In February 1998, the then-junior senator from Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell, said this on the Senate floor:
“Our nation is indeed at a crossroads. Will we pursue the search for truth or will we dodge, weave and evade the truth? I am of course referring to the investigation into serious allegations of illegal conduct by the president of the United States - that the president has engaged in a persistent pattern and practice of obstruction of justice. The allegations are grave, the investigation is legitimate and ascertaining the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the unqualified, unevasive truth is absolutely critical.”
It’s worth listening to this addressin its entirety because it is a love letter of sorts - to the rule of law, to the integrity of the independent counsel investigation of President Bill Clinton and to the truth.
McConnell’s speech was also an indictment of the “smear campaign being orchestrated by the White House” in an attempt to undermine the integrity of Kenneth Starr’s investigation, referring to Clinton surrogates who were painting the inquiry as “a vast, right-wing conspiracy” all over cable news.
At the time of these remarks, Starr’s investigation was in its fourth year and had cost nearly $30 million. It began as an examination of the Clintons’ financial dealings with the Whitewater Development Corp. It ended with Clinton’s impeachment for obstruction of justice and perjury related to his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Going back through the C-SPAN footage at the time, one marvels at the historical parallels - serious public servants, heretofore admired by both parties, conducting wide-ranging investigations that uncovered and prosecuted illegal activity by a president’s associates (and others), and perhaps by a president himself.
But the standings of the political parties are reversed. In 1998, it was the Democrats yelling “witch hunt” and Republicans pledging fidelity to the legal process.
It was the House speaker - Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., - who wrote back then, “This has nothing to do with vendettas or witch-hunts or partisan advantage . . . this is very simply about the rule of law, and the survival of the American system of justice.
This is what the Constitution demands, and what Richard Nixon had to resign over.”
In 1998, I was a high school senior and the Clinton scandals would define my rising political consciousness. My early affinity for Republicans was due in part to watching them speak compellingly about decency, truth and the rule of law. They said ideas mattered and character counted. Meanwhile, the Democratic president was embroiled in a sex scandal - with a woman not much older than I was - and looked straight into the eyes of the American people and lied about it.
It has been almost 20 years since McConnell rose to defend the independent counsel’s investigation from partisan attacks. He has since gone on to become Senate majority leader. Our country is once again at a crossroads.
A Republican president has been actively working to undermine the credibility of a special counsel’s investigation. There have been reports that President Donald Trump is considering trying to fire special counsel Robert Mueller III or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Bipartisan legislation to protect the special counsel from such a firing was recently passed 14 to 7 by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans must decide whether to bring it to the floor for a full Senate vote.
Now, there are questions about whether or not the law to protect the special counsel is constitutional (though, notably, four Republicans on the Judiciary Committee seem to believe it is). But presumably amendments and substitutes could be offered on the floor to address those concerns. Beyond that, even if the bill were to pass the House, Trump would almost certainly veto it. And so it may be the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act is more about taking a stand than enacting legislation.
But it’s a stand Republicans should take. It is an opportunity to send a message to their president, their party and their country. What message is that exactly? McConnell’s 1999 impeachment statement says it clearly:
“I submit to my colleagues that if we have no truth and we have no justice, then we have no nation of laws. No public official, no president, no man or no woman is important enough to sacrifice the founding principles of our legal system.”
Sarah Longwell is a founding director of Republicans for the Rule of Law.