The Punishing Reality of White House Investigations

Firsthand accounts from the Clinton White House during Kenneth Starr’s inquiry may offer a preview of what’s to come for President Trump’s staff.

Former President Bill Clinton appears in videotaped testimony from independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation. (AP)

If Donald Trump’s staff thinks that life in the White House has been hard the last four months, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

From Watergate to the Valerie Plame affair, the layering of a major independent investigation on top of the normal travails of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has always added an excruciating set of complications to one of the world’s most challenging work environments. Now that former FBI Director Robert Mueller has taken over the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, current White House staffers are joining this exclusive, if undesirable, club. Perhaps the best way to see how the administration’s inner life will look in the coming months is to reflect back on a presidency that was practically defined by such investigations: Bill Clinton’s.

In confidential oral-history interviews conducted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, former Clinton administration officials sounded a persistent theme: Independent investigations are profoundly damaging to the good order and proper functioning of a working White House. It’s likely that these problems will only be accentuated in a presidency already suffering, by reliable accounts, from internal disarray and bad morale.

There are some notable differences between what the Clintons faced and the current inquiry. During the Clinton years, investigations were run by independent counsels, designated by judges and working with unlimited budgets. Mueller is, instead, a special counsel, operating freely but able to be fired at will by the Justice Department—or, it should be noted, by the president. Too, Mueller has a sterling reputation as a nonpartisan, which distinguishes him from the best known of Clinton’s investigators, Republican Kenneth Starr.

Yet in his oral history, former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum argued that the investigator’s character is immaterial. Nussbaum described an Oval Office meeting in January 1994, when Clinton was contemplating whether to reauthorize the independent counsel statute, under which that office operated. Public pressure was then building for an investigation into Whitewater, an Arkansas land deal that critics believed revealed corruption on the part of two investors, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

All of a sudden, the media is crying for an independent counsel and I go bananas. … I’m telling people in these discussions that the independent counsel is an evil institution. At one point I said, “You could appoint me independent counsel and it would be bad. … Because once I got control of that institution, if I was the good Bernie Nussbaum, I would spend years trying to turn over every rock to be sure there was nothing under any rock, because I don’t want to be embarrassed when I go back.

If I was the bad Bernie Nussbaum … I’d see this as a way to bring down a president. Then I would twist ambiguous facts, and things like that, to try to make a case at all costs against the president to help me, myself, and my party. … The institution itself has a dynamic that causes that. Look at what Larry Walsh [the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra affair] did to [George H.W.] Bush and to [Ronald] Reagan. Look what happened [during Watergate] under [Richard] Nixon, even though it was justified. This is a dangerous thing, and we didn’t do anything wrong.

Mueller is widely respected—no one has seriously floated the prospect of a “bad” Mueller emerging—but he does have broad discretion to handle the investigation as he pleases. Thus those within Trump’s network can only guess at this point as to how expansive the inquiry might be and how long it might last. There was conjecture within the Clinton White House that the Whitewater probe would take only six months. Nussbaum knew better: “‘This will last … as long as [Clinton is] president and beyond. They’ll be investigating things years from now that we haven’t even dreamed about today.’ When I said that, Monica Lewinsky was a junior in college,” he told his interviewers. The president’s relationship with Lewinsky, of course, was discovered roughly four years after Starr took over Whitewater as independent counsel—and after he’d converted an inquiry about a failed real-estate deal into an investigation into the president’s sex life.

It is reasonable to expect that the current investigation will not be brief.  In part this is because Russian election interference is a weighty, sprawling matter—much more so than Whitewater. But it’s also because Mueller, like Starr, is tenaciously thorough. In a recent Politico story, Garrett Graff described his handling of a 2015 investigation for the NFL on running back Ray Rice’s domestic-violence case. “Mueller’s subsequent lengthy report oozes thoroughness and the unique gravitas of an experienced prosecutor,” he writes. “His team, some of whom will now be working alongside him in the Russia investigation, devoured millions of documents, text messages, and emails; tracked down nearly every person who had been in the building; and called all 938 telephone numbers that called in and out of the league headquarters during the period in question.” Graff’s conclusion? “That thoroughness and Mueller’s strong independence should terrify the Trump White House.”

Moreover, as the Clinton experience shows, the fact of legal jeopardy for anyone who either brushes up against the case or how it is being handled within the White House throws sand in the gears of the governing process. Staff members lawyer up and develop protective moats around themselves, undermining the esprit de corps essential for doing a high-pressure job well. Clinton congressional liaison Lawrence Stein learned this quickly. His first day on the job came in January 1998, immediately after news had broken about the Lewinsky scandal. Stein was headed to a big meeting on the upcoming State of the Union when he stopped by the deputy chief of staff’s office. “[John Podesta] was sitting there slumped in a chair talking to [political director Doug] Sosnik. Sosnik was going like this [jabbing his finger, pointing away from the door, indicating he should leave.] … Doug [says]: ‘You know, you might want to find another room because you don’t want to hire a lawyer.’”

