Bob Mueller's Perjury Trap
In the winter of 1998, Bill Clinton lied to his wife, his press secretary, his Cabinet, and the American people. It seems likely that he also lied to his lawyers. As a wayward husband, and public officeholder, President Clinton may have felt he had no choice. Then he upped the ante by lying under oath in a civil lawsuit. Seven months later, he fudged the truth again, this time to a federal grand jury.
The costs of these deceptions were steep: public ridicule, impeachment, and disbarment. Clinton also paid a fine, and the attorneys’ fees of the plaintiff who sued him, former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones. The scandal almost certainly cost Al Gore the presidency; 18 years later, its lingering effects probably prevented Clinton from returning to the White House, this time as a presidential spouse.
All this because of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s so-called “perjury trap.” Now we’re going through it all over again. This time, the Justice Department’s version of Inspector Javert is an equally overzealous special prosecutor, Robert S. Muller III. But who’s really at fault here?
Relying on a playbook often used by special prosecutors in particular, Mueller is rolling Trump campaign underlings on charges unrelated to his original mandate and squeezing them. If these underlings get cute in their answers, he charges them with lying to federal investigators. You can see where this is going, especially when you contemplate Donald J. Trump’s allergic reaction to truth-telling.
Yet before we go too far down the path of how the “Deep State” or “the Swamp” is supposedly staging a “coup,” let’s get one thing straight: Ken Starr did not set a perjury trap. Bill Clinton set it, then willfully hopped into the snare.
Perhaps you remember Clinton’s infamous finger-waving rant on January 26, 1998. Standing in the Roosevelt Room in front of a coterie of loyalists that included his wife and both female U.S. senators from California, Clinton said, “I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Banging the lectern, with Hillary nodding her head behind him, Clinton clenched his jaw and continued: “I never told anybody to lie, not a single time – never. These allegations are false!”
The allegations were true. Moreover, Clinton had asked people to cover his tracks. Yet this wasn’t just politics as performance art: Clinton’s anger was real. The source of that rage wasn’t false allegations: It was the president’s belief that an independent counsel supposedly probing a failed real estate investment in Arkansas called Whitewater Development Corp., had embarked on – to use Trump’s favorite phrase – a witch hunt.
Ken Starr was never able to prove any financial chicanery involving Whitewater, so he switched his focus to Bill Clinton’s sex life. “Here’s the president of the United States with a relationship with an intern,” said Starr. “Did he commit perjury? Did he obstruct justice? Did he suborn perjury? Did he abuse his power?” That’s how Starr rationalized it then. It’s how he rationalizes it still: Those quotes are from a 2018 interview.
For most Americans, there was an obvious rebuttal to that argument and it went like this: Yes, perjury sounds bad and a president shouldn’t lie (or have sex in the White House with an intern), but in the real world, people who engage in extracurricular sexual activity are generally obliged to prevaricate about it.
But doing so in a legal setting complicated matters. On Jan. 17, 1998 -- nine days before his Roosevelt Room outburst -- Clinton had told a series of lies while under oath in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment suit. Asked several times if he’d had sex with Monica Lewinsky, the president categorically denied it.
Seven months later, when the scandal had engulfed his presidency and impeachment was in the air, Clinton went before a grand jury. This time his task was complicated by the fact that he could no longer flatly deny the relationship as he had previously. The reason is that Ken Starr had evidence, in the form of Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress with the president’s semen on it, that showed she’d been telling the truth.
This is where Ken Starr and his prosecution team could have sprung a “perjury trap,” but didn’t: They informed Clinton’s lawyers that results of the DNA test were positive. This still left Clinton in a tight spot. Hoping to reconcile the physical evidence with his previous testimony, Clinton employed tortured language and logic that made things worse: He hadn’t lied previously, he said. Strictly speaking, his understanding of the word “sex” was that when Lewinsky fellated him, she was having sex and he wasn’t. He also parried a prosecutor’s question with his now-notorious formulation, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is” is.”
Clinton thought he was being clever. Prosecutors, most Republicans, and the federal judiciary reacted differently. They thought that the president, a lawyer, was speaking gibberish – and mocking the legal system and insulting their intelligence in the process.
Now here comes Bob Mueller, with a weirdly similar strategy. He’s supposed to be looking into whether the Trump campaign knowingly collaborated with Russian attempts to undermine the 2016 U.S. election. Instead, the feds are rooting around in Trump’s sexual closet looking for skeletons. They haven’t been difficult to find: Ladies paid to keep quiet are suing Trump and going on television. For reasons known only to themselves, Trump and his lawyers have responded with a series of statements that range from far-fetched and easily disproved to utterly contradictory.
It’s déjà vu all over again! Four days before the 2016 election, a Trump campaign spokeswoman dismissed the allegations from porn star Stormy Daniels that she’d been paid to keep her liaison with Trump quiet as “absolutely, unequivocally” false. Fifteen months later, with Mueller breathing down their necks, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen said the president still “vehemently denies any such occurrence.”
On March 7, 2018, however, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated Trump’s contention that “none of these allegations are true” -- while referencing some arbitration hearing indicating that Daniels had been paid off. Two days later, Cohen copped to the payoff, but said that he’d paid the money himself from his “home equity line.” This detail was proffered in response to Democrats’ complaints that such a payoff might constitute an improper campaign contribution. It’s a laughable contention, but the Democrats’ gambit worked: It smoked out the truth – at least part of it.
On April 5, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he knew nothing about the payoffs. The president evidently figured this shielded him, but what it really did was erode his attorney-client privilege – not that Mueller was particularly deferential to that doctrine: Four days later, the feds raided Cohen’s office and hotel room, seizing documents.
Last week, the president’s new lawyer, former New York Mayor (and federal prosecutor) Rudy Giuliani, offered more details. The president had repaid Cohen the $130,000 used to try and shush up Stormy Daniels -- but without knowing specifically who it was going to, he said.
The following day, on Twitter, Trump made it clear he did know who was getting the money. Trump continued to deny a sexual relationship and said that he was paying off an “extortionist” who had threated to go public with “false” accusations. Such transactions, he said, “are very common among celebrities and people of wealth.”
I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “are” is.