fact vs fiction

Fact-checking Impeachment’s ‘Assassination of Monica Lewinsky’

Photo: Tina Thorpe/FX

The new FX limited series Impeachment: American Crime Story the third in a true-crime anthology that started with The People v. O.J. Simpson and continued with The Assassination of Gianni Versace — covers the events leading up to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998, with a heavy emphasis on the fallout from his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Fans of the brilliant Slate podcast Slow Burn will surely remember many details from its Leon Neyfakh–hosted second season three years ago, which included among its eight episodes bonus interviews with major players like Ken Starr, the special prosecutor and author of the infamous Starr report, and Linda Tripp, who had befriended Lewinsky at the Pentagon and helped reveal her secret affair to the independent counsel’s office.

For all ten episodes of Impeachment, we’ve asked Madeline Kaplan, the researcher for the Clinton-Lewinsky season of Slow Burn, to fact-check the show’s major events and minute details against her own understanding of the events. (Kaplan and Neyfakh’s eight-book reading list can be found here and doesn’t include the Starr report and its eyebrow-raising appendices.) Kaplan followed Neyfakh (and co-creator Andrew Parsons) to Prologue Projects, where she serves as a producer on Neyfakh’s Fiasco and other podcasts.

As the title of the seventh episode, “The Assassination of Monica Lewinsky,” not-so-subtly suggests, the story of Lewinsky’s alleged affair with President Clinton becomes public knowledge and it’s a feeding frenzy for the press, late-night talk show hosts, and Clinton’s political enemies and interrogators, who seize on the potential for impeachment or resignation. Before the news breaks, however, Clinton gives his deposition in the Paula Jones case and Newsweek declines to publish Michael Isikoff’s story on Lewinsky, handing another big scoop over to Matt Drudge. After the mainstream press follows with a Washington Post article on January 21, 1998, Lewinsky walls herself up in her Watergate apartment as reporters and pundits pore through every aspect of her life, and she and Tripp become fodder for vicious comedy monologues and sketches, much of it focused on their appearance. At the White House, Clinton struggles to gain his footing as his staff pleads for a coherent public response.

After watching “The Assassination of Monica Lewinsky,” Kaplan talked about the major dramatic license the show takes in the Clinton deposition, the behind-the-scenes drama over securing an immunity deal for Lewinsky, and the impact such intense public scrutiny had on Lewinsky and Tripp.

The Big Stuff

The major plot and character beats that shape Impeachment’s narrative.

Paula Jones’s emotional reaction to the Clinton deposition
“This was obviously a huge deal, a culmination of this many-years-long process by this point. She was definitely very stressed and overwhelmed — apparently, also excited for Clinton to finally have to answer these questions. A lot of what we know about her comes from Susan Carpenter-McMillan, who did accompany her that day and spent the six hours of the deposition outside with reporters, spinning things and talking to them and answering questions.

“On the show, there’s an extremely dramatic moment where [Jones] runs out of the room when Clinton denies having ever met her. That did not happen. Which is a pretty big leap. I think they’re trying to show some of the true emotional stuff that was going on with [Jones]. Apparently later that day after everything was finished, she was exhausted and overwhelmed that it was finally done, or at least that part of it was done. Susan Carpenter-McMillan saw her at the hotel later and she was really upset. So I think they’re trying to borrow from that here. But that’s still obviously a dramatic change.

“She had been sitting through many of these depositions before. She was prepared for the fact that [Clinton] would likely deny it. But even his denials actually were not quite as forceful as they show in the episode, where he very flatly says he’s never met her and reiterates that a couple of times. In reality, while he did deny it, it was more like, ‘I don’t recall. I meet thousands of people.’”

