fact vs fiction

Fact-Checking Impeachment’s ‘The Grand Jury’

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 ninth episode, “The Grand Jury,” suggests, the bulk of the hour is spent on Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp’s appearances before the 23-person panel tasked with sifting through the details of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. The two women are treated quite differently, with Tripp drawing skepticism and hostility from the jurors and Lewinsky earning a little more sympathy over her predicament. Feeling unsatisfied by the panel’s failure to dig into the graphic particulars of Lewinsky’s sexual encounters with Clinton, the Starr team dispatches Karin Immergut (Lindsey Broad) to grill her in a private interrogation. In other developments, Paula Jones’s lawsuit (and marriage) falls apart, Juanita Broaddrick’s renewed rape allegations against Clinton are sidelined by Starr, and the Clinton marriage begins to strengthen in opposition to their political enemies.

After watching “The Grand Jury,” Kaplan talked about the most important grand-jury questions, Tripp’s disastrously received “I am you” speech to the press afterward, and the “Big Creep.”

The Big Stuff

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

Linda Tripp’s hotel rooms and continental breakfasts
“She was staying in a series of hotel rooms, basically for her safety. Right when the story broke — and this was on the show a few episodes ago — they show her coming out of her house to this crush of reporters who know exactly where she lives. So she leaves her home for that reason. At first it was rumored that she was in an FBI safe house somewhere, but then it turned out that they were just putting her up in hotels in various places. I’m not sure how accurate it would be for her just to show up in the public continental-breakfast area, because she was so well known and her face was everywhere. She was spied wearing a black wig to use a hotel gym at some point, so she would probably be a little more undercover while she was staying there.”

Tripp continuing to work for the Department of Defense
“She did continue to do her job, yes. I don’t know whether any of this will be covered on the show because it’s kind of a postscript, but a couple years after this, she won a settlement from the Department of Defense. She worked at DOD until 2001, but she believed that she was demoted because of her role in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. She was rewarded, retroactively, a promotion, and also some back pay for this time when she was still working there. The settlement amount was $595,000, not including some of the back pay. It was significant.”

Tripp’s obsession over her own media coverage
“She definitely was very aware of how she was being portrayed. When Leon Neyfakh went to go interview her for Slow Burn, she had a shelf in her house full of all the books that have been written about this, with sticky notes of everything that they’d gotten wrong. She was very focused on the kind of coverage she was getting and also very frustrated by how she was cast as some kind of a villain with a master plan to betray her friend. She was also upset about various accusations about the book deal and how that factored in to her decisions. A lot of her claims about feeling in danger were also discounted by a lot of people, and she felt that wasn’t being treated seriously as a concern either.”

Tripp underestimating the level of public scorn against her
“She thought this was the right thing to do and that some of the initial scandal involving her would blow over in service of exposing the truth about Bill Clinton. She was frustrated that she became the villain in this story, when I think she thought of herself, obviously, as much more of a hero. Or, as she might say, a pretty normal person who was scared and trying to make the best decisions she could. She felt that what happened to Monica Lewinsky was part of this larger story about Bill Clinton. I don’t think she anticipated that all the attention would just stay on her and Lewinsky, and her betrayal.”

The fallout from the New Yorker article about Tripp
“In Jane Mayer’s article, it was reported, for the first time, that Tripp had been arrested as a teenager, and it was also clearly stated in the article that she did not disclose that when she applied to that DOD job, which would’ve been required by law. So she was accused of lying on that form. There was a huge media blowup over this aspect of the story. It became really controversial, including how Jane Mayer got that piece of information and who her source was. There were a lot of rumors that maybe it was someone in the White House, or someone in the administration, who was trying to get revenge on Tripp. The New Yorker ended up publishing an addendum that revealed the source to be Linda Tripp’s ex-stepmother. She was the one who gave that information. Then Ken Bacon, Tripp’s boss at DOD, is the one who confirmed it, and he ended up being reprimanded for revealing information from her personnel file. So this was a big blowup. I would say this was actually one of the very, very few things about which Linda Tripp received some positive, sympathetic coverage. ”

The grand jury’s treatment of Tripp
“A lot of the exchanges in these grand-jury scenes come right from the transcripts — either verbatim or adapted from them. I think one of the main narrative changes that was made for the episode is that they have Monica go first in front of the grand jury and then Linda, when actually Linda’s days of grand jury testimony were first. So in real life the grand jury had not actually met and talked to Monica yet when they heard from Linda. But yes, they asked her all these questions, like, ‘Well what did you think was going to happen to Monica when this became public?’ or ‘Why would that be helpful to her for this to be out in public? Is that really worth stopping this affair?’ And in one of their sessions with Monica, several jurors said things along the lines of ‘What goes around comes around’ about Tripp.”

