The "Clinton" production team interviewed over 60 politicians, journalists, and influential players of the Clinton era. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Facebook fans voted for the interviews they wanted to see on the website, and Kenneth Starr was one of the winners. The lawyer who led the investigation into the Clintons' Whitewater real estate investments, Starr eventually expanded his inquiry to include Monica Lewinsky, and Clinton's affair with the former White House intern. In this interview, Starr gives a behind the scenes look at his role as Independent Counsel, the many difficult decisions he had to make while investigating the popular president, and his perspective on why events of the investigation transpired as they did.
Producer: Can you tell me something about how you grew up and particularly the role that faith played in your life growing up?
Starr: Well, I grew up in a very religious household in Texas and church and scripture and church events were a regular part of life. But I went to public high school and public schools all the way, so I had a pretty normal upbringing in San Antonio, Texas. We lived in East Texas for a considerable time, but San Antonio became home and it was a regular kind of childhood.
Producer: Your father was a minister?
Starr: Yes, uh huh.
Producer: Leaping ahead to the story throughout 1994, obviously there was a lot of talk in the press and elsewhere -- I'm sure you were following it -- about the renewal of the Independent Counsel Law and whether that would happen. When it did and when it came time to appoint an Independent Counsel, were you surprised that Robert Fiske wasn't reappointed?
Starr: No, I wasn't. Robert Fiske is a great man, a great lawyer. I've known him for many, many years. One of really the leading lawyers of our generation. The problem was the Independent Counsel Statute, itself. It emphasized independence, and Bob Fiske, who'd done a very fine job as Independent Counsel appointed by Attorney General Reno, was viewed by the special division of the three judge court as not enjoying independence.
So in the order that the court issued -- appointing yours truly as the Independent Counsel -- it made it very clear that the decision that was made to not appoint Bob Fiske had nothing to do with his ability, which everyone knows is at the highest levels or his integrity, which is unquestionable, but it had everything to do with the fact that Congress passed a statute called the Independent Counsel Statute and he had been appointed by the Attorney General, which then eroded at least the appearance of independence. Now he would have done a great job, he would have been superb, but that was the reading of the statute and the text, the structure of the statute by the three judge court. The court was actually reaching out to different people, I gather, including me, when the statute was being considered. So it also didn't come as a surprise just temporally, because I had been contacted by the judges as to whether I would be willing to serve if the call came.
Producer: When the call did come, was that a difficult decision for you? Did you have to struggle over the decision over whether to take the job?
Starr: I've never struggled with the decision to respond to the call of public service. I knew it was a thankless task; investigating a very charismatic and popular President of the United States is not a resume-enhancing experience. But I've been very privileged to serve in a post that I did not deserve and so this was, shall I say, a way to give back.
Producer: You understood going in the political hazards of the job?
Starr: I don't know if I understood it fully. I was aware that to investigate a President of the United States means you start out with at least half the country not appreciating the nature of your job.
Producer: If you could define your role at the time, how did you see the role of Independent Counsel going forward? What was your sense of the job?
Starr: The nature of the job was to apply the law, to try to understand the facts as fully as possible, to investigate the facts fully, to come to reason to legal judgments about what should be done. Should prosecutions be brought?
But there's a different dimension of the Independent Counsel Statute and that is the reporting function, which was unique to the Independent Counsel Statute. There's no requirement that United States Attorney Federal Prosecutor file a report when he or she takes a particular action, or doesn't take a particular action. The Independent Counsel's different. Congress had a very specific reporting requirement built into the statute that required a full report on why you did the things that you did. So we were also very mindful that there was a reporting function to the American people, first and foremost to the Congress, to give an account of what you did and why you did it. Including, why didn't you bring a prosecution?
Producer: Did that change the dynamic of your investigation either in the way you did it, the time it took to do it, anything like that? The fact that you ultimately had to make this report?
Starr: I think Congress emphasized thoroughness -- that one had to be very thorough. In contrast to the Attorney General or the United States Attorney, who is charged with applying the full panoply of federal laws, the Independent Counsel, under the statute that Congress passed in 1978, had a specific mandate, and the mandate was to determine whether certain laws were violated. But those laws were enumerated, was there a violation of the law, and certain individuals were enumerated. So it's a very different kind of structure, one that is I think unique in our American experience. And one that I don't recommend.
Starr: I think it's a bad system. I said it was a bad system, but Congress passed the law in 1978, it kept reenacting the laws. Congress didn't have a whole lot of confidence in the merit of the law because it kept sun-setting the law. Every five years the law, creating the Independent Counsel, was to go away unless Congress affirmatively acted to revive the law, to reauthorize the law. It did.
And so my prior experience with the law had been in the Justice Department in the 1980s when I was privileged to serve as Chief of Staff to the Attorney General of the United States, and under the auspices of the Justice Department we took a very careful look at the statute and its original operations during the Carter administration. We thought that it was unconstitutional as a violation of separation of powers in our separated powers system. We also thought it was very bad in its applications. Very bad things happened. Conscientious prosecutors would do their job, but it was a different kind of job than a United States attorney. You were targeting one individual and you were to find out every fact that might be relevant to whether a particular crime was committed. This is very, very unusual and it's potentially quite dangerous.
Producer: Given your feelings about the law and your hesitation over the existence of the Independent Counsel, were you fully able to embrace--? I mean, it must have been a conflict for you to go ahead and occupy that job. Did you have any hesitation caused by your prior feelings about the whole thing?
