Lessons for Trump From the Clinton Scandals
A generation ago, as the 1992 presidential campaign heated up, The Wall Street Journal asked: “Who Is Bill Clinton?” The country “will get to know, or try to get to know, Bill Clinton and Hillary,” the Journal noted. “The Gennifer Flowers tank has already rumbled by. But where’s the rest of them?”
Not far behind, as it turned out. Eight years of scandal and suspicion followed: Whitewater, Travelgate, the firing of all U.S. attorneys, the death of a White House deputy counsel and the jailing of a Justice Department associate attorney general, vanishing documents, congressional hearings, independent counsels, lurid allegations from Arkansas, 1996 campaign-finance misdeeds, Paula Jones, Monica, impeachment, the Marc Rich pardon.
Today, with his campaign staggering but the presidency perhaps still within his grasp,Donald Trump should consider the central lesson of the Clinton years: Scandal compounded by secrecy blots out the political sun. Opposition to the Clintons quickly coalesced as the media, members of Congress and outside groups seized the moment. The most successful of these opposition efforts—if “success” is measured by impact on the presidency and corruption convictions—focused on matters of law and evidence of criminal behavior. The Whitewater investigation netted 15 corruption convictions, including that of the sitting governor of Arkansas. Four senior Clinton-connected fundraisers went to jail in the campaign-finance scandal, which exposed Chinese attempts to influence the election. Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment lawsuit led to White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to President Clinton’s impeachment in the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice
Mr. Trump is steering his ship at a similar scandal moment. The sheer velocity of his controversial campaign has served to conflate the areas of possible legal jeopardy in his history with the merely boorish in his behavior. Should he win the presidency, it’s the former that will attract the attention of the investigative axis that is now a permanent feature of life in Washington.
There are three areas of concern he should be addressing now:
• The tax returns. Nothing excites the scandal-industrial complex more than withheld documents. If there is a Democratic majority in the Senate next year, the clamor for Mr. Trump’s tax returns will be unceasing. Early in the Whitewater case, top Clinton aides argued for full disclosure: putting out every scrap of paper related to the Whitewater land deal and letting the chips fall where they may.
The Clintons rejected that advice. Whitewater documents dripped out for years, embarrassing the Clintons but failing to prove criminal intent. Mr. Trump got a taste of this with the recent leak of three pages of his 1995 tax returns. For the Clintons it was the coverup, not the crime—particularly the attempts to hide Mrs. Clinton’s subpoenaed Rose Law Firm billing records—that led prosecutors to seriously consider charges against the first lady.
• The Russian connection. Mr. Trump’s foreign business dealings evoke another scandal trope: the pattern of conduct. Whitewater, Clinton opponents believe, revealed a pattern of conduct that persisted through the 1996 campaign-finance affair and up to the email and Clinton Foundation scandals of today. Mr. Trump’s business forays into the Soviet Union and Russia date to at least 1987 and he repeatedly brushed up against Kremlin-aligned power brokers and unsavory characters with underworld connections.
In 2008 Donald Trump Jr. told a real-estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and that “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” In 2013, Mr. Trump and a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin brought the Miss Universe pageant to Russia. Mr. Trump should expect investigations into patterns of conduct in his Russia dealings.
Mr. Trump promises it won’t be business as usual if he is elected president. But the same scandal-industrial complex that hemmed in his predecessors will quickly engulf him unless he makes some bold moves.
The most transformative solution would be to embrace radical transparency. Mr. Trump should immediately release his tax returns. He should direct the FBI and CIA to release any files it has on him. He should instruct his lawyers to stop acting like a defense team and embrace freedom-of-information practices. And he should appoint a transparency czar to ensure that his campaign and a future Trump administration will operate in an open and accountable manner. That would be a real revolution in Washington.
A truly transparent, accountable administration-in-waiting would not be just good policy, it would also be good politics. A massive document dump late in the campaign would electrify the media and shift the onus to Mrs. Clinton. The contrast with the secretiveness of the Clinton campaign and the lack of transparency in the Obama administration would be stark.
The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2016. Mr. Morrison, chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch, covered the Clinton scandals for the Journal editorial page from 1994 to 2002 and is co-editor of the six-volume series, “Whitewater: A Journal Briefing.”