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Tracks of a Set-Up Become More Clear

There's a reason the right wing is gleeful; it's managed to set the agenda for the nation.

October 06, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

The coup is underway.

Someday we will know more about the efforts of ultraconservatives to destroy a twice-elected president, and it will likely make our blood boil. But enough has come out to raise very troubling questions about a threat to the integrity of the electoral process.

Was the president of the United States set up? Was there collaboration between lawyers associated with the Paula Corbin Jones legal team and Kenneth Starr to exploit Bill Clinton's private failings and place the president in a legal trap to force impeachment charges?

Clinton's aides have long alleged just that, and now there is fresh evidence to support their claim of "a right-wing conspiracy" to undermine the president. Documents released by the House on Friday contain an FBI interview with book agent Lucianne Goldberg admitting she facilitated a link between the Jones defense team and Starr's office. Goldberg is the former Nixon dirty trickster who had recommended to Linda Tripp that she record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. By Sunday, Goldberg had admitted that the contact, not named in the FBI report, was Richard Porter, a partner in Starr's private law firm.

Porter issued a statement denying he had "ever offered legal counsel to Lucianne Goldberg or Linda Tripp or represented them at any time or in any way." But Newsday reported, "Goldberg, in an interview, said she called Porter when Tripp became anxious about the fact that her recordings of phone conversations with Lewinsky were illegal in Maryland. She said Porter then put her on the line with a Philadelphia lawyer . . . to provide both a name in Starr's office and [to] help locate a new lawyer for Tripp."

The Philadelphia lawyer was identified by the New York Times as Jerome M. Marcus, "one of a group of conservative lawyers who assisted the Jones legal team and then secretly helped Mrs. Tripp find a lawyer and bring her accusations to Mr. Starr's attention." The New York Times reported that Goldberg described Marcus as a "cutout" who was brought into the matter to keep Porter's role obscured because of his close ties to Starr.

Starr claimed that he first learned about Clinton's affair with Lewinsky when Tripp called his office Jan. 12. His report doesn't mention that a week earlier, Marcus had tipped off a law school friend working in the independent counsel's office concerning Tripp's allegations. Nor was the Justice Department informed of Marcus' role and a possible connection with the Jones case when Starr asked for permission to expand his investigation.

According to the New York Times, Porter, Marcus and a third lawyer, all members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal association whose meetings Starr attended, helped Tripp find a new lawyer, James A. Moody, also a member of the society. The Times reported that "they then worked together, in secret deliberations with Mrs. Tripp's confidante Lucianne Goldberg--to bring Mrs. Tripp's tapes and story to Mr. Starr." The Times said Goldberg corroborated the newspaper's account and stated, "Who else would I go to to get involved in something like this? The people who have the most axes to grind."

But Starr is not supposed to have an ax to grind. It raises serious questions of impropriety if he is collaborating with those who do. Starr previously had done work for the Jones legal team but claimed those ties were severed. Evidently that is not true. Clinton's personal indiscretion pales in comparison to the possibility that a civil suit might have been employed by his political enemies, using Starr as the key agent, to legally compromise the president. John Conyers of Michigan, the House Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said he planned to call Starr before the committee regarding the propriety of his investigation.

The good news is that impeachment proceedings will likely backfire, and the one exposed will be Starr. The bad news is that the facts will come out after the election. In the meantime, constant emphasis on scandal will demoralize progressive voters while energizing the right-wing base of the GOP electorate. The result could be an increase in the margin of conservative strength in Congress sufficient to override a presidential veto of reactionary legislation. The right-wing critics of Clinton's policy agenda, which enjoys popular support, will have accomplished their goal of totally controlling the government, even if they don't have the votes in the Senate to remove the president.

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