Starr: Well the reservations about the statute were deep and abiding. When I was in the Justice Department, again, in the 1980s, we testified through an individual not unknown to the American people, Rudy Giuliani, that the law was unconstitutional. That was our view. We also thought it was very bad policy.
But Congress reenacted the law, it was challenged, and the Supreme Court of the United States overwhelmingly upheld the constitutionality of the law. And so when the Supreme Court speaks, unless it reverses itself, that's the law of the land in terms of the meaning of the Constitution. So we were wrong in the Justice Department. Our position did not prevail. So I accepted it as the law of the land, and so the defects and the law -- both the theoretical and the practical defects.
We really tried in the investigation to take steps to make sure that we had, essentially, principles of accountability. What one does not want -- and this is frequently said about a Special Prosecutor, that Special Prosecutor is abusing his or her power, that Special Prosecutor is run amok, that's a rogue prosecutor, or all those kinds of charges that may very well be meritorious in a particular situation. So what do you do to guard against the rogue prosecutor, if that could happen in your own office?
And so we built in a number of mechanisms, an indictment review process that was extremely elaborate, very careful, before any indictment would be presented to the Grand Jury. We would insure that we had been very thoughtful and careful about it, that we had searched our motives, that we had made sure that the facts were very powerful, very strong, and that we had abided by Justice Department policy and that we tried to, in essence, be a microcosm of the Justice Department at its very finest.
Producer: And Sam Dash was part of that system of checks?
Starr: Once the most controversial phase of the investigation, the Lewinsky phase of the investigation began, Sam, the late Professor Dash, came on board as a specific ethics counselor because by that time, there were all manner of criticisms and suggestions that this was an investigation that had run amok. And there were, it seemed to me, to be a need for an additional kind of voice in the deliberations and Sam Dash, who is a legendary figure from Watergate, provided an additional voice around the table. I mean he was a voice -- it was not as if he had veto power, but he was a voice around the table.
Producer: We'll get to that, but let's start at the beginning, the specifics of the investigation. You inherited the Whitewater investigation from him. Can you describe the central focus of the investigation as you inherited? What were you looking for?
Starr: There actually were numerous dimensions of the investigation that were underway, including issues involving the former associated Attorney General, Webster Hubbell. Including issues with regarding to a fraudulent bankruptcy in Texas by then Governor Jim Guy Tucker. What I inherited was a wide-ranging investigation that had unfolded under Bob Fisk.
And so I simply picked up on the investigation that I'd inherited, which, from the public perspective, just involved the Whitewater real estate project in Arkansas, and then its relationship to the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, a failed Savings and Loan in Arkansas. But the actual investigation, unknown to the public, was much broader, had many more variations. Bob Fiske had conducted an investigation into the suicide of Vincent Foster Jr., who'd been Deputy White House Counsel.
Producer: Why did you reopen that particular investigation, I mean Fiske had come to a conclusion on that one.
Starr: The investigation, I thought, had been done well. It had not, shall I say, turned over every possible stone, and I came to the conclusion that the American people should not in any way have any reason to suspect that at that point the highest ranking public official since the suicide of James Forrestal had somehow been the victim or subject of foul play, especially going to the highest levels of the American Government.
So we saw that more could be done in terms of the investigation. We came to exactly the same conclusion that Bob Fiske did, but we were more thorough, we did more forensic examinations, and so forth. And I'm very pleased that we did what we did in a very, I think, effective, efficient way. So there will always be those who say, "Oh my goodness, foul play, the body was moved," et cetera, and a whole variety of suggestions, but none had merit.
Producer: I take your point, the Whitewater investigation was the heart of a much broader set of inquiries, but let's talk about what was central -- which was, I gather, that the Whitewater transaction -- could you clarify for us what you were really looking at? It wasn't so much the original Whitewater land deal, but the efforts afterwards to prop it up. Is that a fair statement? That that was really what was the heart of the matter?
Starr: Whether there was a misuse of funds of either Madison Guaranty's Savings and Loan or of a small business investment corporation that was owned and operated by a gentleman who had been a judge, who's is a very attractive man, David Hale, and whether there had been any kind of impropriety, violation of federal law, in connection with financial transactions involving the Whitewater land company, which had not done well financially.
So was there a use of Savings and Loan or federally insured funds, as the case may be, in a way, that redounded to the benefit of one or more persons?
Producer: At what point did your office become convinced that the Clintons either knew about or participated in some of the McDougals' financial improprieties in regard to Whitewater? At what point did it become clear to you that something was amiss here?
Starr: Well I'm not gonna comment on specific issues of possible guilt or innocence. There's a very elaborate public record with respect to that.
Producer: Okay. Let me ask this. You mentioned David Hale. What was David Hale telling you? What was the story that he was telling you in regards to what happened?
Starr: Well he had actually told Bob Fiske. And so we again inherited the fine work that Bob Fiske and his investigators and lawyers had done. And he made allegations that Bob credited with respect to the involvement of the then Governor of the state of Arkansas.
Producer: Can you summarize that?
Starr: It's all in the public domain, and I don't in any way suggest anything with respect to specific individuals.
Producer: Okay. This question may or may not fly with you then. You had the chance to assess David Hale as a witness, and, of course, he comes with baggage. Did that baggage give you pause? Did it create a difficulty for you in pursuing this, given who he was and what he'd been involved with?
