Trump Embraces Bill Clinton's Deny-Attack Model to Combat Probes

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump wasn’t the first to attack an independent prosecutor’s investigation of a sitting U.S. president as “corrupt” and “a witch hunt.”

Democratic political strategist Paul Begala used the words 20 years ago to condemn Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, just weeks after the then-president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed.

Whether confronted by a former aide’s tell-all book or a federal investigation, Trump keeps returning to the defense strategy deployed by the political family he defeated to win the presidency: the Clinton White House model of deny, attack and polarize.

Trump this month dismissed Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “crazed, crying lowlife” after her unflattering insider account of his administration, just as anonymous Clinton allies initially portrayed Lewinsky as an unstable stalker obsessed with the president.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani blasted the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, as a ‘‘liar” and “scoundrel” after Cohen disclosed he had taped conversations with the president. On Stormy Daniels, who claims Trump paid her off to conceal a sexual affair, Giuliani said, “I’m sorry. I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance.”

The substance of the scandals surrounding the two White Houses differ, as do their styles. Trump publicly vents, often on Twitter, against Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation. Clinton mostly stood aside while two closely aligned political strategists -- Begala and James Carville -- became Starr’s loudest public antagonists, their criticisms amplified by a network of surrogates.

But the linchpin of the strategy is the same. Success or failure hinges on vilifying witnesses and investigators and relentlessly framing the matter as a purely partisan fight.

Public Relations Battle

As Trump prepares for a possible grand jury subpoena and the risk of impeachment, he and his allies are digging deeper into the Clinton playbook in hopes of repeating his predecessor’s success. Giuliani has said he is conducting a public relations battle, more so than a legal one, to discredit Mueller’s investigation and maintain support among Trump’s base and Republicans in Congress.

“We both realized it is a public investigation where you have to have a public defense, you can’t let the president get pounded and pounded or public opinion will turn very much against him,” Giuliani said. “That becomes more of an incentive for Congress to act if public opinion is on their side.”

The campaign against Starr helped ensure that Democrats in the Senate, even those repelled by Clinton’s affair, wouldn’t vote him out of office and that the president’s public approval remained intact. Clinton’s Gallup job approval hit 73 percent -- a high for his presidency -- the week the House voted to impeach him.

The narrative Trump has spun and language he has used eerily echoes Clinton damage control. Hillary Clinton complained of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” in an NBC “Today Show”’ appearance days after the Lewinsky affair was reported. Trump portrays evidence against him as emanating from a conspiracy of “Deep State” FBI and intelligence operatives who never wanted him in office. Clinton allies regularly hit Starr’s Republican pedigree; Trump repeatedly tags Mueller’s team “angry Democrats.”

Yet Clinton’s defenders had advantages in following the strategy that Trump doesn’t. Starr was a Christian conservative Republican appointed to prominent posts by prior GOP presidents: an appellate court judgeship by Ronald Reagan and solicitor general by George H.W. Bush. Painting the Mueller team as partisan Democrats is harder because the special counsel is a registered Republican who was appointed FBI director by George W. Bush.

Job Approval

Clinton broadened his appeal with centrist policies such as welfare reform and budget deficit reduction, and he entered the Lewinsky scandal with a robust 60 percent Gallup job approval. Trump has made little effort to expand beyond a partisan political base, and his weekly Gallup job approval has never risen above 45 percent.

The impeachment charges against Clinton revolved around hiding a sexual affair, and his wife aggressively defended him. The investigation into Trump involves a foreign power’s efforts to interfere in a U.S. presidential election and whether anyone around Trump conspired in the meddling. His wife has been silent about the allegations of past affairs that have surfaced along the way.

Trump’s advisers say his assaults reflect the president’s instincts, honed over years of cut-throat business dealings and defending himself in the world of New York City tabloids.

“The legal strategy reflects the president’s approach. He is not someone who takes punches without punching back,” said Joe diGenova, an informal legal adviser to Trump.

But the Clinton defense has clearly influenced those advising Trump. The White House in May hired Emmet Flood, one of Clinton’s defense lawyers from the Starr investigation, to handle the White House counsel’s office response to the Mueller investigation.

Attacking Prosecutor

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon, who was heavily involved in assembling Trump’s legal team, wanted him to have his own Lanny Davis -- a fierce defender of Clinton from the Lewinsky days who served as the attack-dog surrogate. Bannon even reached out to Davis, a lawyer who’s still a strong Clinton supporter and now represents Cohen.

Davis said he advised Bannon against launching a personal attack against Mueller. He warned that attacking Mueller -- a taciturn, by-the-book prosecutor -- wouldn’t have the same effect as with Starr, who Davis felt had thin skin and could be baited into making unforced errors.

“If I were in the Trump camp trying to develop a strategy, God forbid, the absolute last thing I would do is to attack him,” Davis said of Mueller. “It does absolutely no good and just makes the client look foolish.”

Clinton allies rejected the idea that their attacks were anywhere close to Trump’s. They also argue their claims about Starr were warranted given his aggressive tactics and leaks coming from his office. Trump’s allies say their attacks have more merit. But while Clinton’s team may have used a scalpel and Trump is wielding a buzz saw, they face the same endgame.