Jones’s lawyers knowing things that Clinton didn’t
“A lot of the back-and-forth is pretty much verbatim from parts of the deposition that were released later, including that really dramatic exchange where they start asking Clinton about specific gifts that Monica gave him or that he gave her. They’re in the actual deposition, which took over six hours, including a lunch break. So while they’re discussing what to do about lunch, Clinton basically interrupts and says, ‘I have a question for you. It feels like you’re asking me things that are based on something, but you’re not telling me what that is.’ Because obviously he was very stressed about the fact that they’re asking some really specific things that must be based on some kind of evidence they have. And that’s when Paula Jones’s attorney says to him, ‘This will come to light shortly.’ That’s from the transcript.”

Lewinsky continuing to express interest in reaching out to Betty Currie
“She absolutely did. She tried, as they showed during the sting operation at the mall and the Ritz-Carlton, to sneak off to go call Betty on a payphone. And then, during this period, she was still hoping to contact her. But soon as Bill Ginsburg came into the picture, he was very clear, ‘Don’t contact anyone. And definitely don’t contact Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, Bill Clinton, or Frank Carter, the lawyer.’

“The most valuable thing she could do for Starr would be to record phone calls, which she really doesn’t want to do with some of these principal people. And so, if [the Starr team] is aware that she’s been contacting any of them during these negotiations, then some of her best leverage is off the table instantly.”

Newsweek killing Michael Isikoff’s Lewinsky story
“[Isikoff] is putting together this story, and as part of that story, obviously he has to contact the people who are described in the story for comment. So he calls Betty Currie, who doesn’t really say anything to him. And then he calls Jackie Bennett in the Office of the Independent Counsel because the other key piece of this scoop is not just about Lewinsky and Clinton, but about the fact that the Starr team is now investigating this. Once the independent counsel’s office figures out that he’s working on this, that’s where a lot of the complications slowing down publication happened. Because they’re frustrated that he already contacted Betty Currie. And they ask him, ‘Please do not contact Vernon Jordan for comment.’ Then Newsweek’s editors say, ‘Well, we can’t just publish a story without having contacted one of the people who’s at the heart of the story and these accusations.’

“So that’s one of the fundamental things that is obviously extremely frustrating for Isikoff. Because he feels like he has it all there. He knows other people are aware of this, and are also working on this story. But they have this hard deadline for the magazine. And so much to his chagrin, they end up saying, ‘We can’t do it this week.’”

Lewinsky in the Office of the Independent Counsel during negotiations
“It’s not quite the same as the way they show it here. She showed up at the Starr offices with Ginsburg and another lawyer. And Ginsberg was like, ‘I won’t let you speak to her directly.’ So she was in an office being, as she put it, babysat by various prosecutors. And Ginsburg was in the other office negotiating. It’s not like she was just out in the hall with someone who was trying to make small talk and also telling her that he met her friend Linda Tripp. That felt sort of invented to me. Obviously they’re doing an investigation, so why would they be offering her information about what they’ve been up to with Linda Tripp?”

Starr taking a hard line on Lewinsky’s immunity deal
“There was a lot on the table in terms of the different pieces of an immunity deal that they were sorting through and arguing over. For example, will she have to take a lie detector test? The main thing that the Starr team wanted is what’s called ‘queen for a day,’ where they bring in the witness and they get to ask her whatever they want to figure out what she would say if given immunity. That’s obviously very valuable to them because they were worried that if they gave her immunity, she had already signed that affidavit saying, ‘It didn’t happen.’ So what if then, with her immunity, she just says it didn’t happen again? And then [the Starr team] would be missing their key witness at the center of everything.

“So that’s the main thing that they’re really focused on. Whereas Bill Ginsburg does not want to allow that to happen. That’s a main point of contention. Also, it’s not just that they’re arguing over these legal details in the immunity deal, but that Ginsberg has a really particular personality that is extremely off-putting to a lot of the prosecutors and they are mutually very annoyed at each other. Both sides think the other side is being unprofessional and ridiculous. There’s all kinds of accusations back and forth. [Ginsberg] calls them all kinds of names, screams at them.”

