House Speaker Newt Gingrich staunchly defended Kenneth Starr on Saturday even as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said it was time for the Whitewater independent counsel to wrap up his investigation and “show his cards.”
The divergence between Gingrich and Lott illustrated the growing turmoil in the Republican party over how to grapple with an investigation into President Clinton’s alleged relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which has left the president’s popularity at unrivaled heights and backfired on Starr in the court of public opinion.
In a taped appearance on the CNN program “Evans & Novak” shown Saturday, Lott defended Starr against what he described Friday as “the typical White House operation of attacking anybody that dares question them.”
But Lott also said the time had come for Starr to finish his investigation.
“I think that he has had enough time and it’s time to show his cards,” Lott said Friday. “I think he needs to wrap it up, show us what he’s got, indict, convict people. Or if he doesn’t, close it out.”
In contrast, Gingrich, speaking at a breakfast with constituents in his home district, in the Atlanta suburbs, urged people to be patient with the investigation.
“I think it is disgraceful that official representatives of the executive branch are undermining a legitimate, legal investigation of the Department of Justice,” he said.
Asked about the comments made by Lott on Friday in the CNN program, Gingrich said, “I don’t know why Trent said what he said yesterday.”
Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, another member of the Senate Republican leadership, also urged patience Saturday.
“I’m not ready to preach to Judge Starr one way or another,” Cochran said. “At this point we have to wait and see.”
He also said he had long had problems with the independent counsel statute law.
Republicans have increasingly fractured over how to deal with an investigation of a popular Democratic president that could end up being referred to the House for an impeachment inquiry. Social conservatives in the GOP and possible presidential candidates have been harshly critical of Clinton, accusing him of failing to show moral leadership.
Other Republicans have started to criticize Starr for such tactics as calling Sidney Blumenthal, a White House public relations official, before a grand jury because prosecutors suspected him of orchestrating a campaign to discredit Starr’s office.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a former district attorney in Philadelphia, for example, has said he thinks Starr “went too far” in using a grand jury to counter criticism of him and his deputies.
The House Republican leadership has generally been trying to sidestep any comment on Clinton’s troubles.
But eventually Republicans may be required to take a stand. Under the independent counsel law, if Starr finds “substantial and credible” information about a possible impeachable offense on the part of the president, the prosecutor is required to forward the matter to the House of Representatives.
A number of Republicans fear that an impeachment inquiry could backfire in an election year unless Starr provided irrefutable evidence that Clinton perjured himself and encouraged others to lie under oath.
Lott suggested that Congress could take action short of impeachment and censure Clinton.
“The House could say, well, it’s not serious enough for impeachment, but this is clearly conduct that’s on the margin and we don’t approve of it,” Lott said, “and the House Judiciary Committee would report out a censure resolution.”
But a House Republican official said such discussion was premature, since no one knew what Starr had found and what action he would take.