Note: this story was originally published in the New York Times, and includes quotes from Checks & Balances member Paul Rosenzweig.
The last time a president was on trial, few were more responsible for putting him in the dock than Ken Starr. Now the former independent counsel whose investigation led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago will come to the defense of another president charged with high crimes and misdemeanors.
In adding Mr. Starr to his legal team, President Trump enlisted one of the best known and most polarizing lawyers in the country, someone who in recent months has become a regular defender of the president on Fox News. Mr. Starr will argue that while Mr. Clinton’s impeachment was legitimate, Mr. Trump’s was out of bounds.
But Mr. Starr’s return to the public stage 21 years after Mr. Clinton’s trial was just the latest head-spinning turn in a saga that at times has echoed the dramatic battle of the late 1990s in oddly distorted ways. Many players from that impeachment are leading figures in this one, though on the other side. Democrats now make arguments often heard last time from Republicans and vice versa.
When Mr. Starr takes his place at the defense table on the Senate floor, his presence will almost guarantee that the battle over Mr. Trump’s impeachment in some ways will effectively replay the battle over Mr. Clinton’s. And every word Mr. Starr uttered and every position he took back then will be subject to new scrutiny by Mr. Trump’s adversaries, who will try to use them against the current presidential defendant.
“The addition of Ken Starr to President Trump’s legal team for the impeachment trial is a shrewd move,” said Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University and the author of “The Death of American Virtue” about the struggle between Mr. Starr and Mr. Clinton. “Starr clearly brings with him abundant expertise,” knows many of the senators sitting as jurors and once worked with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who will be presiding.
But Mr. Gormley added that Mr. Starr’s participation in the new Senate trial is sure to bring back memories of a divisive time that seemed to presage the red-state-versus-blue-state fracturing of the country that has become so pronounced in Mr. Trump’s era, a time when a low-key former judge became one of the biggest lightning rods of his generation.
“Half the country loved him. The other half loathed him,” Mr. Gormley recalled. “Those deeply personal feelings will be revived, with more intensity, as Starr steps back onto the stage in the Trump trial, creating flashbacks and a sense of unfinished political combat for those who lived through those divisive and painful days in the late ’90s.”
Even some of those who once worked for Mr. Starr wondered on Friday whether his selection would distract from Mr. Trump’s case by essentially relitigating Mr. Clinton’s. In his report to Congress, for instance, Mr. Starr argued that Mr. Clinton had committed an impeachable offense by unlawfully invoking executive privilege to try to block witness testimony and documents. One of the articles of impeachment passed by the House last month charged Mr. Trump with obstructing Congress by blocking testimony and refusing to turn over documents.
“I do not see how this benefits President Trump,” said Paul Rosenzweig, who served as a lawyer in Mr. Starr’s investigation. “Throughout the Clinton impeachment, Judge Starr consistently opposed the invocation of executive privilege and called for all the witnesses to come forward. Trump will have a hard time squaring that historical record with his current conduct.”