The Ginsberg side of the negotiations 
“He wanted a deal where she got complete transactional immunity. A deal that’s like, ‘Regardless of what she says, you won’t be able to prosecute her for any of this.’ One of the things that he was really focused on during this period is getting mental health help for Monica, who’s obviously struggling significantly. In his mind and in his negotiations, part of what he’s thinking is, ‘What will be the easiest path forward for her personally?’ And he sees the Starr team as these huge villains. Monica does also. He doesn’t want this ‘queen for a day’ setup where she has to sit in front of the same group of people from the hotel room brace while they ask her all kinds of invasive questions.

“Eventually Ginsburg tries to negotiate a version where she can submit her version of events in advance, in written form. And they put together an immunity deal that was signed by Lewinsky and Ginsburg. But the prosecutors hadn’t signed it yet. And after further discussion within the independent counsel’s office, most of the prosecutors thought it was a bad deal, and Starr made the decision to call it off. They were frustrated by Ginsburg’s whole approach. And they thought it was a mistake not to make Lewinsky answer questions verbally. This whole back-and-forth was the source of a lot of internal tensions in their office.”

Lewinsky glued to the TV as the story was unfolding
“Yes. [She and her mom] were just sitting there watching TV all the time as all this exploded and her face was all over the TV. She was watching basically everything. I think partly because it would be incredibly hard to turn it off if it’s about you and things are unfolding like that. But also just because, as they show in this episode, there’s nothing else for them to do. They’ve been forbidden from contacting anyone or speaking to anyone. They literally don’t even know what the weather is because they have the curtains closed. They’re just in this little bubble where they can’t do anything. So she watched tons and tons of TV.”

Starr tearing up the immunity deal after seeing Ginsburg on TV
“That’s a simplification of what was going on. It definitely didn’t help. They were really frustrated by his interest in going on TV and inventing ‘the full Ginsburg’ of going on all five Sunday shows in one day. Talking about the deal in public was really annoying to them. Part of what ends up blowing up the deal is this dislike of Ginsburg and his methods. It feels like this random medical malpractice attorney has come in and yelled at them and called them names while they’re trying to negotiate. That’s part of it.

The other part is that the two people who were doing most of the negotiating were Mike Emmick and Bruce Udall, who were also the two charged with leading the sting operation in the hotel room. And I think the reason they ended up working on this is the same reason they helped with the sting operation, which is that they were a little bit softer in their approach and less likely to get really angry. But that could be very frustrating to other members of the Starr team. There were internal divisions. [Emmick and Udall] prepared and faxed over this immunity deal, but hadn’t themselves signed it. And then there’s this big meeting in the Starr offices where Starr ends up deciding like, ‘We’re not doing this anymore. The deal’s off.’”

Lewinsky and Tripp becoming joke fodder 
“Jokes about Monica and her appearance were instantaneous and ubiquitous, as well as really cruel jokes about her personal life. Everything was fodder for jokes. They were everywhere all the time. What they chose to put on the show is pretty accurate in terms of what, in particular, was the most painful for these two people. For Monica, it was Andy Bleiler, her former high-school teacher, going out in public and saying all these terrible things about her and having all these people she knew personally from her past, like former boyfriends or friends or acquaintances, putting themselves out there. Now it was more than this betrayal by Linda Tripp that she’s starting to wrap her head around, but all these other people betraying her too.

“And then with Linda Tripp, what was really painful for her were these SNL caricatures of her with John Goodman and a ton of jokes about her appearance specifically. They show that in the scene with her daughter where she talks about being teased growing up. That’s something that she burrowed very deeply in her. For the rest of her life, she was very focused on how people reacted to her appearance in these horrible ways. And wanted very much not to look like herself anymore as a result.”

