fact vs fiction

Fact-checking Impeachment’s Final Act

Photo: /Tina Thorpe/FX

The recently concluded 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 appendixes.) Kaplan followed Neyfakh (and co-creator Andrew Parsons) to Prologue Projects, where she serves as a producer on Neyfakh’s Fiasco and other podcasts.

The tenth and final episode, “The Wilderness,” revolves around the release of the Starr report on September 9, 1998. In the mad rush to bring the report to Congress in advance of the November midterms, the Starr team makes the decision to focus on a detailed breakdown of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, but the level of graphic detail turns public opinion in Clinton’s favor. As Clinton’s team tries to rally support in the face of near-certain impeachment in the House, an item in the appendixes about “Jane Doe No. 5,” Juanita Broaddrick, raises new concerns from politicians who are on the fence. As Broaddrick agrees to share her rape allegations on NBC News, the other women surrounding the case are dealing with legal problems on top of harsh public scrutiny: Lewinsky agrees to a deal to write a quickie memoir with Andrew Morton, who had penned a popular biography about Princess Diana; Paula Jones, having retreated home with her children after her marriage and finances fall apart, takes gigs at the Psychic Friends Network and Penthouse magazine that lose her some support; and Tripp is surprised to learn her immunity deal with Starr doesn’t cover state charges over taping Lewinsky without her consent.

After watching “The Wilderness,” Kaplan talked about the explosive reaction to the Starr report on Capitol Hill and on the internet, a big missing subplot about the midterm elections, and the welcome distraction of the Sammy Sosa–Mark McGwire home-run race.

The Big Stuff

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

Lewinsky’s money issues and book deal
“The Lewinskys had extensive legal fees. I’ve seen the figure estimated at around $1 million that they owed to lawyers around this time. It was reported when she got the book deal that most of that money would probably go to lawyers. It wasn’t just like she had a lawyer on retainer. She was actively, for most of the year 1998, doing various legal things, paying crazy hourly wages. But in the selection of Andrew Morton, who had written this very favorable biography of Princess Diana, there was also some hope that he could give her a sympathetic portrayal and that audiences would have more sympathy for her perspective. So it was a motivation too.”

How the Lewinsky book was received
“It was not well received. The book was written in just a couple of months and published in early 1999. And pretty much all the reviews referenced how quickly it came together in criticizing the writing style. It was heavily based on interviews with Monica and some of her family and friends. So there’s a lot of insight from their perspectives, but in terms of the writing and how balanced and nuanced it is, there’s not a whole lot there.”

Feminists rallying in support of Clinton
“I think that’s generally true. Obviously, the episode doesn’t show the many different fault lines that emerged within the feminist movement about this. I would say, by and large, that major organizations, like the National Organization for Women, were torn about what to do at first but ended up rallying behind Clinton. Mainly, they supported him on the grounds that his policies were the most important thing to protect and that it wasn’t worth it to sacrifice him to the GOP in order to teach a lesson about what he’d done. To them, the main thing was his policies on abortion, on family leave, and various other programs.

“But there was definitely a lot of disagreement. Some of it’s generational, around this idea of whether Monica should be taken at her word and given agency to make the decisions that she made. She was very clear at the time that she felt that this was completely consensual. But there were also feminists who thought it was dangerous just to let it slide. He was literally the most powerful person on the planet, and she was a 22-year-old intern. So it’s not accurate to say that there was this monolithic block of feminist support.”

Lewinsky’s perspective on the tapes
“The show is right to suggest that the release of the Tripp tapes was what she was dreading — almost more than anything else. This was really looming over her because she’d gotten to hear them and go through them. And so she knew just how painful it was to listen to her be really honest to Linda Tripp knowing what Tripp was about to do. But she also said a lot of things about her family that were very hurtful and personal, and she really didn’t want them to hear those things. So she was scared for those excerpts to become public.”

Lewinsky’s reaction to Dr. Joyce Brothers’ remarks about her
“This is actually in that Andrew Morton biography that’s mentioned in this episode. It cites this particular part of this interview with Joyce Brothers on the Today show where [Brothers] says nobody will want to marry her. Lewinsky said that that was especially painful — I think specifically because it cut against what her friend was telling her, that she had these other major life events to look forward to. And I think this made her really feel that she didn’t have those things to look forward to anymore, that she’d never be able to move on from this.”

The scene at Lewinsky’s first book event
“I don’t know if this was the first book event, but she did a book tour throughout the United Kingdom. And this scene seems to be based on her book signing at Harrods department store in London in March of ’99. This is all on video. It’s honestly pretty hard to watch. She goes up there, and all the photographers are yelling at her to do various things, to look various places. It’s really chaotic. And then she ended up having to excuse herself for a while to collect herself because it was so overwhelming. And, of course, she was criticized for that too.”

