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.