Starr: Well, every witness who has baggage gives a prosecutor pause, and so the issue is, can the allegations of the witness be corroborated? It depends on the nature of the allegation. Sometimes allegations can be corroborated by a documentary record. And that was the way that we proceeded in the trial against James and Susan McDougal and Governor Tucker. These allegations came to the investigation, originally to Bob Fiske from David Hale, but you don't just say, "Well can I find anyone who says the same thing?" This is not, "Was the red light red, or was the traffic light green?" This was, "All right, this is a sophisticated, complex financial transaction. You're suggesting that federal crimes may have been committed, or at least the information you've provided to us suggests that there may have been fraud, other kinds of potential crimes, so let's look into that." And so that's exactly the way that the investigation was conducted. And the results speak for themselves. There were felony criminal convictions of the sitting Governor of the state, and of James and Susan McDougal, there were other guilty pleas, all arising out of allegations originally made by Judge Hale, who had been a judge as well.
Producer: You mentioned the conviction of the McDougals and Tucker. A lot of people looking back at this whole thing say, "If only he had stopped at that point, that would have been a tremendous triumph for Starr and a thing that could have ended." Was that ever a consideration for you to stop at that point?
Starr: Well, we didn't have the luxury of just stopping with the convictions of the Governor of the state and of James and Susan McDougal. Other facets of the investigation were underway. There were issues again involving the former associated Attorney General, Webster Hubbell. So we had to complete the work that we had underway, and that work in large measure was again inherited from Bob Fiske. So if there's one thing that I think was not understood in the public mind was, when the new Independent Counsel began in August of 1994, he had inherited essentially a portfolio. And to call a halt to one or more branches of that investigation I felt would have been a mistake.
Producer: Your office, very quickly, was able to turn McDougal. And part of that effort involved a personal meeting between the two of you in Arkadelphia at the Rileys' house. Can you tell us about that meeting? What took place there, what your conversation with ______?
Starr: Well we had a meeting with Jim McDougal after his conviction, so he stood convicted. He was going to be mounting, and did mount, an appeal to the court of appeals. All of the appeals were unsuccessful, and so the three individuals who were convicted, including James McDougal, had their convictions upheld.
After the jury had returned its verdict and before sentence was entered, we had a series of conversations with Jim McDougal. I had one meeting with him and we talked about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We talked about a variety of things unrelated to the investigation. It was really sort of person-to-person. He was a great student of history, had a great admiration for FDR, so we spent most of our time talking about FDR and the greatness of FDR.
Producer: How did it come about, in what context did he sort of change his story and then join the prosecution of-
Starr: I'm not sure he's changed his story. But I think that Jim-- I mean you're asking me to look into the minds of individuals who were caught up in the investigation. He was -- first of all, I think this is very critical for everyone to understand -- he was advised by counsel, and I don't know what his counsel was advising him, but we began communicating with his counsel more freely, with counsels obviously initiating some of these conversations. And it was just a natural process that happens in prosecutions, that an individual who has been convicted and says, "Am I going to cooperate or am I not?"
In one phase of our investigation, one of the individuals, a business person, who was about to enter a guilty plea just had a change of heart. He just said, "I'm tired of the fraud, I'm tired of the deceit, I don't like thinking about this, I just want to come clean, I want to make a complete break, call it redemption."
And so when it came time in Federal Court for this -- all part of the Whitewater investigation involving a fraudulent bankruptcy in Texas, people might say, "Why were you investigating that?" Because Bob Fiske was investigating the fraudulent bankruptcy in Texas, cause it still connected to the set of transactions emerging in Little Rock. And so when it came time for Bill Marks to enter his guilty plea in United States District Court, he said ''I am guilty your honor,'' it was almost as if it was cathartic for him to be able to say in open court, "I did something I shouldn't have done. I'm not coerced into this guilty plea, I want to get this behind me."
Producer: And you feel that Jim McDougal had a similar kind of feeling of wanting to come clean?
Starr: That was my sense, but I didn't come to know Jim McDougal well. Jim had a sense of sorrow. I think he felt that if he had been able to stay at the helm with Madison Guarantee Savings and Loan all would have come out right. He had a really good heart.
Jim McDougal, I think, was a good man at a basic moral level, but he did play fast and loose with the finances of Madison Guarantee Savings and Loan. It did fail, it was taken over, the taxpayers of the United States faced a not insignificant loss because of that. But I think his heart was in the right place. He loved people, and he wanted to help. He was a great builder and he wanted to take this piece of dirt and turn it into something that-- yes, he would prosper from, but the community would be better for it.
Producer: There were those who say about Jim McDougal at the time that you had your interaction with him post conviction, that he was a man who was unstable mentally, a man who was certainly angry at the Clintons, very angry at the Clintons, and a man who was facing his greatest fear which was prison and therefore was completely unreliable as a witness. Your thought on that?
Starr: We never had the chance to test it because Jim died in prison. But Jim McDougal was, I think, an honorable guy who made some pretty bad mistakes, played fast and loose, and then understood that he had to pay the price for it.
Producer: Susan McDougal of course refused to testify in front of the Grand Jury and was really steadfast in that, to put it mildly. Why? What was your explanation at the time of, was she hiding something? What was your feeling about why would she incur such personal cost simply not to go in front of the Grand Jury?