Tripp questioning Vince Foster’s suicide
“She did bring him up to the grand jury. She raised questions about not just him, but about a couple other people who were in some way connected to the Clintons and who died. She was asked about why she felt her life had been threatened, and she said she had reason to believe the administration had not been totally honest about Foster’s death. She didn’t go so far as to say anything definitive. It was sort of in the ether of what she was saying.”

Tripp’s statement to the press after her testimony
“It was not well received. She was trying to say, ‘I’m you, I’m no different than you. I was in extraordinary circumstances, but I acted in a way that I think other people can understand.’ But I think hardly anybody who watched that or was following the story felt that they agreed with that. It was kind of laughed about. The phrase they always pull out of it, obviously, was the ‘I am you’ part — this really bold, broad attempt to appear relatable. This was the last public statement she made for quite a while.”

Karin Immergut’s feelings about taking the lead in questioning Lewinsky
“In his memoir that came out in 2018, Ken Starr wrote that Immergut and Mary Anne Wirth, who was another prosecutor on their team, were in charge of most of the interactions with Monica. Starr said that those two women ‘insisted’ on getting into all that detail, and that they believed that that was the right way to go.

“Immergut did answer questions about this a couple of years ago, because she was nominated by President Trump to be a federal judge. And as part of the questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee, she was asked a lot of the questions by a lot of the Democratic senators about her time on the Starr team. She was asked point blank whether she had regrets about this aspect of her work, in pushing Lewinsky to talk about a lot of really personal, intimate details, and she said that she didn’t. She thought that if they were trying to assess whether or not Clinton had committed perjury by saying they didn’t have sexual relations, then they didn’t really have any other option but to try to drill down on those details. That seems to be her stance.”

The decision not to ask explicit questions of Monica before the grand jury
“This is explained by some chronology that was changed for this episode, I think. She appeared in front of the grand jury two different times. The first time was on August 6, 1998, almost two weeks before Clinton gave his testimony, which was shown in the previous episode. So the Starr team had decided, to try to get around some of the awkwardness of asking her all these specific details in front of the grand jury, to prepare this chart that had the dates and listed sexual encounters, but didn’t get into that level of graphic detail. Clinton gave his testimony on the 17th, and then she came back on the 20th for a session just answering questions from the jurors. And then after the Starr team went through Clinton’s testimony, that’s when they decided to have her answer some very detailed questions about those encounters.”

Lewinsky winning sympathy from the grand jury
“She did. As they show in the episode, there was one middle-aged woman in particular who was trying to drill down on her pattern of going after married, unavailable men. It was very much like psychoanalyzing her. So that was more of a hostile interaction, but she gave what felt like very open and honest answers. And that definitely seems to have gained some of their sympathy.

“She spent two days in front of them — many, many hours testifying, answering their questions, lots of personal questions, and it seems like, by the end, a lot of them were giving her advice. Like telling her, ‘You need to move past this.’ ‘Linda Tripp, what goes around comes around, so you need to move on from thinking about her.’”

The jurors’ focus on Lewinsky’s interrogation at the Ritz
“When this came up, she asked if Mike Emmick could leave, and he did. Then she was asked a lot of questions about that day. She was very upset, obviously, in recounting it, and referred to this then — and I think probably still now — as the worst day of her life. She was asked pretty specifically, ‘Were you told you could not call a lawyer?’ And she talked a lot about how it wasn’t explicitly said, but they didn’t want her to call Frank Carter, and he was her lawyer, and that obviously had the effect of making her feel like she couldn’t contact an attorney. And this was investigated by a judge, who ultimately determined that there was not a violation. But this came under a lot of suspicion, whether there was prosecutorial misconduct.”

Lewinsky’s insistence that she wasn’t asked to lie and wasn’t promised a job
“That was really significant, because that’s the connection that was made in order to expand the Whitewater investigation. The question was if Clinton was trying to buy silence with jobs or obstruct justice or suborn perjury in that way. So she was very clear about where she stood on those central questions, which is that he didn’t do anything wrong and she didn’t do anything she didn’t already want to do when she signed that affidavit. The Starr report still had supporting evidence around those claims, but the heart of what could more easily be proved had to do with his potential perjury around questions about their sexual relationship. Because those were the things that she was clear about that conflicted with his testimony.”

The cultural impact of “the cigar” 
“It was everywhere. Obviously that’s still one of the things people know about this. The blue dress was probably the No. 1 most salacious thing, but this would be a close second. The detail became public later than the blue dress, which was reported almost as soon as the story broke in January.”

