Karin Immergut, Donald Trump’s nominee to the federal district court in Oregon, is popular among Democrats and Republicans. Oregon’s two Democratic senators strongly endorsed her, and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved her nomination unanimously in February. The Senate will likely confirm her in the coming weeks without objection. This widespread support for Immergut makes sense given her obvious qualifications and well-regarded service as a circuit court judge in Oregon. But it is surprising that no senator has expressed concern over her involvement in Kenneth Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. As a prosecutor with the special counsel, Immergut asked Lewinsky notoriously invasive questions about her sexual encounters with the president—then, according to Starr, “insisted” that the explicit answers be included in the Starr report.
In 1998, Immergut took leave from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, where she’d worked for two years, to join Starr’s probe. On Aug. 26, Immergut and her colleague Mary Anne Wirth conducted a now-notorious deposition of Lewinsky, whom Starr had threatened with 27 years in prison if she failed to cooperate. Immergut and Wirth explained that she would ask about “private encounters” with Clinton because she was eager to “get into some more detail” about their “physical intimacy.” They then interrogated Lewinsky about their sexual dalliances. “This is embarrassing,” Lewinsky said early on, but Immergut and Wirth pressed forward. Here is one of the most infamous portions of the transcript:
Q: Did he touch your genital area at all that day?
A: Yes. We moved—I believe he took a phone call in his office, and so we moved from the hallway into the back office, and the lights were off. And at that point, he, he put his hand down my pants and stimulated me manually in the genital area.
Q: And did he bring you to orgasm?
A: Yes, he did.
Q: Back to the touching of your breasts for a minute, was that then through clothing or actually directly onto your skin?
A: He touched my breasts through clothing, being my bra, and then also without my bra on.
Q: On that occasion, did you perform oral sex on the President?
Q: Who actually initiated your performing oral sex?
A: I did.
Q: Was the President wearing pants?
A: Yes, he was.
Q: Who unzipped his pants?
A: I believe I went to go unbutton his pants and I had trouble. So, he did that. So, but—
Q: So, you started it?
A: If I remember correctly.
Q: And he helped complete opening his pants?
Starr, Immergut, and their colleagues have since defended these questions by noting that the perjury charge against Clinton rested on the definition of “sexual relations.” Clinton took a very narrow view of that concept, and Starr’s team hoped to prove that, no matter how “sexual relations” are defined, Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in them. But that theory does not justify Immergut’s most graphic questions—for instance, her query about Lewinsky’s orgasm. Nor does it explain why this humiliating deposition was included in the report. In his 2018 book Contempt, Starr asserted that Immergut and Wirth “insisted” upon the deposition’s inclusion. Immergut disputed that allegation in her Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, writing:
I do not recall that I personally “insisted” on including the explicit detail about the President’s sexual contacts with Ms. Lewinsky in the referral. I do recall there were group discussions about whether to do so, and ultimately it was Ken Starr’s decision to make. I did feel it was important during the course of the investigation to ask Ms. Lewinsky very detailed information about those contacts because the perjury allegation was dependent on the details of the President’s testimony.
Oddly, no senator asked Immergut about her investigation of Clinton and Lewinsky during her brief testimony before the committee.
In his book A Vast Conspiracy, legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin describes Immergut’s Aug. 26 deposition of Clinton as the low point of the Starr probe, a “disgrace” to “the prosecutors themselves.” The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead described the investigation as an “assault” on Lewinsky, who promptly became the subject of mockery and scorn. Lewinsky herself has written of the trauma that she endured during this period. In her authorized biography, she accuses Starr of attempting to “strip away every last vestige of her dignity and her humanity” through “zealous malevolence.”
Lewinsky clearly still feels strongly today that the Starr report went overboard. In response to Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Lewinsky tweeted just this week:
She is right to remain angry.
Immergut played a key role in Starr’s crusade. She is now on the verge of receiving a lifetime appointment to the federal bench. There is no reason to doubt her sterling qualifications for the position. But it is curious that no senator appears perturbed by her highly controversial work with Starr.