The chaotic scenes of the Starr report coming together
“It’s definitely dramatized here to make it seem like they put it together in a day. [The Starr team] had been hammering away at the report for a long time, but it really came together in about two weeks after they got that last deposition with Monica where she went through everything in great detail. There wasn’t really much of a blueprint for how or what an independent counsel should put in a report to hand over to Congress. But Starr decided that there should be a narrative section and a grounds-for-impeachment section, and they had various teams working on those sections.

“They ended up pulling from a lot of the same evidence. There wasn’t a ton of editorial oversight, which I do think they kind of show. They were focused on making a really detailed case, and it ended up being almost 450 pages long. There wasn’t time for a lot of editing and paring down when the whole thing was done. It was poorly reviewed as a piece of written material after it came out, I think because of some of the repetitiousness and that the narrative and grounds-for-impeachment sections didn’t feel totally separate. It all felt like one really detailed account of [the Clinton-Lewinsky] relationship.”

Divisions within the Starr report over the explicit content
“They had a lot of arguments over what to include or not include. [In the episode], I think they’re referencing this specific thing that appears in one of the sections Brett Kavanaugh worked on, which is this reference to Clinton masturbating into a trash can. They weren’t sure whether to include that but decided to do so. And I think the series is trying to dramatize the conflict between Kavanaugh and [Mike] Emmick, who are the two characters that they have available within the confines of the show. But there were more people on both sides and definitely more gradations of disagreement. I think he calls Emmick a Commie at one point in the episode, but that was actually apparently part of a joke that someone levied at Bruce Udolf, who was another one of the prosecutors who would’ve been more on the Emmick side of things.”

The surprise release of the Starr report
“People knew vaguely that it was looming because Starr specifically wanted to avoid the appearance that he was trying to influence the upcoming midterms in November. He knew he wanted to get it out by early September-ish, but it was definitely a shock. It arrived at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, and it was not expected. The House got about 15 minutes’ notice from Jackie Bennett, calling over from the Starr office to tell them they were on the way. There were a lot of reporters that gathered to watch it get delivered. People knew that this was going to come in the next few days or weeks. Still, it was a shock. And the House Judiciary Committee hadn’t totally figured out what to do with it yet.”

The Starr report as an internet event
“There was a lot of concern before this dropped that it could basically break the internet — that servers, as they existed, would not be able to handle the volume and that huge parts of the internet could go down. Government websites might crash. And so it was considered a huge milestone for the internet overall. You had some websites that were very slow to load or overloaded with traffic, but overall the system was intact and nothing seriously bad went down. It was a big success for the internet as a whole.”

Whether the salaciousness of the document was intended to embarrass Clinton into resigning
“There was definitely some indignation in the sense that he treated the office like this, that he treated Lewinsky like this, and that it all fits together into this portrait of this amoral person who’s willing to break all these rules and laws. There were many disagreements, but I think in general they felt that the case that they were making was strong based on the evidence. The thinking was, We can clearly prove that he committed perjury when he said he didn’t have sexual relations with her. Not just in the Paula Jones deposition, but again in his grand-jury testimony, because we have all these details from her. Like, We can clearly bury them in all the details and then there will be no question that he lied. But obviously that strategy ended up backfiring for them from a PR standpoint, which is what ends up mattering because it’s a political process.”

The search for Juanita Broaddrick, “Jane Doe No. 5,” in the evidence boxes
The files were kept in the Ford Office Building in this special office that they had reserved to put the report and evidence files in when they arrived. It was very well secured. They had a security code for the Democrats and a security code for the Republicans so that there were no shenanigans. And so you had to have clearance. I’m pretty sure you had to be a member of Congress to see it, or maybe a very top aide, because some of them knew about it. But it became this thing where about 45 members of Congress, most of them Republican, if not all, went to this little office just to look through these papers specifically for her interview.”

The Broaddrick case costing Clinton votes on the House floor
It’s hard to say. I think it certainly impacted the way some moderates, who are probably the ones who matter most on this vote, thought about him. It made certain congressmen less likely to want to give him the benefit of the doubt or give him a break. Clinton mentions ‘Shays’ a couple of times in this episode. That’s Christopher Shays, who was interviewed for Slow Burn and who was a moderate Republican congressman who went and looked at this evidence and found Broaddrick very credible. He actually asked for a meeting with Clinton to ask him about it. He said Clinton looked very angry and very fearful. He ended up actually not voting to impeach, though. So I think it’s hard to say if it made a difference with anyone on an individual level in terms of the actual impeachment vote. But at a time when it felt like the political winds were blowing in the other direction, it made a lot of people wary of backing down.”

