Friday, June 9, 2017

The Daily 202: Trump White House might learn more from studying Whitewater than Watergate as Comey testifies

Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton leaves a federal courthouse in D.C. in 1996 after over four hours of testimony before a grand jury. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)--Hillary confers with Jen Palmieri aboard her campaign plane last November. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Bill Clinton defends himself during a news conference in 1996. (File)--Bob Mueller, then FBI director, is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007. (Susan Walsh/AP)

With Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: How do you say schadenfreude in Russian? That is what alumni of Bill Clinton’s White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign are thinking this morning as James Comey arrives on Capitol Hill to testify.

There is a feeling in Clinton World that what goes around comes around. But as pundits increasingly draw comparisons to Watergate, many who suffered through the scandals of the 1990s are also experiencing a sense of déjà vu. As special counsel Robert Mueller ramps up his investigation, they’re having flashbacks to Ken Starr.

President Trump repeatedly attacked the Clintons over Whitewater last year, even reviving the outrageous conspiracy theory that Hillary might have had a hand in Vince Foster’s suicide. Candidate Trump also cheered on Comey, as the then-FBI director (perhaps fatally) damaged her presidential hopes.

No matter how today plays out, Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee will not bring resolution to the inquiries that threaten to imperil the president. Looking forward, a lot of Clintonistas see instructive parallels and lessons that Trump and his staff could learn from their experience. Here are eight:

1. “The Trump administration has yet to understand how the campaign investigation is likely to be the gateway to the inner workings of the Trump empire,” writes Democratic wise man Doug Sosnik, who was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000. “My lesson from those days: Trump and his advisers are in way over their heads and unprepared for what awaits them. During the campaign and transition, the world of Trump remained a spider web of dealmakers whose mission was to expand the family’s fortune, and perhaps their own. Anyone who played in this environment is now legally vulnerable. … The Comey hearing presents the next big test for Trump. His response will either accelerate the downward spiral or signal the administration’s effort to reboot and increase its odds of survival.”

2. Get used to the fog of war. “Having worked in a White House under investigation, I know from experience that it’s even more disorienting than it appears,” says Jennifer Palmieri, who was deputy press secretary in the Clinton administration, in an op-ed for the USA Today network of newspapers. “No one in a position of authority at the White House tells you what is happening. No one knows. Your closest colleague could be under investigation and you would not know. You could be under investigation and not know. It can be impossible to stay focused on your job.”
3. Changing your story, even slightly, looks like a cover up. Jane Sherburne, as special counsel to Clinton from 1994 to 1997, handled Whitewater and associated ethics issues. In an op-ed for The Post, she offers seven pieces of nonpartisan advice to her successors about navigating the Russia crisis. Having covered Trump every day for two years now, this seems like the most important one:

“Put a process in place to ensure consistent and accurate communication about the facts. It should be the job of the special counsel to gather the facts and equip the president and White House staff to speak with authority … Anyone talking to the press or interacting with Congress should be armed with enough information to respond with consistent message points. … Bad things happen when key players stray from the message or have their own communications with the press or Congress that haven’t been coordinated with the special counsel. Inaccurate information may be released that later needs to be explained or corrected, or a public statement may miss an important nuance that creates a legal issue or opens a new line of inquiry. Giving an unequivocal answer (e.g., ‘No. No. Next question.’) before all the facts are known or fully understood can be disastrous. … Loss of discipline deepens the crisis.

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