Starr: Well Susan McDougal's motivations are completely unknown to me and unknowable. What we did know is that she had information that was relevant to the investigation, and that is the information that she declined to provide. So she was willing to go into contempt of court. It wasn't contempt of kin, it was contempt of court. It was contempt of the Grand Jury. She was asked by Grand Jurors questions, and I'm not going to go into the specifics of that -- most of this is in the public domain, but we have to be very cautious about what we say about any Grand Jury investigation.
And she declined to respond, as she was duty-bound to do as a citizen, to the questions. And there are protections -- if a witness believes that she is being brow beaten, or if the questions just have absolutely nothing to do with the Grand Jury's investigation, you know, she can go outside, consult with counsel, they can seek relief from the court, and the like. So there are remedies but she did not avail herself of those remedies, she went into contempt and the rest of course is all, is all history. So we never got Susan McDougal's story. The investigation remains, to that extent, incomplete.
Producer: Did your office have anything to do with where she was imprisoned and how she was imprisoned?
Starr: No, there were suggestions that we were somehow either influencing or orchestrating the question of prison. But there had been allegations relating to her service to Zubin and Nancy Mehta in Los Angeles, and charges emerged out of that. But those were state charges, all roughly contemporaneous to what was unfolding in Arkansas and we had absolutely zero to do in the investigation with the circumstances of her imprisonment, where she was serving and the like. But there was a sense of -- and I even heard it out of Washington DC -- Susan McDougal's been placed in shackles by the investigation. Well, no, she was in the custody of the United States Marshals' Service, and they were following the same protocol they follow with folks from Goldman Sachs.
Producer: Fast-forwarding a bit to the winter of 1997. You announced your intention to leave to go to Pepperdine and become the Dean of Law School. Why? Did this signal something about the state of the investigation? What was in your mind?
Starr: I thought that the investigation -- while we needed to complete certain dimensions of the investigation -- had reached a stage of maturity, of rightness, where it could be placed in the hands of either a brand new Independent Counsel or one of the very able Deputy Independent Counsels, all of whom had served as career prosecutors. No one was a political appointee, each person had a very distinguished career, as a career prosecutor principally in Federal Court. I did have one state prosecutor with a good deal of experience and so forth, so I felt that investigation was in good hands. And I've long had a foot in the academy, and it was an extremely attractive offer that I hadn't sought but it came my way. And it was clear that I would also continue to practice law when I was a Dean at the Pepperdine Law School, so the package was very attractive.
Producer: What changed your mind?
Starr: My own investigation. I remember very vividly that the leaders of the investigation into one dimension of Jim Guy Tucker's finances came in and said, "We signed up. You recruited us. If you leave, we leave." And that was a tummy punch. I had no anticipation or idea of that kind of reaction and I felt duty bound to stay. I said to, we called him ''red dog lead" -- "Don't go, Tom, don't go. You have too much invested; this investigation has too much invested. The Grand Jury process is well underway I will ask dear Pepperdine to postpone my entry onto duty for a year." And that's what happened, we postponed it.
Producer: There was certainly an outcry in the conservative pres. That was not an influence on your-
Starr: Zero. The fact that people on the outside were howling and screaming and so forth, that's one of the things you learn to do in an investigator's office, in a prosecutor's office. If you don't have to stand for election, and I didn't, if you have to stand for election I understand, you're out giving speeches and so forth. We had a duty, and that charge was to live up to the duties that had been given to us by the Special Division of the United States Court of Appeals at the behest of the Attorney General of the United States, so that was our charge and so I wanted to make sure that the job was complete.
Producer: It's been said that by this time, once you've decided to stay and continue on, that a lot of the sort of old Fiske people had left by this time, and that you may have presided over a team of prosecutors that at this time were more hard core anti-Clintonites and that may have influenced the future course of the investigation. What do you think?
Starr: I was very proud of the folks who came from around the country to serve in the Independent Counsel's office. And while I didn't inquire into the politics or voting record of any of the persons who came to serve, I came to find out that a number had voted for President Clinton, twice, and viewed themselves as members of the President's party. But first and foremost, they were public servants and they had taken an oath to do equal justice, to enforce the law fairly without fear of favors. So, no, I think any suggestion to the effect that there were individuals in the office with motivations other than what's the truth -- let's find out the truth and let's assess the facts and then make judgments we then take to the Grand Jury.
Producer: You had come to this job without a lot of prosecutorial experience and you naturally reached out to a lot of people with a lot of prosecutorial experience. Did that put you in a situation where you were relying on these people to some degree to conduct the investigation the day-to-day decisions and so forth?
Starr: Oh, I of course relied on my staff a great deal, but how was the staff organized? The staff was organized so that the FBI and the IRS investigators were out developing the facts, being supervised by very experienced prosecutors. So we were a microcosm of the Justice Department, but at the top I had not been a prosecutor. I was not unfamiliar with the criminal justice system -- I've argued criminal cases, a number of criminal cases -- but I had not had day-to-day prosecutorial responsibility.
One would have to ask the judges, but the model that it appears that they followed -- which is suggested in the legislative history of the Independent Counsel Statute -- is, one would pick someone not of the President's party who had certain kinds of experiences, and using the Archibald Cox model from Watergate -- Archibald Cox who recently passed from this life, likewise had not been a prosecutor. He developed a wonderful cadre of prosecutors around him, used the FBI and so forth.
