Kenneth Starr is back. This time it’s as a member of President Donald Trump’s made-for-(Fox)TV defense team that also includes Alan Dershowitz and Robert Ray.
Some observers were surprised that Trump would hire a man he once dismissed as a “lunatic” and a “wacko.” But that was in 1998 when Trump was still courting the Clintons. Besides, a man famous for showing up with a new model on his arm every other week (regardless of his marital status) was naturally repulsed by Starr’s attempt to expose the minute details of a sitting president’s sex life.
Times have changed. Now, any enemy of the Clintons is a friend of Trump. And, as Contempt, Starr’s 2018 book about his work as special counsel, makes clear, Starr despises the Clintons (Hillary in particular).
Starr, the disgraced former president of the world’s largest Baptist university, has become a regular guest on Fox News in recent years, savaging the Mueller report while suggesting that impeachment was a bad idea in 1998 and remains so.
Trump of course has little interest in carefully-crafted legal arguments; he wants talking heads who (in his view) look good on TV, and Starr fits the bill.
“Why, we might ask, does Starr consistently end up protecting powerful men while showing callous disregard for the women they use for their pleasure?”
Avuncular, charming, understated and articulate, Starr can come across as the anti-Trump. He has called Trump’s rhetoric, “unwise, uncalled for” and “extraordinarily unseemly.” But he also has defended Trump’s policies and now insists that the impeached president’s actions are not criminal. He isn’t saying we have to like or respect Trump, just that he shouldn’t be impeached and removed from office.
Even Starr admits that the parallels between 1998 and the present are uncanny. We have two presidents lying about sexual dalliances. Both men have been accused of obstructing justice. The primary difference, however, is that in terms of malfeasance and abuse of power, Trump makes Clinton look like a piker. It’s hard to imagine any president in American history (Richard Nixon included) pressuring a foreign government to dig up dirt on a domestic political rival.
So, how can Starr defend the sitting president without looking like a hypocritical buffoon?
Perhaps he is attempting to salvage a savaged reputation. He certainly has known more than his fair share of shame. On the other hand, he has also brushed up against greatness. George H. W. Bush was on the verge of nominating the Texas jurist to the Supreme Court until advisers convinced the president to select the more conservative (so they thought) David Souter. In Contempt, Starr admits that he never shook off this bitter disappointment.
Like Dershowitz, the 72-year-old Starr is well past the age of retirement, and he’s not ready to go gently into that good night without one more dance in the spotlight. It’s easy to forget that Bill Clinton and his nemesis were Time magazine’s men of the year.
In his book, Starr argues that “the indulgent” America of the 1990s was able to overlook Clinton’s “shockingly callous contempt for the women he used for his pleasure.” If his report described the president’s sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky in pornographic detail (remember the cigar-as-sex toy detail), it was, he insists, only because there was no other way to uncover Clinton’s mendacity.
Starr is right that the America of 2020 is far more willing to believe sexual assault victims than was the America of 1998. But why, we might ask, does Starr consistently end up protecting powerful men while showing callous disregard for the women they use for their pleasure?
In 2008, Starr agreed to go to bat for Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire accused of soliciting sex from underage girls. Epstein wasn’t just one of the richest men in America; he was elegant and eloquent, a first-rate raconteur who hung out with the likes of Prince Andrew, Bill Gates, Donald Trump and, yes, Bill Clinton.
According to Dershowitz (another member of Epstein’s legal dream team), Starr crafted the sweetheart deal that allowed the accused to spend 12 hours a day seeing to his business interests while returning to his luxury suite of a jail cell each night. After 13 months of this “punishment,” Epstein was a free man. As a direct consequence, dozens of young girls were pimped out to Epstein and his glamorous client base year after tragic year until the organized efforts of his victims brought him to heel.
“Avuncular, charming, understated and articulate, Starr can come across as the anti-Trump.”
In 2010, when Baylor University invited him to serve as its president, Starr moved to Waco, joined a Baptist church (to the horror of his Church of Christ friends) and set about enhancing Baylor’s national reputation. Among other things, that meant building a $266 million stadium on the Brazos River and making Art Briles one of the best-paid football coaches in the nation.
