had been about this trial’s Perry Mason moment: an overnight New York Times report that John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, directly linked withholding military aid to Ukraine with his push for investigations of political rival Joe Biden.
Would there be signs of a Republican rebellion and a demand for witnesses? Would there be a counteroffensive from Trump’s legal team, delivered with all the fire and brimstone of a medieval preacher?
No, instead here came Starr, delivering an hour of dry legalistic remarks that turned the chamber into a university lecture hall, with senators resembling a collection of mature (in some cases, very mature) students obliged to take notes.
Starr’s appearance represented a merging of two time streams worthy of Doctor Who. Suddenly we had been jolted back into the late 1990s, a world of Whitewater, “travelgate”, “filegate”, “troopergate”, Monica Lewinsky and the most recent impeachment trial – and acquittal – of a president.
Clinton is not as loved as he used to be in today’s Democratic party but, even so, deploying Starr with spades of chutzpah seemed unlikely to win any of its members over.
Two decades ago, Starr became notorious as a pitiless Republican tormenting and hunting down a well-liked Democratic president. His team included Brett Kavanaugh, now a controversial Trump appointee to the supreme court, who railed against Clinton’s “callous and disgusting” conduct.
In 1998, at Starr’s behest, Lewinsky was confronted in a hotel room by male officers and threatened with 27 years in prison unless she wore a wire and sealed the case against Clinton. That same year, when he decided to testify before the House judiciary committee, Starr’s ethics adviser Samuel Dash resigned and rebuked Starr: “You have violated your obligations under the independent counsel statute and have unlawfully intruded on the power of impeachment, which the constitution gives solely to the House.”
The divisive Starr report was full of lurid sexual details, including a semen-stained blue dress and who had orgasms when. So there was something nauseatingly fitting about its author returning to the stage now that America is under what has been referred to as a “porn star presidency”.
Starr’s central argument on Monday was that for much of early American history “the sword of presidential impeachment had been sheathed”.
But now, he warned, “the Senate is being called to sit as the high court of impeachment all too frequently. Indeed, we are living in what I think can aptly be described as the age of impeachment.”
Senators have to realise the gravity of imposing the ultimate sanction and the political disruption it causes, Starr argued. “Instead of a once-in-a-century phenomenon, which it had been, presidential impeachment has become a weapon to be wielded against one’s political opponent.”
He did not try to pretend he had nothing to do with the Clinton impeachment. In fact, he embraced his past. “Like war, impeachment is hell. Or, at least, presidential impeachment is hell … It’s filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else. Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment understand that in a deep and personal way.”
Democrats were not impressed. Chuck Schumer, in dark suit, sank deeper into his chair, head in hand. Dianne Feinstein, in purple, sat with arms folded. Amy Klobuchar, in turquoise, gazed around the room. Bernie Sanders moved his hands as if making shadow puppets and repeatedly swung back in his chair like an errant schoolboy. He was, perhaps, dreaming of Iowa.
How they must have been yearning to leap up from their seats and shout: “Objection, your honour. Hypocrisy!” But the rules of this peculiar court command all persons to remain silent “on pain of imprisonment”.
Still, as the day wore on, there was no sign of Bolton or his mustache. Instead, as had been predicted, Trump’s defence team set about lionising his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and demonising the former vice-president Joe Biden, presumably hoping to inflict some electoral damage.
The lawyer Jane Raskin contended that Democrats were using Giuliani as a shiny object of distraction. “The House managers may not like his style, you may not like his style, but one might argue that he is everything Clarence Darrow said a defence lawyer must be: outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade.”
Then Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, turned her fire on Biden and his son, Hunter, over the latter’s business dealings in Ukraine. She laid out a case that conservative media was quick to hail as “devastating” and that other media noted was full of holes. Bondi did not, for example, offer any evidence of a “crime” worthy of the criminal investigation that Trump was seeking.
But it was mission accomplished for Bondi, a glorious case of whataboutism to satisfy the twin masters of the White House and Fox News. The broadcaster Chris Hayes commented on Twitter: “This is the core of Trumpism: this nihilistic cynicism and projection that everyone is equally corrupt, everyone acts like Trump.”
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the Starrs.