I'm no Archibald Cox, but I'd been privileged to serve the Solicitor General of the United States and that was a model that was suggested in the legislative history of the kind of person who could be chosen. So the Special Division could very well have just chosen someone, a Rudy Giuliani type, who clearly is not of the President's party and who has vast prosecutorial experience, or more of an Archibald Cox, somewhat of more of an academic, yet experienced in Washington D.C. and experience with the criminal justice system.
Producer: I missed a stitch there. Just want to go back and pick it up. The discovery of the Rose Law Firm billing records in the White House in the winter of '95, so going back a little bit in time -- first of all, was that a significant event for you in the investigation in terms of your level of conviction that there was something going on? I mean this is an important event in the investigation?
Starr: Well, the discovery of the Rose Law Firm records was a very significant event, but it did not have ultimate significance. If I could explain, it was a significant event because there had been a subpoena outstanding for those law firm records for a long, long time, and the Rose Law Firm said. "We don't have them, and they were taken away." And there were issues as to, well why would law firm records leave the law firm? They weren't individual records. They were law firm records. So, why wouldn't they be there? Where are they? And then eventually they were discovered under the circumstances that they were, by an individual in the White House, and under circumstances that caused any reasonable investigator or prosecutor to say, "We really have to look into this. I'm glad they turned them over, so now we have to look into them to determine, you know, is there truth to some of the allegations that certain kinds of legal work had been performed on behalf of a particular entity, Madison Guarantee Savings and Loan by the Rose Law Firm by particular lawyers?"
Producer: Was the information contained in those billing records exculpatory or you know-
Starr: I don't want to, in terms of the nature of the records, but, we need to know the facts. The only way prosecutors can make judgments is to have a sufficient understanding and command of the facts so that you have mastered the facts. And those were very important records in terms of being able to understand the facts.
Producer: Shortly after this you issued a subpoena to Hillary Clinton, and we've interviewed people in the Clinton White House who were outraged that you required her to come down to the Grand Jury room and it was essentially a perp walk, as it were, in front of the cameras. It was a line they felt you had crossed. Why did you do that rather than make accommodations for her in the White House?
Starr: Well, we followed in connection with the subpoenas to any and all witnesses, the usual procedures. If we find information, documentary information that suggests that a witness may have testimony that's relevant to the Grand Jury's investigation, it's our duty to get it. And so we were seeking to be very accommodating in terms of the circumstances of the appearance because the dignity of the First Lady, the dignity of the President were issues that we all continually tried to be sensitive to. People have different views as to whether we succeeded in being sensitive to it, but we certainly tried to be sensitive to the dignity and the decorum of the office of the President, including the office of the First Lady.
Producer: Entering the last phase of what we'll talk about today, the expansion during court to include Monica Lewinsky and so forth -- so this originally comes to your attention through Linda Tripp as I understand it, that she came to your office with a story. If you could clarify for people because I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about this. What was it in her story that originally caused your office to consider it worth pursuing? What was relevant?
Starr: Well this particular witness, in terms of the last phase of the investigation, was known to our office. Information came to us from a witness who we knew in the investigation. The last person who we know of who saw Vincent Foster Jr. alive as he was leaving the White House on that fateful afternoon back in 1993 was Linda Tripp. Miss Tripp was working in the White House Counsel's office. She apparently was a valued employee.
She then goes over to the Defense Department, to the Pentagon, and it's there that she becomes friends with Miss Lewinsky who had previously, of course, served at the White House. So all of the indicia of reliability were quite strong. We had no reason whatever to question the veracity of this witness. We listened to and tried to assess information when it comes to us, and the information that she was providing suggested that we needed to bring it promptly to the attention of the Justice Department, which we did.
Starr: There were suggestions that may have been very serious criminal offenses that had been committed, and were in the process of being committed. And so as good prosecutors, we immediately tried to reach the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, and we did the next day, and we transparently put before the Deputy Attorney General, (who is now the Attorney General of the United States,) but we put before Deputy Attorney General Holder the facts that had come to us.
He then, outside our presence, met with the Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno, and the determination was made, by the Attorney General of the United States, that these facts yielded up allegations that had to be investigated.
Producer: You talk about certain serious criminal matters and that's what I want to clarify for people because people tend to think this is about an affair. What were the criminal matters that you were concerned about?
Starr: There were suggestions -- and I simply want to put it as suggestions -- that we brought to the attention of the Deputy Attorney General that perjury had been and was being committed in the course of a civil case pending in the eastern district of Arkansas.
Producer: The Paula Jones case?
Starr: A civil rights case, alleging sexual harassment that had been filed against an individual.
Producer: So, this is key to understand. It was a sublimation of perjury that was the issue really that you were focusing on in what Linda Tripp brought you. It wasn't the fact of the affair itself.
Starr: There, the underlying relationship was simply a background fact. The issues that we were being asked to investigate, or that could possibly be investigated, were whether federal criminal offences were being committed in the course of the conduct of a federal civil rights case in Arkansas.
Producer: Now there was an interesting timing element to this. This is where the story gets-- it's crazy, cause your office hears from a reporter at this time, "We've interviewed Michael Isikoff and he knows all about this. In fact he's in the middle of all of this." This puts your office in a very unusual position. Can you describe the dilemma that this causes, the fact that a reporter has this information and is planning to report it any second? I mean this creates a curious circumstance for you guys.
