When it comes to shocking developments in the winding probe into President Donald Trump’s campaign, the 2016 election, the Russians, hacking, allegations of collusion, and who-knows-what-else, the revelation on Thursday that special counsel Robert Mueller had issued grand jury subpoenas somehow managed to feel like an anticlimax.
Mueller’s particular concern in this case appears to be Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer, among others, at Trump Tower in June 2016. But the real news here has less to do with the particulars than the existence of the grand jury itself – and where that leads.
This investigation, triggered by Moscow’s meddling, is now expanding. Mueller is on the money trail, with an eye on Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia. That is a potential rabbit hole that could lead to some very weird places, including those with no bearing or relation to the 2016 election.
So again, while the panel will in theory allow Mueller and his team to expedite their work and help bring about some kind of legally and politically satisfying conclusion to what is – and who would disagree at this point? – a generational fiasco, it could also prolong and deepen it.
History would vote for the latter.
Just ask former President Bill Clinton. Or the special prosecutor who led the probe that took us from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. Ken Starr, in an interview on CNN Friday, warned about the danger of Mueller ranging too far from his mandate – remarks that, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted, confirmed irony’s untimely death. But years have gone by and there is, perhaps, an argument that Starr, as much as anyone, has a sense of precisely how these things can go haywire.
We are coming up now on the 19th anniversary of Clinton’s big grand jury testimony, the first given by a sitting president into an inquiry focused on his own behavior. Nixon took his turn after leaving office. Clinton answered the Starr team’s questions from the White House, his image and voice beamed out over closed-circuit television.
Given Trump’s predicament, the subject matter that day underlines a certain ironic twist. Starr began his inquiry because of a controversy surrounding Clinton’s finances and Whitewater investments. He ended up elbows deep in graphic inquiries about the President’s sex life. Mueller, by contrast, was hired to probe the Trump campaign and Russia, and the potential for collusion or other kinds of skullduggery, but he could now feasibly get bogged down in Trump’s financial transactions.
The August 1998 exchange yielded what Starr would ultimately characterize as three lies – or instances of perjury. First, when Clinton denied engaging in oral sex (answering the question of whether it was performed on him, “As I understood it, it was not, no.”); next when Clinton suggested, “You are free to infer that my testimony is that I did not have sexual relations, as I understood this term to be defined”; and finally that he had implicitly misled prosecutors about when the relationship began.
But the interrogation is most famous for Clinton’s lawyerly demurrals and deflections. None more so than his response when asked whether “the statement (made by his lawyer) that there was ‘no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton,’ was an utterly false statement”?
Clinton replied (and this is just the first couple lines!): “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the – if he – if ‘is’ means is and never has been that is not – that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”
Whatever else it is, the exchange was a deeply damaging for the President, who had clearly moved on from trying to convince the public to salvaging is job and beating back a potential perjury charge.
If you’re wondering now what this conversation had to do with Whitewater, the investigation into a bad land deal the Clinton’s were involved in back in Arkansas, you would have been in good company in the late 1990s. If you’re curious as to how the broader story is relevant today, simply consider how easily the initial focus of the probe switched gears.
And that, simply, comes from subjects giving false or potentially false or misleading statements under oath. The grand jury will speed up the process of requesting testimony and documentation.
If, in the case of the Trump campaign and its “satellites,” conflicts begin to emerge, like in certain parties’ recollections (and records) of that June 2016 meeting, the potential for prosecution could arise even if the meeting itself was legally above board.
But that’s all, in all likelihood, a long way off.