On what should have been the most exhilarating day of his career—beginning work as the president’s voice on Capitol Hill by helping craft the annual message—Stein was shown the door of the first office he entered and threatened that he, too, might get tangled in Starr’s net. Clinton staffers quickly had to learn that there were certain things they dare not discuss, and that some meetings were better not attended. The energy of the White House was divided. Some important members of the senior staff were tasked with scandal management, when they would have much preferred focusing on a policymaking process that had become inescapably moribund.

As Starr began calling Clinton staff to testify before the grand jury, the internal pressures grew—both because of the gravity of legal testimony and because names were being named of people Starr might want to question. This put uncomfortable burdens on the coworkers. In the midst of exhaustive examination, Clinton’s personal secretary, Betty Currie, shut herself down: “They kept asking me questions about people, and at one point I told them, ‘I cannot mention another name to you, because as soon as I mention a name, you subpoena these young kids who can’t afford any lawyers. Now ask me what you want, but I’m not saying any other names.’” Because, however, the grand jury’s work was secret, staffers didn’t know what their colleagues were saying. Currie and others returned to their offices worried that coworkers were blaming them for their own subpoenas, or for offering testimony that in some way undermined the president. This created an atmosphere of suspicion.

The investigations’ intrusiveness, however, went far beyond the need to find a lawyer or appear before the grand jury. It also dramatically affected the White House decision-making process, especially the kind of disciplined maintenance of paperwork any well-functioning organization needs. Simply put, people feared committing things to writing because documents could be subpoenaed. They thus relied on memory or, sometimes, sketchy notes for decisions of immense public consequence. The entire staff nevertheless found itself inundated with frequent document requests. Chris Jennings, a health-care policy specialist, described in his interview the adverse effect on the smooth functioning of the public’s business. “Those subpoenas … went to everyone in the White House. ‘Have you ever seen, heard, talked, thought about anything: Please produce every piece of paper ever known to man,’ he said, referring to what was asked for. “All of it [was] totally irrelevant to anything as it relates to policy or even the alleged reason for the investigation.”

He blamed those subpoenas for distracting staffers from their more “constructive” work and for making them bitter. But “more important than that is the impact it has on the deliberative process and the ability to govern,” Jennings said. For the Trump White House, which already has had more than its share of problems getting organized and finding a policymaking process suited to the unique demands of this president, these kinds of distractions could be debilitating.

Staff work aside, investigations impose a distorting lens between the public and their president. The Trump White House may have a difficult time avoiding perceptions that the president’s actions are tied to his desire to get out from under Mueller’s magnifying glass. In Clinton’s case, for example, national-security decisions were, in some instances, viewed as attempts to “wag the dog”—to divert public attention from his personal problems by starting trouble abroad, which only he as president could fix. That dynamic came with serious consequences, as Stein reported about the president’s decision to attack Iraq in late 1998.

The House vote to impeach Clinton for lying to Starr’s investigators about Lewinsky was expected at the end of that workweek. But on Wednesday night, Podesta told Stein that the president’s national-security team had decided the United States needed to launch a missile attack. “I said the obvious thing: ‘The wag-the-dog scenario is going to be inescapable,’” Stein recalled. “To be honest with you, that was probably the worst moment among many bad ones that I had at the White House. … John made the obvious rejoinder, “We can’t sacrifice international policy because these guys [in the Republican Congress] were insisting on going on [with impeachment].”

Defense Secretary William Cohen, CIA Director George Tenet, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton soon appeared at a House meeting to brief representatives on what Stein called “an extremely sound case” to attack. Cohen reminded them of his “Republican credentials,” and vowed that despite the GOP’s suspicion, the action was necessary. But then-Texas congressman Tom DeLay, a strong proponent of impeachment, wasn’t having it, and ignored Cohen’s argument that it would be a “problem” to have “young people going into battle” while their president faced potential removal.

DeLay pushed for a quick impeachment vote that Saturday. “I tell that for anyone who believed that they weren’t hell bent to do this,” Stein said. “They were doing it, they were working the votes, and they were going to break the elbows of anyone who was going to oppose it.”

“In both cases, the recommendation to carry out the attacks came from the Department of Defense, from us,” Shelton echoed in his own oral history. “The accusation that we would have attacked Iraq to take away the impeachment announcement was absolutely ludicrous.” By this point, though, the national-security case seemed to matter less than the belief that Clinton was trying to save his neck. Not even an appeal from a Republican secretary of defense and the nonpartisan chairman of the joint chiefs could break through the distorting lens of years-long scandals and investigations.

Donald Trump and his White House staff are about to enter this alternate political universe. On the accumulated evidence, it is not a pleasant place to be.

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