Starr: It's a curious circumstance when information is better known to the fourth estate than it is to the prosecutor's office, but the prosecutor's job is to do the prosecutor's job. So, let us go forward, let's gather the facts as best we can, let's assess those facts and then come to our judgment. If something is reported in the public domain, then it's reported in the public domain, but it was our task to, again, take this information and to proceed with it in a professional way and that's what we sought to do.
Producer: Well, but you also asked him to hold off on his story.
Starr: Well, we tried to conduct the investigation as best we could, and so you try to get as much cooperation as you can from those who might interfere with the conduct of your job.
Producer: This is the place where a lot of people, ordinary people who are not steeped in the law, begin to scratch their head because why was it so important that President Clinton not know about what you knew before he gave his deposition in the Paula Jones case? We're talking about a matter of days here. You discover this, he's several days later going to give his deposition, you are racing to do various things and trying to delay the story from being reported so that he won't know going into his deposition. Why?
Starr: I think the judgment can be questioned. I think that's a fair assessment. But in light of what information we had -- in terms of what had already been done, the information that came to us -- we felt it was important to allow the process to go forward. What is going to happen in a civil deposition, presided over by a federal judge? But those are judgments that reasonable people can question and have questioned.
But we felt that it was important for us to see exactly what, in fact, was going to happen as it was being told to us by the witness, was going to happen. Or, we were hearing secondhand, "Something is about to unfold, which is quite serious."
Producer: The something being?
Starr: The possibility of a federal crime being committed in the course of a civil rights case.
Producer: So, see that unfold. Don't get in its way by artificially disrupting events?
Starr: Yeah, a course of action may be underway, and so you're going to observe and see what happens. And obviously we had no power over the press, and if the story came out, the story would come out, and that would have obviously been a different course. There undoubtedly still would have been an investigation. It was the Attorney General of the United States we shared that fully, but these are very serious matters involving the integrity of the administration of justice.
Producer: Again, to take the devil's advocate position here; when you talked to the Clinton people they say, "This was a perjury trap for the following reason; you're putting the President of the United States in a situation where he either has to admit to an affair that will destroy him politically, destroy him personally, on a matter that is absolutely tangential to the substance of the Paula Jones lawsuit and was ruled so by the judge ultimately, that's unfair. That's a perjury trap, you're trying to create a crime that hadn't existed before." Now I know that this wasn't your deposition, but do you have an opinion about that? I mean, do you think in some sense this could be described that way fairly?
Starr: No, I think the entire set of circumstances when you analyze it show that a very deliberate course of conduct was undertaken. Everyone had lawyers, there was a presiding judge and Judge Susan Webber Wright had made it very clear that she expected the truth to be told. And she also made it very clear that she had never presided over a sexual harassment civil rights trial where there was not acute embarrassment to everyone involved, and so the right disposition is to handle the case and to, shall I say, settle the case. That's the way well over 95% of civil cases are handled in the United States. And eventually the case was settled.
And a fairly large check was written and other kinds of sanctions were entered, as well. But this was a natural course of events that that unfolded very quickly that was part of a course of action that we were very closely observing.
Producer: He should have admitted it in the deposition, obviously. That would have, in your opinion, solved it?
Starr: Well it's easy to look back and say what should have happened, but the best legal advice that lawyers can give is, "Okay, let's have the facts, what are the facts?" Now let's come to a reasoned conclusion about how do we deal with those facts, and if there is any merit whatsoever or any potential for serious embarrassment, then you try to come to a resolution of the case, you don't go to trial.
And a deposition in its way, in its own way, its sort of a preview of what the trial is going to be like and so what transpired is obviously very, very unfortunate. You know, resulting in sanctions being imposed and suspensions from the practice of law and so forth. It really is a very sad chapter.
Producer: Do you have any personal regrets about the decision you made to expand the purview of this investigation? You had been originally appointed to look into Whitewater. This is a far cry from Whitewater. First of all, was there internal debate among your office whether or not to do this in the first place?
Starr: There was no debate about whether the matter had to be investigated. The real issue was kind of assignment. Who takes the assignment? And we had a round table, metaphorically. We had everyone around the table, very experienced prosecutors, and we were all of one accord: we need to get this information about these possible federal crimes over to the Justice Department as quickly as possible.
And then what was the decision of the Justice Department? The decision of the Justice Department, at the highest level, by the Attorney General herself was, this has to be investigated. In an ideal world, and I've said this before, someone else would have done the investigation, but it wasn't practical for someone else to do the investigation.
Starr: Events were moving very quickly and there was no Independent Counsel Office standing by, waiting to step in and to conduct the investigation. So, it was a practical matter. I think it was difficult for the Attorney General to find a pristine, brand new face. Let's bring someone in, as it were, off the street, you know, a new Bob Fiske. Can we get a new Bob Fiske on board? It just wasn't, as a practical matter, realistic.
So, it was just a nasty situation. The Attorney General dealt with it as best she could. We obviously went forward, and of course the rest is all laid out in the historical records.
Producer: Before this deposition takes place, the brace of Monica Lewinsky, I just wonder, again, because something's been turned over so much and we have the chance to ask you directly, do you feel there were any mistakes made in that encounter? Again, things are moving very quickly, that's understandable, and you have only this one window of opportunity, but were there mistakes made there?
