WASHINGTON — The last time a president was put on trial, few were more responsible for putting him in the dock than Kenneth Winston Starr. Now the former independent counsel whose investigation led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment 21 years ago will come to the defense of another president charged with high crimes and misdemeanors.
In adding Mr. Starr to his legal team on Friday, President Trump enlisted one of the best known and most polarizing legal figures in the country, and someone who in recent months has become a regular defender of the president on Fox News.
For a time in the 1990s, Mr. Starr was a household name, the prosecutor pursuing Mr. Clinton first over the Whitewater land deal and then over the president’s efforts to thwart a sexual harassment lawsuit by covering up an affair with a White House intern. To his admirers, Mr. Starr was an upright pursuer of a lying, philandering president who had dishonored the Oval Office. To his critics, Mr. Starr was a moralistic, sex-obsessed Inspector Javert persecuting a president out of ideological animus.
Mr. Starr’s investigation confirmed that Mr. Clinton had sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky despite the president’s denials under oath and efforts to coach other potential witnesses to hide his indiscretions during a lawsuit brought by Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state worker who accused him of sexual harassment when he was governor.
Acting on Mr. Starr’s findings, the House impeached Mr. Clinton in December 1998, largely along party lines, but the Senate acquitted him in February 1999, concluding that the president’s wrongdoing did not justify removing him from office.
Mr. Clinton was separately found in contempt of court and fined by a federal judge and later struck a deal with Mr. Starr’s successor in which the president admitted not telling the truth under oath, paid a fine and surrendered his law license.
Mr. Starr, 73, was once a legal star among Republicans who served as a federal appeals court judge and then as President George Bush’s solicitor general, seen as a possible Supreme Court justice. But his time as independent counsel made him politically radioactive.
He went on to serve as dean of the Pepperdine University Law School and president of Baylor University but was demoted and later resigned from the Texas school after an investigation found the university mishandled accusations of sexual assault against members of the football team. The investigators rebuked the university leadership, saying that it “created a perception that football was above the rules.”
In the last 18 months, Mr. Starr has published a new memoir about his time as independent counsel called “Contempt” sharply criticizing Bill and Hillary Clinton and has become a regular commentator defending Mr. Trump against House Democrats seeking to impeach him for abuse of office and obstruction of Congress.
Mr. Starr has distinguished between Mr. Clinton’s actions, which he called clear felonies, and Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to provide incriminating information about Democrats, which he called “woefully inadequate” justification for removal from office.
“That is abuse of power,” Mr. Starr said on Mark Levin’s Fox News show in December shortly after the House impeached Mr. Trump. “We are going to impeach him before he’s done anything. Excuse me, you are using your power in a very vicious way. Whatever you think of him — you don’t think well of him; you think ill of him — it is not your business to use power in such an unprincipled way. Again, shame on you.”
His defense contrasted with previous moments when he criticized Mr. Trump. After Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, testified to the House about Mr. Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign, Mr. Starr said it was “bombshell” testimony that would be cited by Democrats as evidence that “the president, in fact, committed the crime of bribery.”
But he later went on to condemn House Democrats for what he called an “anti-constitutional exercise of power” by impeaching Mr. Trump.
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