Well, Arkansas, we’ve seen this movie before, no?
An independent counsel appointed. Interviews conducted. A guilty plea, coupled with the defendant’s sworn assurances of future cooperation with prosecutors; sentencing deferred at the government’s request. A federal grand jury empaneled. Subpoenas, for documents. Then some indictments. More subpoenas, for testimony; a parade of witnesses before the grand jury. Lawyers retained; checking and savings accounts strained, some exhausted. The realization that this will not end soon. Then:
Search warrants requested, approved, executed. Homes and businesses raided, FBI agents and prosecutors poring over boxes of confiscated files, slogging through e-mail chains, reviewing personal letters and diaries, connecting dots, or trying to. Complaints that the lead prosecutor is personally or politically compromised, and should resign or be fired. The net, meantime, broadens. Leases for the investigating team’s offices renewed, extended. Then more indictments. Platoons of reporters and photographers on the courthouse plaza; a like number on residential driveways and street corners. More pleas, guilty or innocent; hearings and trials scheduled, jury summonses issued. Additional time and resources (money, agents) sought, granted. Enormous sums of money from overseas (Asia, Eastern Europe) revealed, questions raised about foreign influence in politics and policy. White House visitors’ logs scrutinized, names of unconventional or unsavory individuals noted, timelined.
And the overriding question, endlessly repeated: How close to the president will it get?
Sound familiar? Perhaps not; a generation has passed since “Whitewater” left its banks and surged across the Arkansas landscape, inundating workplaces and households, staining reputations (some fairly, others not) and turning the state’s politics, not to mention the nation’s, on its ear. But for those of us who lived it, wrote about it, endured it, well, it all came rushing back on the morning of October 30.
As in Whitewater, the present controversy (do we call it Russia-gate? Trump-gate?) has at its outset some questionable characters.
The Arkansas torment was birthed, in large part, by David Hale, a municipal judge and businessman, widely regarded in legal and political circles as a zero. Hale admitted he was a thief and liar, but his claim that Bill Clinton helped engineer an illegal loan was enough to start the investigatory ball rolling. It would roll for six of the eight years of Clinton’s presidency.
Bobbing in the new stew are rather weightier potatoes. President Trump’s friend and former campaign manager, long a player in national Republican politics, whose (initially unreported) “consulting” in behalf of a Vladimir Putin puppet earned him millions of dollars in fees on which the government contends he evaded taxes. Indicted with him, a close associate. And a guilty plea from a shadowy Trump “advisor” who lied to the FBI about his efforts to connect the candidate with Russians who promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Like Hale, the advisor is having coffee regularly with the government’s men.
And, as in Whitewater, which tarnished a few Republicans, the Trump-Russia backblast is bipartisan. Minutes after the indictment was unsealed and the pleas entered in Washington, one of the town’s premier Democratic operatives, a brother of a former Clinton White House chief of staff, later Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief, resigned from his lobbying firm. The government claims the company was effectively fronting for the two GOP operatives. (No charges have been brought against the lobbyist, Tony Podesta, who says the work he performed was all legitimate and his cooperation with prosecutors total.)
So much for the similarities, of which there are several others. Some distinctions:
• Whitewater was a trickle when Clinton was inaugurated; the Russia business has been a torrent from the moment Mr. Trump took the oath of office.
• The Clinton administration had been in place for 18 months before Whitewater prosecutors collected their first (Hale’s) scalp; the Trump administration began less than ten months ago.
• Demands that the first prosecutor in the Whitewater travails be replaced came from the party out of power; it is Mr. Trump and his allies, in the media and Congress, who are howling for dismissal of the current special counsel, Robert Mueller, appointed not by a panel of judges but by the President’s own Justice Department.
• Clinton had no authority over the prosecutor probing him and his administration; Mr. Trump could fire Mueller, assuming he is willing to risk the certain political explosion.
• Whitewater brought down Clinton’s gubernatorial successor and more than a dozen lesser, peripheral figures in a financial failure, but the ultimate target was culpable only in Oval Office sexual shenanigans and survived impeachment; Mr. Trump’s carnality is still subject to litigation, while the inquiry that he denounces involves not a small savings and loan but a rival superpower.
You need not have been awake during Whitewater to know where this thing is going. But it helps.