WASHINGTON — Impeachment, he said, “is hell.” A measure of "last resort.” A bad habit to be kicked.
With that, Ken Starr, the man whose years-long probe led to the impeachment of the 42nd president, stood before senators on Monday and delivered a nearly hour-long argument against the ouster of the 45th.
Starr, with a nod to his own role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton and lofty talk about “America's constitutional DNA,” argued that it's time to bring an end to “the age of impeachment.”
Starr spoke to the senators in a modulated tone, flicking at the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon’s crimes, the Iran-Contra scandal and, yes, the Clinton impeachment in a presentation that had echoes of a preacher extolling the virtues of moderation and expressing anguish that impeachment has become weaponized.
"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?"
Starr, a former solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush, is most famous for his time as the independent counsel who led an investigation of Clinton that started as probe of an Arkansas land deal and evolved into an examination of his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Relying on the sometimes-graphic 475-page Starr report, the Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton and the Democratic-led Senate acquitted him.
Back then, real estate mogul Donald Trump wasn’t a fan of Starr's work.
“I think Ken Starr is a lunatic. I really think that Ken Starr is a disaster,” Trump said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show at the time. He called Starr a “total wacko” and “off his rocker.”
On Monday, in his defense of Trump, Starr seemed to argue that impeachment is a constitutional relic that should be kept in a museum and only rarely used.
Starr made the case that Democrats' allegations of misconduct by Trump hardly measure up to the previous instances when Congress has seriously considered removing a president from office.
President Andrew Johnson was impeached in the aftermath of the Civil War and assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The House resolved to impeach Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, from the cabinet. The legislation stated that a president could not dismiss appointed officials without the consent of Congress.
It took 100 years before Congress again seriously considered impeaching a president when it took action against Nixon over the Watergate scandal. In that case, Starr noted the House voted in a “powerfully bipartisan” fashion with 410-4 vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry against Nixon. He faced allegations that he was personally involved in the coverup of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee office by people who worked for his reelection committee. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.
Clinton was accused of lying under oath to a federal grand jury about his relationship with Lewinsky.
“Were crimes alleged? In Nixon, yes. In Clinton, yes," Starr noted. "Here, no.”
At times, he sounded almost apologetic for the impeachment of Clinton.
It was far from the tone Starr struck when he argued in his referral of obstruction of justice charges against Clinton that “no one is above the law.”
“Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment — including members of this body — full well understand that a presidential impeachment is tantamount to domestic war, albeit thankfully protected by our beloved First Amendment,” Starr said Monday. “(It is) a war of words and a war of ideas, but it is filled with acrimony and divides the country like nothing else. Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment understand that in a deep and personal way.”
Starr's anguish over impeachment was seen as ironic by some Senate Democrats.
“I thought it was an absurd argument and quite rich coming from him," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.