An important missing subplot about the midterms
“One of the main plot points happening here in the background that’s not on the show is the midterm elections. Because the Democrats actually gained ground, which is basically unheard of from a political-science perspective, to win the very last midterm of your two presidential terms, especially when you’re actively battling this potential impeachment. So that really showed that this was a political loser of an issue for the Republicans. The Starr report, specifically, was not well received by the public. And that’s what really changed the calculus here about whether impeachment would happen at all and then made it pretty clear that if he was impeached, he would most likely not be convicted.

“As a result of those disastrous midterms, Newt Gingrich, who was the Speaker of the House, stepped down and Bob Livingston, who was another Republican congressman, became the Speaker-designate. So he was going to be elevated to that position. And he apparently panicked right before they brought the impeachment to a vote in the House about whether this was actually a good idea. Because even if it passes, which they’re not totally sure it will, it has no chance in the Senate. And apparently one of his aides said, ‘No, you have to think about this Jane Doe No. 5 interview.’ And apparently that was part of his decision to go forward with it after all. So it mattered a lot in that sense.”

How much Ann Coulter dined out on the scandal
“A lot. This was what she wrote her very first book about. It was called High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton. It became a big best seller. And that media tour of promoting it and going on shows to talk about Clinton and what was going on was definitely a big launching point for her career as an author and a media figure. I think that was definitely accurate.”

Matt Drudge’s struggles as a television host
This is a really weird show. I have never seen anything like it. It was on this set that was like a private investigator’s office, and [Drudge would] wear the hat and sit at a desk and then he would interview people, often in the studio, sitting at the desk with him. He had this show for a year and a half. And then he had this dispute over using a photo for an anti-abortion story that Fox News said was misleading. And so after that, they actually ended up parting ways.”

Hillary Clinton getting beckoned to the open Senate seat in New York
“Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of the senators from New York, and he announced he was retiring in November of ’98, right after those midterm elections. And Rudy Giuliani, who was then about to be term-limited as mayor of New York, was considered to be a front-runner for that seat. So in this episode, they show Charlie Rangel calling Hillary Clinton on the phone, which is probably accurate. I don’t know about that exact phone call. But he was really pushing for her because he felt that the Democrats needed a big name to go up against Giuliani.

“And so that did end up being her. The Clintons bought a house in New York. She obviously had to push back against some carpetbagging allegations. Then, in the summer of 2000, the Giuliani campaign basically exploded under very complicated circumstances that involved his wife agreeing to appear in a production of The Vagina Monologues, which was seen as a real F-U to Giuliani and his campaign and maybe a pro-Hillary statement in some way. And then around the same time, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to come forward about that. And he was also seen with another woman around then too. So they announced that he and his wife were separated. It was this whole mess. He ended up having to drop out. And then she got to face a much less well-known opponent [Rick Lazio] in the fall.”

On whether Tripp was deceived into believing her immunity deal protected her from state charges
She definitely believed it protected her. It seems like the Starr team also believed that. I don’t know that she was intentionally deceived, but there was a big controversy over whether or not [the Starr team] did her wrong because there was about a month that went by between when they met with her, got the tapes and told her she would have immunity, and when they actually made it official with a judge.

“That period of time ended up becoming really important in the case that they were building about when and whether it was illegal for her to tape. Then Starr was interviewed about it and said they believed the immunity deal began when they spoke to her about it, not when it was filed with the judge officially. So pretty interesting that both Monica and Linda ended up having a lot of issues with their immunity deals with the Starr team. Tripp thought she’d be covered for everything, but the judge ended up ruling that her immunity was for the federal charges, not for state charges.”

Maryland dropping the charges against Tripp
“This was ongoing for a really long time. Maryland prosecutors first announced that they had convened a grand jury in July 1998. And then she was charged in July of ’99. There were all these disagreements — first about the immunity deal and then about Monica’s testimony. The charges ended up being dropped in 2000. And that had to do with all this complicated stuff with immunity and Monica’s testimony. And so the charges ended up being dropped. But she had to fight them for a long time, and it cost a lot of money.”

Tripp’s plastic surgery
“It was reported that an anonymous benefactor paid for it, but I’m not sure that person was identified. She had this major plastic surgery in 1999, before the wiretapping trial that was looming the next year. She said she very much wanted not to look like herself anymore. Obviously her appearance had been a focus of a lot of cruelty and jokes, and that was very painful.”

