OPINION: Don't repeat the mistakes of Clinton and 1998 with Trump
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It was about 4 p.m. when I came to the White House on Jan. 25, 1998, for a State of the Union prep session with President Clinton. It was like a bomb had gone off. Aides were in corners whispering. Clinton had just gone on TV and denied having relations with “that woman.” From that moment on, and for the rest of that year, it was an all-out battle for the White House.

In the end, President Clinton revealed he did have an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He did lie to the American people, and he lied under oath about it. Yet he survived an impeachment trial to serve out his term, once again rising to new heights of popularity.

Cable TV exploded with the Clinton-Lewinsky story nonstop and prospered. But when it was finally over, the Republicans were in retreat having lost badly, and no one ever wanted to talk about it again. An entire year of the collective consciousness of America had been wasted. 

And unless we learn from history, we are about to do it all over again.


Special prosecutor Ken Starr and the Republicans went overboard. Rather than just censuring the president, they tried to use Clinton’s personal transgression as an excuse to challenge his legitimacy and undo the re-election. His personal behavior, while inappropriate, was not a crime, and so the special prosecutor created a crime by entrapping him at his Paula Jones deposition.


Former FBI Director James Comey followed in Ken Starr’s footsteps. Failing to find a crime in nine months, he worked to create one. It was Comey who, after sending senior intelligence leaders out of the room, initiated the private discussion with President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE on Jan. 6, 2017, about the unverified “salacious” dossier (that would then leak almost immediately) and volunteer to Trump that he was not under investigation.

It was Comey who then accepted further one-on-one conversations that he shared with no one but perhaps some of his staff. It was Comey who agreed to say the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE email investigation was a “matter,” but then refused to clarify publicly that Trump was not under investigation.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Republican senators like Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE, in trying to be fair, have been manipulated by selective and often false leaks and too easily suckered into clearing the way for a never-ending spiral of subpoenas and hearings.

Comey’s memos were not contemporaneous notes done in the ordinary course of business. These were exceptions to his standard operating procedure being created as part of a deliberate plan to generate self-serving material for him to use against the president. Their “revelations” should be accorded extreme skepticism rather than evidentiary weight. He did not inform his superiors after any of the meetings or memos, because, contrary to his testimony, he knew they would have immediately created more distance between him and the president, and that would have ended the game he was playing.

I hope Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Congress will learn from the experience of 1998 and not take the country down the same path in the absence of some spectacularly good reasons. Those reasons would not include some undisclosed lobbying by Michael Flynn, some possibly questionable business deals by Paul Manafort or some phone calls, emails or meetings with the Russian ambassador.

They should not include Comey’s crude efforts to frustrate and then entrap Trump that were short-circuited by his firing. The leaking scheme, and his actions in the Hillary investigation, disqualify him as even a credible witness. (Was he lying then when he refused to say it was a criminal investigation only then or now?)

The Democrats, just like the Republicans of 1998, have staked their party not on the issues, like inequality, healthcare or jobs, but on this battle to delegitimize Trump. They have driven it from a national joke to a national scandal, as every contact by anyone associated with the Trump campaign has become a banner headline from anonymous and increasingly questionable sources. They turned Russia into kryptonite.

While the new French president is casually meeting with Putin planning a new, closer relationship, we have been driven to a preposterous Cold War stance. Russia is not our ally, but the Russians no longer export an ideology that threatens to “bury” us.

So we are on a path for a year of fear, doubt, and confusion unless someone breaks the downward spiral of leaks, broadening investigations, and anonymous stories filed every day to generate clicks and subscriptions. In 1998 Fox News was the big winner. Today it’s MSNBC.

To survive, the Trump White House is going to have to get game — show they can govern, appoint the rest of the government, let their legal team deal with the special counsel, and refocus on their agenda. All presidents get consumed by these investigations, innocent or not, and that is why they are so pernicious. They force presidents to shore up their bases, distort their decisions, and occupy huge amounts of White House and presidential staff time.

In 1998, despite huge surpluses, the president moved off entitlement reform and was wary of international decisions that could be seen as wag-the-dog moves as he dealt with both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Even investigations that go nowhere have consequences.

In 2017, Republicans in Congress will have to stop taking the bait, and stop holding hearings on every story in the Washington Post — and they should get back to the country’s business. They need to begin to flash real anger when the Democrats’ spin out all sorts of Trump conspiracy theories, and then admit there is no evidence. Contrary to all expectations, 1998 was one of the rare midterm elections that went in favor of the administration — the Democrats saved themselves by saving the president. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreMcAuliffe calls on Youngkin to drop out of 'election integrity' rally Anything-but-bipartisan 1/6 commission will seal Pelosi's retirement. Here's why Kamala Harris's unprecedented challenge MORE took the opposite tack, distancing himself from Clinton, and dug his political grave.

Special Counsel Mueller will need to show restraint — review all the evidence, subpoena any added relevant documents, and if there is any evidence of actual collusion, go for it. If not, then he must  tell the American people promptly that this was whipped up on theories with no foundation and close it out, giving back to Justice any small-fry subsidiary cases.

While 75 percent of respondents in a recent Harvard Harris Poll said they favored a special counsel to look into potential collusion, 73 percent also believe the special counsel should look at the unmasking, snooping and leaking that occurred during the Obama administration. Someone — either Mueller or another counsel — is going to have to take a hard look at that issue and similarly either put it to rest or find out more.

The Democrats, just like the Republicans of 1998, are going to have to decide if this path is the right one for themselves and the country. They have been the main drivers of the Russia theories, and 68 percent of the voters believe the Democrats have never accepted the results of the election.

Newt Gingrich, who was at the height of his power in 1998, lost his job when the impeachment of Clinton backfired. It looked so good when it started, but it boomeranged badly. And the 2017 investigations of leaking and unmasking — all part of this Pandora’s box — have the potential to spin out of control as well.

I have seen this movie before, up close. And I for one am hoping the sequel turns out differently and that some of the actors in this play — especially the special counsel and the Democrats — will rise above their expected roles so we can go back to accepting the finality of elections and battling on the issues instead of relying on the politics of personal destruction. I battled it in 1998 when the Republicans went down this path and I look at what’s happening today, and I say that as a country, we can do better this time.

Mark Penn was pollster and adviser for President Clinton from 1995 to 2000 and for Hillary Clinton from 2000 to 2008.

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