Starr: Oh, I think that reasonable people can look back and say this particular tactic, this wiring and so forth could have been done in a different way, and I respect those judgments. It's a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking, but it's fun to be a Monday morning quarterback.
But under the circumstances I felt everything that was done was done with the integrity to do one thing -- to find out the facts. As our prosecutors would say, "Just tell us the facts. We can deal with the facts whatever they are. If they exculpate, great, we get to go home to our families. If they inculpate, then we'll just have to deal with it. But the one thing that we can't deal with are lies. Lies are impossible to deal with, so please, simply tell us the truth and tell it as quickly as possible, and we'll all be much happier; you'll feel better, we'll feel better, we'll have a much better relationship, and the American people will know the facts. You know, the truth has a very powerful way of coming out. Sooner or later the truth comes out, and so let's get it out. Let's get it out now, let's deal with it. If there were crimes, let's deal with the fact that crimes were committed." And then how do we resolve the issue of crimes having been committed -- crimes in the sense of Congress passes a law and the President signs a law, and that's pretty serious business. Then the Attorney General determines that a particular matter has to be investigated under the law, because Congress passed a law that said there will be an investigation when certain criteria are met. And everyone should agree those criteria were met, and the investigation had to be conducted.
The only issue that I've really heard, seriously debated, that I've opined in is, yes, it would have been far better for someone other than me to conduct that investigation.
Producer: Which just wasn't possible at the time.
Starr: I don't think, from what I know, the Attorney General made an assessment that it's gotta go back to the Whitewater investigation team.
Producer: You know, after this story breaks, after the deposition, President Clinton famously goes on television, on radio, and says, "I did not have a relationship with that woman, with Miss Lewinsky." And, personally watching that, how you felt about that. As a citizen, as a prosecutor, what were your feelings?
Starr: Well, when I saw it, I guess I took a deep breath, and said, "You know, this is obviously going to be a bit of a struggle. Can we have the truth and let's deal with it" et cetera, and clearly that was not the road that we were on.
Producer: There must have been a sense of, you knew that there was going to be an impending constitutional crisis here. This is the President of the United States.
Starr: I have such poor powers of prophecy; I had no idea of what could happen. What I knew was, we now had a very undesirable task ahead of us, that it was likely to be a very difficult task. And so what could have, I think, quickly been wrapped up in a matter of weeks, ended up taking those many months for a variety of factors, including the fact that Miss Lewinsky was advised by counsel with whom we respectfully disagreed. He was not an experienced criminal counsel, very able lawyer, but as soon as she discharged her civil lawyer and then brought in two experienced criminal defense lawyers, we had a deal in a matter of days.
Starr: We were interested in the truth. So all we were saying is, "Come in and tell us the truth. It's very simple. Come tell us the truth." That was what we asked.
Producer: Do you feel that during this period the White House was intentionally trying to undermine your investigation?
Starr: I'm not going to get into any characterizations about the White House. And the President had a very difficult job to do as President of the United States, so I was pretty sympathetic with trying to just-- we just wanted to get this thing over with as quickly as possible, with as much thoroughness as we were called upon to do.
Producer: Well speaking of that, I wonder if you would talk about the personal toll? I mean this is, as this goes in the country, beginning to turn on the goal of investigation. I think it's very simple to look at -- opinion polls were showing a gathering sort of dissatisfaction. This must have been, I imagine, difficult on you personally and people involved in the investigation. What was that like?
Starr: Well it was a maelstrom, you know, 24/7 news coverage. As someone wisely pointed out during Watergate, the news cycle was over when Walter Cronkite went and Huntley Brinkley closed down, that was sort of it for the night. And so, what I tried to do was to be an encourager to the staff, that, look, we had a very difficult assignment, it was extremely unpopular, and all we could do was to try to conduct the office with as much honor and professionalism as we could, and that our audience could not be the audience of public opinion. We weren't running for anything, we weren't seeking office, but rather we had a very specific assignment, and so, who is our audience?
And I would say this around the table, "Our audience is the presiding judge, who presides over the Grand Jury, and our audience is the Grand Jury. That's our audience, and we have to assure the audience, the judge and the Grand Jury, that we're proceeding with integrity and professionalism. That we are doing the very best we can to -- as efficiently as we can -- gather all the facts, make our report, and be done with it and go on with our lives."
Producer: As we approach the Grand Jury testimony, you were somewhat reluctant to subpoena the President to come before the Grand Jury. Can you explain that? You were abiding respect for his office, and that played a part, didn't it?
Starr: Well, I tried to be very mindful -- as a student of the Constitution in our structure of government -- of the Presidency, and to make sure that we did everything that we could in a very nasty situation to protect the dignity of the Presidency. So we tried to take reasonable steps to do that, while consistent with our duty to, again, gather and assess all the facts.
Producer: What were your feelings? You were in the room, I believe, when he gave his Grand Jury testimony. Can you describe watching that, your feelings of how it went, or how it was going?
Starr: Well, the room itself was of course at the White House, and it was very difficult. The entire process was rather odd in that the Grand Jury, preceding in secret, is, as the custom and tradition is the law, still not in the room, so I felt that there was something missing. And it was the Grand Jury. And I have a feeling that the Grand Jurors could have missed that, not for the experience of being in the White House, but to be able to see the witness up close, as opposed to on closed circuit television. So there was just a sense of oddity about the process itself. And then, again, a bit of disappointment.
