WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team turned over its presentation on Monday to former independent counsel Ken Starr, who, in an ironic turn, argued that Congress tries to impeach presidents too often.
“Like war, impeachment is hell,” Starr told senators during the second week of Trump’s impeachment trial. The lawyer and former federal judge called the constitutional process for removing a president “a war of words and of ideas” that “divides the country like nothing else.”
Starr would know. As an independent counsel appointed by the Justice Department, he conducted a yearslong investigation into President Bill Clinton that concluded in 1998 that Clinton should be impeached for lying under oath about his affair with a White House intern. The House impeached Clinton that year; the Senate acquitted him the following February.
“The Senate is being called to sit as the high court of impeachment all too frequently,” Starr said Monday during his hourlong presentation. “Indeed, we are living in what I think can aptly be described as the age of impeachment.”
Speaking in a somnambulant tone, Starr said that, after the acrimonious Clinton impeachment, Congress had wisely allowed the expiration of the law that established his independent counsel investigation. But he lamented that the “political culture” is still overly fond of impeachment.
Trump is only the third U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives (President Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 as the House was on the cusp of impeaching him).
Democrats were flabbergasted that Trump’s defense team put Starr at the lectern to decry the frequency of impeachment.
“I thought it was an absurd argument and quite rich coming from Ken Starr,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said.
“It was really incredibly surreal to see him talking about impeachment as something that should be done with solemnity and restraint,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
“For a man who spent millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to come up with, ‘Oh, my God, the president has to be impeached because of sex’ during the Clinton time, [that’s] probably not a person who should talk,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said.
One of the articles of impeachment against Trump says he abused his power by trying to coerce a foreign government ― Ukraine ― into helping his reelection campaign by investigating a political rival (Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination). The other article charges that Trump obstructed Congress in its investigation of his dealings with Ukrainian officials.
Starr argued that the House should allege the president broke specific laws to merit impeachment and removal ― a theory disputed by legal experts but embraced by Trump’s defense team.
Democrats have pointed out that in the past, some of Trump’s biggest defenders disputed the position that the Constitution requires statutory violations for a legitimate allegation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” against a president.
“What is a high crime? I think it’s truth. I think that’s what they meant by high crimes. Doesn’t have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you committed a high crime,” then-Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in 1999 when he served as an impeachment manager in Clinton’s Senate trial. Graham, elected to the Senate in 2002, now is one of the most vocal critics of Trump’s impeachment, arguing it is invalid.
Alan Dershowitz, another member of Trump’s defense team, similarly said in 1998 that a high crime or misdemeanor “certainly doesn’t have to be a crime” to warrant impeachment. The Harvard law professor attempted to wave off his past comments last week, telling CNN his stance against Trump’s impeachment is “far more correct now.”
With Republicans controlling the Senate, the prospect loomed that the chamber would quickly acquit Trump in a trial that featured no witnesses. But in a bombshell development Sunday, The New York Times revealed drafts from former national security adviser John Bolton’s upcoming book that say Trump tied releasing congressionally approved aid to Ukraine to the country’s announcement that it would investigate Biden and his son Hunter.
The report caught Senate Republicans by surprise and upped the pressure on allowing witnesses to be heard and other evidence to be presented in the trial. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Monday he believes it’s “increasingly likely” enough Republicans will now join Democrats to approve a motion to call Bolton to testify.