Before long the Baylor Bears football team, a perennial doormat in the Big 12 Conference, was making the once-mighty Texas Longhorns look like wimps. With Robert Griffin III winning the Heisman trophy and Brittney Griner emerging as the best player in women’s college basketball, 2012 was hailed as “the year of the Bear.”
In the midst of these glorious achievements, Chris Kloman, a teacher at the prestigious Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, was sentenced to 43 years for sexually assaulting five girls in the 1960s and 70s. The Starrs had known Kloman socially since 1982, and, between 1990 and 1999, three of their children grew up under his tutelage. Learning of their friend’s plight, Alice and Ken Starr wrote a letter to the court requesting that the accused be sentenced to a brief period of community service because his crimes happened so long ago. They knew Kloman to be “a gentleman” who was “sincerely interested in our children’s education” and never “demonstrated any abusive behavior.”
Gloria Allred, the attorney representing Kloman’s victims, told the Waco Tribune-Herald she found it “shocking” that Starr “would argue that community service, rather than prison time, is an appropriate punishment for a convicted serial child molester. I don’t think that the letter appears to appreciate the pain that these victims have suffered for so many years.”
Allred’s diagnosis was prophetic. Starr, along with his celebrated football coach, personified a win-at-all-costs mentality that deemed student complaints of sexual abuse inconvenient. A lawsuit claimed that between 2011 and 2014, 31 Baylor football players had committed a total of 52 rapes on campus, including four gang rapes. One player Starr had personally reinstated eventually received a 20-year sentence.
In May 2016, a Philadelphia law firm commissioned by the university to conduct an independent investigation reported its findings to the board of regents behind closed doors. A few weeks earlier, a story in the Dallas Morning News had carried the damning headline, “Ken Starr’s silence: Baylor’s president focused on football, fumbled on sex assaults.”
Although the board refused to release the report to the public, an authorized “summary” was released May 26. The same day, Baylor announced Starr’s removal as president and its intent to fire Briles. (Starr would subsequently resign as chancellor and law professor, while Briles eventually reached a settlement agreement. Unlike the coach, who was reportedly paid $15.1 million by Baylor, Starr received only $4.5 million after his departure.)
About a year later, Judge Robert L. Pitman of Federal District Court ruled that 10 female plaintiffs had “plausibly alleged that Baylor was deliberately indifferent” to their reports of sexual assault. Similarly, Jim Dunnam, an attorney representing 15 women suing Baylor university, argued that Starr “governed over a policy that was, at best, indifferent to what was happening to Baylor women.”
In July 2018, a humiliated Starr received a tiny pinch of vindication when President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, Starr’s protégé from the Whitewater years, for a seat on the Supreme Court.
“Starr, along with his celebrated football coach, personified a win-at-all-costs mentality that deemed student complaints of sexual abuse inconvenient.”
When Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually molesting her at a party when they were high school students, Kavanaugh accused her of being part of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” motivated, in part, by a desire for “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
Unsurprisingly, Starr lamented the timing of Ford’s accusation. “The matter is adjourned,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “You had your opportunity to come forward, and you failed to do that year after year after year.”
This kind of strident advocacy eventually landed Starr a spot on the president’s legal team for his impeachment defense. But is that a good thing?
Quite apart from the crimes that led to his impeachment, Trump has been accused by two dozen women of behavior ranging from the kind of inappropriate touching he bragged about on the “Access Hollywood” tape to actual rape.
Most legal experts, political commentators and American citizens believe Trump will be acquitted by a Republican-dominated Senate and its implacable majority leader. History, however, will not smile on this sordid affair.
There is an element of tragic inevitability to Starr’s latest, and possibly last, dance with destiny. By hitching his wagon to Trump’s neon star, Starr is making the same old mistake for the same old reason.
Correction: This commentary was updated Jan. 25 to state that George H. W. Bush, not Ronald Reagan, nominated David Souter to the U.S. Supreme Court.