Clinton wearing a tie Lewinsky bought him on the morning of her testimony
“She recalled in her biography that he did wear a tie that may have been a tie she gave him on her first day before the grand jury. It was a blue-and-gold Zegna tie. She said the prosecutors noticed it, but did not tell her about it until after her testimony, so as to not to affect her. But it did become this big side story about whether he was trying to communicate with her through his ties. There ended up being a lot of media coverage around that. And Clinton was actually asked about it during his grand-jury testimony. At one point, there was even footage uncovered of this random shopping trip in Italy that Clinton’s brother went on that seemed to reveal this specific tie was from there, not from Lewinsky. So there was all this uproar about the ties, and what he was trying to do or not do. But Lewinsky had been very focused on his ties in the past, during their relationship. She felt like, if he wore a tie she’d given him, it was like a message to her and that would make her feel happy.”

The fate of the Paula Jones lawsuit
“The lawsuit was dismissed in April of ’98 by the judge on the grounds that, basically, Jones would have to prove not just that Clinton harassed her or said something crass to her, but that she experienced some kind of workplace discrimination because of it. The judge said, ‘There’s not evidence of that here, so I’m throwing this case out.’ But that wasn’t the end of the lawsuit. I don’t know what we’re going to see in the next episode, but she ended up appealing the case. Then, in an effort to end it once and for all, Clinton settled that November for $850,000. And that deal did not include an apology.

“The lawsuit was thrown out on April 1, 1998. And when Clinton heard the news, he apparently thought it was an April Fool’s prank. He was in Dakar, Senegal, at the time, and the media actually got footage of him celebrating the judge’s decision that night. He was seen dancing and playing a drum in his hotel room.”

Juanita Broaddrick’s decision to change her affidavit
“When she was first approached by Rick and Beverly Lambert, the private investigators who were working with the Jones team, she said, ‘I don’t want any part of this. I don’t want to be involved here. I want to just move on.’ So she signed an affidavit as part of that investigation saying that nothing happened between her and Clinton.

“But in ’98, when the Starr team was investigating those leads from the Jones case again, she was contacted by someone from Starr’s office. She said she talked to her son about what to do, and her son’s advice was that the Paula Jones thing was a civil case, but this is criminal, so it would be more serious to lie this time. So she ended up getting an immunity deal of her own with the Starr office so that she could say her affidavit was false and share her story with them.”

The Starr team’s handling of Broaddrick’s rape allegations against Clinton
“Their thinking was that they had this Lewinsky matter, where they’re trying to prove whether she was offered a job for her silence and that Clinton was paying off people for silence. They were looking for that in Juanita Broaddrick’s story, and in what happened to her. But she’s been very clear on this point for as long as she’s been in the public eye: She didn’t get anything. There was no attempt made after that incident to keep her quiet or get her to say one thing or another. That’s why they ended up including it in an appendix in the Starr report, but not including that in a more substantive way.”

The Clintons feeling united against their political enemies
“Even as Hillary was obviously very angry at her husband and not wanting to defend him personally, she was very clear that she felt that he was being unfairly attacked as a president and as a leader, so she wanted to defend him on those counts. That was very much something where they were in total agreement, and they worked together to try to help save his presidency from Starr and impeachment.”

Clinton’s level of support from Democrats
“His level of support was very similar to, I feel like, what we all followed with Trump’s impeachment, where there’s a big difference between the votes to impeach and the votes to convict. It was pretty clear that, if this got to the Senate, conviction was extremely unlikely. But Clinton’s team did have this mix of democratic lawmakers, and also some moderate Republicans, who they thought could go either way. And they did work to lobby them. Because obviously they didn’t want him to be impeached, but if he was going to be impeached, let it be with the lowest, most partisan amount of support. Because then it’s much easier to paint it as a partisan attempt to get you out of office, as opposed to members of both parties believing that you’ve done something really wrong. One of the possibilities that was attractive to a lot of Democrats and White House officials was to censure Clinton instead of impeaching him, so they were pushing for that too.

“They also had midterm elections looming here, so Starr basically gave himself a deadline of about two weeks after this bonus Lewinsky deposition to prepare the report and submit it in advance of the election. So the political ramifications of all these developments were on everyone’s minds.”

Odds and Ends

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

On calling Clinton “the creep” in her taped conversations with Tripp
“This came from Monica. She called him ‘The Big Creep’ after his initials, B.C., and because of her frustrations with him and the way that he sometimes treated her. Then that sometimes got shortened to ‘the creep.’”

On the unusual leaks from the grand jury
“One of the most notable things about this is that the grand-jury proceedings are supposed to be totally private and secret, but instead, in this case, they were made public constantly. It was leaking like a sieve, and there were all kinds of accusations about where that was coming from. And the most obvious answer is that the leaks were coming from the Starr team. Because as soon as someone would leave after testifying for the day, certain details of what they talked about would appear in the press. And there was actually an investigation into this that didn’t find any specific violations of grand-jury secrecy but said the Starr team’s dealings with the press and off-the-record conversations were less than ideal.”

Fact-Checking Impeachment’s ‘The Grand Jury’