Clinton meeting with Betty Currie to get on the same page
“This happened. In that deposition, when they’re asking all these specific questions about Monica, I think he freaks out and is like, ‘Who’s the person who could help me corroborate that I didn’t do anything wrong?’ Because one of the specific questions was, ‘Were you alone together?’ And then he concludes that Betty Currie can say that we weren’t alone together because she was present at her desk. So he calls her and asks, ‘Can you come in tomorrow?’ And this is on a Sunday, which is very unusual. He sits down with her and goes through these questions or these recollections to make sure she agrees. She testifies about this later and says it was clear to her that he just wanted her to agree with what he was saying rather than challenge his recollections. But she would also say that she didn’t know more or that didn’t feel that she really would contradict those recollections.”

Clinton staffers feeling frustrated by his lack of response
“It was extremely chaotic. And as they show, there’s different advisers who are able to get slightly different versions from Clinton throughout this day that the story breaks in the national news. There were lots of reports from this first week that many people within the White House were afraid that he’d have to resign. They don’t know what’s going on. A lot of them are frustrated because they feel in the dark about. Like, ‘Where did this come from? What is the truth?’ What are they supposed to be saying [to the press]?

“Things really feel like they’re snowballing. More and more bits of this story are trickling out. First, you have the big story. Then there’s [news of] the taped conversations of Lewinsky talking about this. And then a couple of days later, the story about the blue dress becomes public. So it feels like things are just spiraling and getting worse and worse and worse. And it feels like that information is getting out only in one direction that could lead you to one possible conclusion about whether or not this story is true. There was a lot of talk that he would have to resign or be impeached at some point.”

Staff reaction to Dick Morris’s return to the fold
“He was very frustrating to a lot of people in the White House. Partly because by this point he had had to resign as a result of a very embarrassing sex scandal of his own, which he discloses in the dialogue in this episode. Also because they see him as an unsavory character. He’s a Republican who has known Bill Clinton for a long time. And Clinton really liked him and sought his help a lot.

“But he didn’t physically turn up at the White House the way that they show it here. Clinton paged him on this day, Morris called him back and then, according to Dick Morris, they had a version of this conversation where Clinton says, ‘I didn’t do what they said, but I did something.’ And then Morris says, ‘Do you want me to put a poll out in the field and see how people are feeling about this?’ And he says, ‘Yes.’ So then they talk much later that night and he gives them the results of the poll, which are, ‘They don’t care that much about an affair. What they really care about is if you lied about it, or encouraged other people to lie about it under oath.’”

Clinton’s belief that his strategy of denial would work
“It’s hard to imagine knowing what’s out there by this point about the tapes and the gifts, and the blue-dress thing has been reported. I think part of it was that this type of strategy had worked for him before in similar situations. Denying things and not giving up too much to your political enemies to try to placate them— that had worked in the past. The other key thing here is that he hasn’t spoken to Monica super-recently. But the last time they talked, she was pretty clear: ‘I don’t want to tell anyone anything. I want this to be very private.’ And so he doesn’t really have any reason to believe at this point that she would say anything different to contradict him.”

Odds and Ends

The details and embellishments that may or may not be rooted in the historical record but reflect Impeachment’s stylistic approach.

Clinton acting familiar with the judge in the deposition
“He did know who she was. Susan Webber Wright, the judge, went to law school at the University of Arkansas and took a class from Clinton when he was teaching there. It was a maritime-law class, which I did not know was a specialty of his. So he taught a class to her and apparently there was something where she got a grade she didn’t like, so she argued it with him at the time. It seems like a crazy coincidence, but it’s also not as weird as it might be just based on the fact that this suit was filed in Little Rock. And obviously he comes from the Little Rock legal community, which is not that big. So he would know a lot of people.”

On the candy jar on Currie’s desk
“She did have a candy jar on her desk, but I do not know what was in it. I don’t know whether Clinton couldn’t resist it, but he has a very long history of having a sweet tooth and being addicted to junk food. Which was a whole long thing with the people in his life, trying to get him to eat healthier.”

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Fact-Check: Impeachment’s ‘Assassination of Monica Lewinsky’