Indifferent to irony, Ken Starr laments the 'age of impeachment'

As Ken Starr declares the "age of impeachment," the hypocrisy is obviously breathtaking, but I suspect the subtext includes an unsettling warning.
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By Steve Benen

About a year and a half ago, before Donald Trump launched an illegal extortion scheme, Ken Starr was promoting a book and sat down with CNN's Jake Tapper. The host asked whether he believed the current president would ever be impeached.

"I hope not, because one of the lessons in the book is, impeachment is hell," Starr replied. "The country should not be taken through that.... Unless there is a growing national consensus that impeachment is proper, it's doomed to fail and it's just the wrong way to go.

The irony was staggering: Starr led an impeachment crusade against Bill Clinton 22 years ago, and there was no "national consensus" about the propriety of the special prosecutor's pursuit. On the contrary, most Americans opposed Clinton's impeachment, a detail Starr was comfortable ignoring.

The Republican lawyer's indifference toward irony apparently hasn't changed.

Ken Starr, a member of Trump's legal team who served as the independent counsel investigating former President Bill Clinton, lamented that the U.S. is now in the "age of impeachment."

"In this particular juncture in America's history, the Senate is being called to sit as the high court of impeachment all too frequently," Starr said. "Indeed, we are living in what I think can aptly be described as the 'age of impeachment.'"

"How did we get here, with presidential impeachment invoked frequently in its inherently destabilizing as well as acrimonious way?" he asked.

Starr went on to call for a "return to our country's traditions," when presidential impeachment was truly "a measure of last resort."

The hypocrisy, of course, is breathtaking. When Starr was hunting Clinton, he had none of these concerns. It was only when a Republican president started abusing his power in the hopes of cheating an election that Starr decided that he'd like to see the process used far less frequently.

But that's not the only problem with his pitch.

Note, for example, that his new posture is inherently dismissive of the underlying allegations and their seriousness. I'm mindful of "our country's traditions," and the importance of not using the congressional impeachment power in a careless or routine fashion, but I also think it's fair to say that most objective scholars see Trump's radical abuse of power as exactly the kind of dangerous misconduct that warrants such action.

Indeed, it was just last month when more than 2,000 historians -- including well known scholars such as Ken Burns, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham, Sean Wilentz, and Brenda Wineapple -- signed a joint statement describing Trump's misconduct as "a clear and present danger to the Constitution."

It came on the heels of a related effort from nearly 900 legal scholars who concluded that Trump is guilty of "impeachable conduct," and who added, "His conduct is precisely the type of threat to our democracy that the Founders feared when they included the remedy of impeachment in the Constitution."

What's more, the idea that presidential impeachments occur "all too frequently" seems excessive. There have been three such Senate trials in a constitutional system that's been around for nearly a quarter of a millennium. Yes, having two such experiences in one generation skews our perspective, but that is not a prima facia argument against the practice.

If Starr believes either of the two impeachments lacked merit, he's welcome to make his case, but the fact that there have been two trials in 21 years isn't a substantive argument.

Finally, I imagine Starr's "age of impeachment" line will be seen as a complaint, but I also can't help but wonder if it was a warning about how his party intends to operate in the future.

Or put another way, perhaps Starr's "age of impeachment" phrasing was more of a declaration than a lament: he was sending a signal about how he and other Republicans perceive the era, and the degree to which, in their minds, impeachment may now be seen as a "normal" tool in the wake of Trump's presidency.

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