Starr: We wanted the truth, the facts, and let's just get the truth and the facts out and get this over with.
Producer: You didn't feel that that was happening?
Starr: I'm not going to characterize it, but the rest is all in the public record.
Producer: Let's, in the interest of time, get to the Starr report, as it's been called, I know that wasn't the name of it. You made a decision to be inclusive, rather than sort of give a sort of bare bones... Why? Why include as much as you did?
Starr: I felt called upon us to provide a thorough report. If you go to the words of the statute itself, which is no longer in effect, and I think that's a good thing, and then if you go the legislative history, you'll see that we want a full report. If you're going to suggest that there may have been crimes committed, you better prove the case. And so I said, "We've got to prove the case, or at least demonstrate to the best of our ability why it is that we think that there may have been federal crimes committed."
Lawyers are thorough, good lawyers are thorough. And we had to do a very thorough job with absolute excellence, and it had to be absolutely iron tight. There could be absolutely no gap whatsoever between the facts, and then a reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the facts. The case had to be proven. And that, therefore, caused us to enumerate facts that were rather unhappy and salacious.
Producer: So you saw it as your role to, in effect, present an indictment with accounts. That was the sort of way you viewed the role that had been given you rather than sort of a neutral sounding just the facts.
Starr: Oh we had a kind of assessment as to whether crimes had been committed. And even though I had famous disagreements, at the end of the day at the end of my testimony before the House of Representatives with Sam Dash -- Sam Dash was part of the report of the-- he and I had very strong views completely congruent with respect to that report. And Sam Dash, who was a great man -- and even with our disagreements, we were of one accord -- we had to prove the case.
You will be shirking your duty if you don't prove the case. You don't make a serious allegation-- if you don't prove the case, and you prove it in an absolutely iron tight way that cannot be assailed. I mean it can be criticized, why are you saying this fact, but that's at a political, a rhetorical level. But lawyer to lawyer, lawyer to judge, you leave absolutely nothing that would be a gap in the evidence. And I think no one has suggested that there was some evidentiary lacuna in the presentation of the case.
Producer: You've always often said that this was essentially about the sanctity of the law, and that nobody can be above the law. Did we as a country, do you think, perhaps lose sight of that in course of this? I mean, even all the way through the impeachment, his public approval ratings didn't budge. I wonder if you think that -- did the American people fully understand what this was about, in your opinion?
Starr: Oh, I think there was an enormous gap in understanding, and one of the reasons for the gap in understanding was because of the defects in the Independent Counsel law. We were not part of the Justice Department, we seemed to be out there, sort of, as I said, it's as if you're an island that's suddenly popped up, and so now that the going is rough, waves are crashing all over us and we're feeling swamped and so forth. I said one of the reasons is we're not connected to the Justice Department -- our very independence ends up being a huge architectural defect. That was not what the founding generation had in mind in the architecture of government.
If, however, we had been part of the Justice Department, chosen by the Attorney General, then I could have looked to the Attorney General for succor, for comfort. That would have been my refuge. And so I simply could have gone to the Attorney General and said, "Attorney General, listen, I'm trying to do the best I can and the investigation is being criticized, so are you supporting the investigation or are you not?" Whereas here, Attorney General Reno could say, "Well it's an independent investigation." Do you see what I'm saying? That was the fundamental ironic difficulty, especially when there was no bully pulpit that one could use to say, "Here is what is going on." For Janet Reno to say, "Here is what is going on," my United States Attorney is conducting herself within the law. I approve the US Attorney's reaction. That's a different set of facts than the set of facts that the Independent Counsel Statute erected.
You're out there all by your lonesome, disconnected from the executive branch, and that was a profound architectural flaw, that then promoted public misunderstanding. And I think if anything good has come out of this, in addition to the lesson that no one is above the rule of law, it is the founding generation knew what it was talking about in saying, "We need to have as an architecture of government, one that really has integrity of function." And don't try to go out and improve on what the founding generation did in terms of the architecture.
Producer: So, in light of the fact that you feel this was misguided to the degree that it was structurally misguided, (not that the pursuit was misguided,) would you characterize this whole thing as having been a tragedy? That this was, in the end, something that you wished hadn't happened, or that was negative for the country?
Starr: Oh, I think it was a negative for the country. The entire process was a negative for the country. And it's a good thing that Congress has decided, notwithstanding the strong views of very respectable fine individuals like former Senator Arlen Specter, I think feels to this day, we need an Independent Counsel law. Sam Dash felt we need an Independent Counsel law, and I just respectfully disagreed with that.
And so it was tragic that the reform Congress of 1978 just said, "Well let's just tinker with the architecture." And you know Ted Sorensen recently died, and one of the great things that came out of Watergate -- so out of that tragedy came something very powerful -- when some of the reformers in Congress said, "Well let's have an Independent Justice Department, let's just separate it so we don't have the White House interfering with--" which the White House had done during Watergate, "let's separate it off, let's have it independent."
Among others to speak up was the very distinguished lawyer, who hadn't served in the Justice Department, named Ted Sorensen, the great speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, and he said, very elegantly, "That would be a profound mistake." That the Justice Department should be part of an integrated branch of government that reports ultimately to the President. That's our architecture and when we depart from it, it can have very baleful consequences.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?