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For the Clintons, Two Investigations, One Protective Reflex

The situations are distinct: Mr. Starr was a conservative Republican who, as an independent counsel, had free rein on his investigation; Mr. Comey, a Republican, was appointed by President Obama and answers to the Justice Department.

But the way the Clintons and their allies have targeted Mr. Comey speaks to the former first couple’s instincts when under attack, impulses that were honed and hardened during the storms of the 1990s.

“Comey has become the Ken Starr of the 21st century,” said Douglas G. Brinkley, a presidential historian and professor at Rice University. “When lashed out at, Bill and Hillary Clinton tend to strike back harder and go after character assassination.”

With no clear timeline on when the F.B.I. will complete its inquiry, the review could haunt the early days of Mrs. Clinton’s administration, should she win the White House.

That prospect has sent a shudder through Democrats who remember Mr. Starr’s dogged pursuit of Mr. Clinton over Whitewater, a failed real estate project in Arkansas, which ultimately led to revelations that the president had an affair with a White House intern.

“This will last as long as you’re president and beyond,” Bernard W. Nussbaum, Mr. Clinton’s White House counsel, recalled warning the president about the Whitewater inquiry in an oral history conducted by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “They will chase your family. They’ll chase you.”


Kenneth W. Starr, the independent prosecutor, testifying before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in November 1998. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

This time, Mrs. Clinton and her allies fought back promptly after news broke about the new trove of emails. They were discovered during an inquiry into Anthony D. Weiner, the estranged husband of Mrs. Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin, over accusations that he made online advances to an underage girl.

Mrs. Clinton held a brief news conference during which she criticized Mr. Comey’s decision to release a vague letter to Congress 11 days before the election.

On Monday, she opened her rally in Kent, Ohio, by saying, “There is no case here.”

The response by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was strikingly speedier than the belabored apology she gave after questions about her private server first surfaced. Some Democrats attributed the swift response to the lessons of the Starr investigation.

“Comey is acting as if he’s an independent counsel, as if he had the same authority and absolute power as Starr had,” said Joe Conason, a journalist and the author of “Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton.” Mr. Conason and other Clinton defenders have pointed out that Mr. Starr recently expressed regret for what he called “the unpleasantness” of his investigation into Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Starr had been solicitor general under President George Bush and a judge under President Ronald Reagan before being appointed independent counsel, a position that has since been eliminated and that Mr. Nussbaum called an “evil institution.”

Mr. Comey served as deputy attorney general for President George W. Bush before President Obama nominated him to his current position in 2013. He was confirmed by the Senate 93 to 1 for a 10-year term. Unlike an independent counsel, however, an F.B.I. director can be fired by the president.

“There are substantial differences that come to mind” concerning the two men, said Russell L. Riley, an associate professor at the Miller Center.

But, Mr. Riley added, the Clintons’ “reactions are very much the same,” forged in battles that began during the 1992 presidential campaign. “The idea was always rapid response, don’t let a charge go unanswered.”

Democrats had praised Mr. Comey in July when he recommended that there be no criminal charges against Mrs. Clinton in her handling of emails at the State Department. Donald J. Trump and Republicans blasted the decision.

Mr. Comey’s letter to Congress on Friday flipped the script.

Democrats have assailed his tactics and accused him of responding to political pressure from Republicans to prove he had not gone easy on Mrs. Clinton. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada all but accused Mr. Comey of violating the Hatch Act, which bars government officials from engaging in activity that could influence elections.

“Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law,” Mr. Reid wrote in a letter to Mr. Comey.

By Monday afternoon, some Democrats wondered if it was time for Mrs. Clinton and her allies to back off on taking aim at the messenger. To some, it seemed as if Mrs. Clinton were running against Mr. Comey, rather than Mr. Trump, in the final days of the race.

Without knowing the substance of the emails, Mrs. Clinton “had very little choice but to push back stalwartly,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former aide to Mr. Clinton. But, he added, “the Clinton campaign should think very hard about what it wants its closing argument to the American people to be.”

If she prevails on Nov. 8, Mrs. Clinton, who is known for her long memory, is likely to have a fraught relationship with her F.B.I. director.

Abner J. Mikva, a former White House counsel to Mr. Clinton, recalled in an oral history that in 1994, in a moment of misplaced optimism, he said that he was sure he and Mr. Starr would get along just fine. “From there, every time his name came up, Hillary would say ‘your friend Ken Starr’ — one word, ‘yourfriendKenStarr,’” he said.

Years after he left the White House, and after Mr. Clinton’s impeachment, Mr. Mikva, who is now deceased, ran into Mrs. Clinton at a fund-raiser.

“I got up to her, she hugged me and whispered in my ear,” he said. “She said, ‘Now what do you think of your friend Ken Starr?’ She didn’t forget.”

Source: NYT > Politics

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