Takeaways from Tripp’s interview with George magazine
“She appeared on the cover of one of the very last issues of George before it folded. And the interview was actually done by Nancy Collins, not a man as depicted here. She was very anti-Clinton, very anti-Hillary in this interview, and she was pushing back on all these allegations that she did the wrong thing and is this terrible person. So it was her telling her side of the story. Saying that she would’ve done it all over again was the big thing. Because I think everyone wanted her to be really contrite and feel like the whole thing was wrong, and she didn’t.”

Paula Jones’s financial troubles
The episode does not mention that Jones did get a settlement deal after a judge had dismissed the case, implying that her dire financial situation — and the events of this episode — was a result of the dismissal. That, Kaplan explains, is incorrect.

“Clinton signed this settlement just after the midterms in November of ’98. It was $850,000. Most of that money went to legal fees. Then Jones was separated from her husband around that time too. She moved home and was struggling to support herself and her family.”

Jones’s time on the Psychic Friends Network
“This was in ’99. She apparently signed this deal all on her own to try to do something that was fun but also make money. She then reportedly tried to get out of it because she realized that it was not something she wanted to do. In the episode, they show Susan Carpenter-McMillan telling her, ‘We oppose this on religious grounds,’ and that’s actually real. Those are real quotes that Carpenter-McMillan gave to the press when contacted about this, that Paula would not want to be involved in something like this because the witchcraft element is anti-Christianity.”

Jones’s loss of support
“She certainly got a lot of public pressure from Susan Carpenter-McMillan, from Ann Coulter, from all these people who previously supported her, saying they were very disappointed in her for doing the Penthouse photo shoot and interview. And that was similar to a feeling Jones had had for a while and that she talked about in this interview for Penthouse that accompanied the photos. She said she felt abandoned by a lot of people who didn’t actually care about her beyond the lawsuit and who judged her for the way she wanted to present herself.”

The timing of NBC’s Broaddrick interview
“This was a huge media story. Lisa Myers, an NBC reporter, wrote a letter to Juanita Broaddrick and said, ‘If you don’t tell your story, everyone else is going to tell it for you, and it’s not going to be accurate.’ And so Broaddrick was convinced by that. They sat for this interview before the impeachment trial was over and then NBC held the story and it became this huge thing. This was obviously catnip to Matt Drudge — so he was reporting on this story a lot and writing about it — that NBC was sitting on this interview that was very damaging to the president.

“The NBC execs were very stressed. This was happening during the impeachment trial. They did not want to be seen as putting something out there that wasn’t a thousand percent vetted, that could influence the outcome in some way. Lisa Myers said they had done all kinds of reporting to stress test this story and that she thought Broaddrick was very credible. There were all these ‘Free Lisa Myers’ buttons that Republican congresspeople would wear. Certain Fox News anchors wore them on-air. It was a big, big thing. Then NBC ended up running it about two weeks after the impeachment trial wrapped, by which point it didn’t have anywhere near as much impact.”

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 Bill Clinton’s weird joke about the guy hanging from the cliff
“Apparently this was a joke that he liked to tell a lot. After the impeachment vote, several dozen Democratic congresspeople were bussed to the White House for this meeting. They were all sort of mingling in this room. And then, during that event, he told this joke. So slightly different context, but apparently he did tell this joke on that day.”

On the home-run race
“At exactly the same time as the Starr report was being written, the Sammy Sosa–Mark McGwire home-run chase of ’98 was reaching its climax. So there are these two huge news events happening at the same time. The whole country was paying attention, but specifically in the Starr offices, where they were having these crazy-long hours, they were watching to see what would happen. And Mark McGwire ended up breaking the home-run record the day before they sent the Starr report to Congress. There’s lots of fun reporting from the time of parents saying, ‘Thank God there’s something else happening in the news as the Starr report is being released for my kid to ask me about — that’s not the graphic sexual detail in the Starr report.’”

On Bob Livingston’s short reign as Newt Gingrich’s successor
“The episode skips over most of what’s happening in Congress, including Bob Livingston, who was going to be Speaker after Newt Gingrich stepped down. There was this interesting subplot where Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine put out a bounty and offered a million dollars for anyone who can prove they’ve had an affair with a high-ranking government official. And four women came forward about Bob Livingston. So on the day of the impeachment vote in the House, Livingston said he was going to resign in a speech on the floor of the House. And he said he was hoping Clinton would take responsibility for his actions by doing the same thing. But obviously that didn’t end up happening.”

Fact-checking Impeachment’s Final Act