December 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Clinton Silent As Carville Attacks Whitewater Counsel Aide’s Public Relations Attack A First Against Counsels

Peter Baker Washington Post
 

Unpublished correction: The headline has been corrected. The published headline read as follows: Clinton silent as Carville attacks Watergate counsel

Clinton strategist James Carville has launched a public campaign to discredit Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel pursuing the man Carville helped put in the White House. But Carville’s not doing so on the orders of the president. Really. Nor is President Clinton secretly encouraging him. Really. And the president couldn’t stop Carville even if he tried. Really.

That, at least, is the official White House line, implausible as it seems to doubters whose business cards don’t list 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as an office address.

To be sure, White House officials don’t seem all that unhappy about Carville’s plans to set up a grassroots, anti-Starr organization. Clinton made perfectly clear Tuesday he has no intention of calling off his pit bull-like political consultant when he was asked if he would talk to Carville about it and answered flatly, “No.”

That and other public remarks by top aides in recent days have been taken as nothing short of tacit approval of the Carville counterattack, which will include campaignstyle newspaper advertisements, fund-raising appeals and opposition research.

But Carville was vague on organizational details.

Such an “all-out” assault is unprecedented in the history of independent counsels, according to specialists in the field. Special prosecutors have been fired (Archibald Cox during Watergate) and come under withering partisan fire (Lawrence Walsh during Iran-contra), but have never endured an organized public relations attack of the likes that Carville describes.

A variety of Republican leaders, legal scholars and even some Democrats have denounced Carville’s effort as everything from improper to bad political strategy.

“This is a very, very incendiary device and it may have incendiary consequences as yet unseen,” said Joseph E. diGenova, a former GOP federal prosecutor who also has served as an independent counsel. DiGenova said it appeared to be an attempt to shape public perceptions to influence potential jurors. “That would be the O.J. Simpson-ing of Whitewater.”

Ronald D. Rotunda, a University of Illinois law professor who was an assistant counsel for Democrats on the Senate Watergate Committee, said attacks on Starr’s integrity are baseless and belied by the fact that Clinton’s own attorney general, Janet Reno, has continued to assign him new matters to investigate and has the power to fire Starr if he had acted unethically. “This is basically a blatantly political attack on Starr that is inconsistent within the administration itself,” Rotunda said.

The thrust of Carville’s case against Starr is that the former Reagan solicitor general is a partisan “right-wing” Republican with an ax to grind, and should be fired. In particular, Carville has cited Starr’s legal representation of tobacco interests and his recent speech at a law school founded by Christian Coalition leader Pat Robertson.

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