Notorious leftwing agitator and establishment mouthpiece Kenneth Starr — no wait, I think I got that wrong, I’m going to start over.
Conservative jurist and former Clinton scourge Kenneth Starr would probably not, in normal circumstances, be the first in line to launch a scathing attack on a Republican president. But then, as is generally acknowledged, these are not normal circumstances.
Thus, Wednesday brought the strange spectacle of Starr’s byline appearing on the op-ed page of a liberal newspaper, followed by a blistering takedown of Donald Trump over his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Couched as an open letter containing some frank advice to the commander-in-chief, not far below the surface of the piece was the clear implication that Starr, who venerates personal integrity, believes Trump’s character may make him unfit for office.
The Washington Post op-ed began, as so many do nowadays, with a reference to the president’s bilious social-media activity, before zeroing in on the underlying offense. “Mr. President, please cut it out. Tweet to your heart’s content, but stop the wildly inappropriate attacks on the attorney general.
"An honorable man whom I have known since his days as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jeff Sessions has recently become your piñata in one of the most outrageous — and profoundly misguided — courses of presidential conduct I have witnessed in five decades in and around the nation’s capital. What you are doing is harmful to your presidency and inimical to our foundational commitment as a free people to the rule of law.”
Starr proceeded to give the inhabitant of the Oval Office an elementary civics lesson about the separation of powers, including the traditional distance between the president and the attorney general, which secures the latter a large degree of independence, despite his subordination to the former.
“The attorney general is not — and cannot be — the president’s ‘hockey goalie,’” Starr wrote, referencing a statement by Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director.
Starr continued: “In fact, the president isn’t even his client. To the contrary, the attorney general’s client is ultimately ‘We the People,’ and his fidelity has to be not to the president but to the Constitution and other laws of the United States.”
Citing legal and judicial precedents from Watergate and the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as well as the wisdom of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Starr observed that the relationship between the president and the attorney general is something of a “paradox.”
That paradox helps explain why Sessions had no other choice but to recuse himself from the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the main source of Trump’s ire.
“As a member of the president’s Cabinet, the attorney general needs to be a loyal member of the president’s team, yet at the same time, he must have the personal integrity and courage to tell the president what the law demands — and what the law will not permit. That’s especially true with respect to enforcing the nation’s criminal laws, and why — rightly — the attorney general needs to step aside on matters where his own independence of judgment has potentially been compromised,” he wrote.
Though overtly supportive, Starr’s peroration was, in truth, as much indictment as plea: “Mr. President, for the sake of the country, and for your own legacy, please listen to the growing chorus of voices who want you to succeed — by being faithful to the oath of office you took on Jan. 20 and by upholding the traditions of a nation of laws, not of men.”