Two key players in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial met face-to-face for the first time since being on opposite sides of the scandal two decades ago.
Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary to Clinton, and Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated him, were on CNN’s “New Day” Friday debating the parallels with current Trump investigations with the Clinton investigations in the 1990s.
Starr led a legal team that investigated Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater real estate scandal and his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
In December 1998, the House impeached Clinton on charges of lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice in the Lewinsky case. The allegations went to the Senate for trial. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999.
Here are a few moments from Lockhart and Starr’s first in-person discussion:
Before arriving on set, Lockhart and Starr shook hands for the first time.
“Did you ever think you’d be face-to-face with Judge Starr, how did that feel?” CNN “New Day” co-host John Berman asked afterward.
“I look forward to it,” Lockhart said.
CNN “New Day” co-host Alisyn Camerota noted the awkwardness in their body language and asked, “Was there a time 20 years ago where you thought if you ever saw him, you’d punch him in the nose?”
“I never thought that,” Lockhart said. “I thought I might yell at him, but I doubt I’ll do it this morning.”
He added, “I described it as we came away from it as kind of a bad surprise party.”
Asked for his take on their first encounter, Starr replied, “Totally pleasant.”
“You know, I like people, so Joe, very nice to meet you,” Starr said, adding jokingly, “Thanks for not punching me out.”
The two went on to have a wide-ranging discussion that was cordial but tense at times, showing that some old wounds have yet to heal.
Manafort sentence vs. jail threat to Monica Lewinsky
On Thursday, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced to almost four years in prison for financial fraud convictions, far short of what had been expected and recommended.
Reacting to Manafort’s sentencing, Lewinsky tweeted, “Yep. i had been threatened w/ 27 years for filing a false affidavit (and) other actions trying desperately to keep an affair private.”
Starr told CNN on Friday that the judge handling Manafort’s case “was tempering justice with mercy” and argued that “there’s an overcriminalization of the laws and I think many of the sentences are much too harsh.”
He said, however, he was unaware of who had threatened Lewinsky: “That’s the first I’ve heard of it to be honest,” he said.
Lockhart said he was “skeptical” of Starr’s statement that he hadn’t known until now, arguing that it was widely reported and recounted by Lewinsky and her lawyers that she was held by prosecutors for hours at the Ritz Carlton as they questioned her and offered her immunity.
Starr refuted that his prosecutors had held Lewinsky for hours, saying she was free to leave.
“She had several older prosecutors sitting in a room threatening her with spending a considerable part of her life in jail,” Lockhart said of Lewinsky, who was 24 at the time. “So she may not have been technically in custody, but in this case I believe her. She felt like she had no choice.”
Starr, however, said Lewinsky “played our prosecutors very effectively. She knew exactly what she was doing.”
On special counsel Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller, since his appointment as special counsel, has not addressed the public about the Russia investigation, leaving the investigation announcements to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Asked if he thought it was a wise decision, Starr said, “I don’t think so, no. I respectfully disagree.”
Starr stressed that “it’s important to provide public information that’s appropriate.”
Lockhart, however, said that Mueller has “managed to do this the right way, which is to keep it redacted and they’ll reveal their cards when they want.”
“With Judge Starr and his team, I read it every day in the paper. I read about secret grand jury testimony every day in the paper. I saw Judge Starr in his driveway doing press conferences. This was an attempt to put political pressure on the President (Clinton) to get him to resign.”
Starr denied holding press conferences outside his house and said the charges that there was leaked grand jury information were false.
Whether a president can be indicted
“Do you think a sitting president can be indicted?” Berman asked Starr.
“Yes, and I disagree with the Justice Department’s guidelines, but it is the historic position of the department,” Starr said.
He noted that Mueller is required to follow department policy, since the special counsel’s office falls under the Justice Department, and will not indict Trump.
Trump’s firing of Comey
Lockhart raised Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and pointed to Trump’s interview with NBC News, where he said he had the Russia investigation on his mind when he made the decision.
“There may be in some narrow legal-eagle place where that is not obstruction of justice; to the rest of us it is obstruction of justice on the face of it,” Lockhart argued.
Starr fired back, “But (Trump) didn’t shut down the investigation.”
“What else do you need to see this is obstruction? What else do you want to see as a prosecutor here?” Lockhart asked.
“You need to see action that actually results in the investigation not being able to be carried forward,” Starr answered. “And Bob Mueller as we know has done a very thorough of carrying out the investigation.”
Starr argued that Comey’s firing was within Trump’s authority and that it’s “perilous” to use Article II of the Constitution to argue that the removal of a Cabinet member is an obstruction of justice.
“I believe that is a very, very terrible intrusion into the authority of the president. Lets look for corruption, was there bribery or a sell out to a foreign power? And that sort of thing. But not just the exercise of his authority,” Starr said.