fact vs fiction

Fact-Checking the Impeachment: American Crime Story Premiere

How does Impeachment’s portrayal of the first meeting between Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) and Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) align with the historical record? 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.

In the first episode, “Exiles,” Impeachment considers the soon-to-be-tumultuous lives of three women: Tripp (Sarah Paulson), Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford). It starts with Tripp in the West Wing of the Clinton White House, where she is a disgruntled holdover from the Bush administration and is present on July 20, 1993, the day Vince Foster, Clinton’s longtime friend and lawyer, kills himself. Later in the episode, Tripp is scuttled over to a cubicle at the Pentagon’s public-affairs office, where she meets another West Wing pariah, Lewinsky, a former White House intern who is counting the days until the 1996 election, when she can return to the West Wing courtesy of a highly connected civil servant whom we know (and Tripp suspects) to be Clinton (Clive Owen). Meanwhile, an article in The American Spectator on Troopergate — the name given to the scandal in which Arkansas state troopers claimed they had arranged then-Governor Clinton’s sexual liaisons — catches the attention of Jones, who says she had received an unwanted advance from the future president in a hotel room. Although only her first name appears in the articles, she and her Clinton-hating husband, Steve (Taran Killam), take steps to pursue a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Kaplan talked about the three women at the center of the first episode and all of the small details, too, like the onion on Foster’s burger and Tripp’s Stephen Root in Office Space–style treatment at the Pentagon.

The Big Stuff

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

Linda Tripp’s motives
“It gets at them pretty well — her dislike of the Clintons in general, of Hillary, and of the way they ran the White House. When [Tripp] worked for the Bushes, she had a lot of respect for them and the way they ran things, so I do think they get that right. There’s something fundamental about all these young people running around, about Hillary not acting like a proper First Lady … these things that she perceives in them, that does seem pretty accurate to me.”

Tripp’s connection to and respect for Vince Foster
“She didn’t work directly for him. She worked for Bernie Nussbaum, who was Vince’s boss. But there were several secretaries in that office working together, so she knew him that way. She really liked him a lot. She thought that he, I think, was proper and professional in the way that some of his other colleagues might not have been.”

Tripp’s understanding of Whitewater
“My understanding of this is that she was concerned about the integrity of Vince’s office in those few days after he died. And she apparently had a confrontation with another secretary who she thought was moving things around in there … There ends up being over the next few years — and she actually testifies about this at one point — a lot of confusion about what files were taken and boxes of files that were taken up to the residence potentially for Hillary to go through. But as far as I’m aware, there wasn’t a box labeled ‘Whitewater.’ It’s more like there are boxes of random files that are going all over the place.”

Tripp’s exile to the Pentagon
“She actually did apparently have this meeting with Lloyd Cutler, who was the incoming White House counsel, and basically pitched her and Kathleen Willey as a package to try to keep them both on. So that apparently did happen, and supposedly he was really put off by it, that overforwardness in that situation, which is definitely what they convey here.”

Enter Paula Jones
“There are certain aspects that are exaggerated or maybe simplified in their motives. [Jones] basically heard about that article in The American Spectator from a friend and then got hold of it and was horrified that it said she wanted to be the president’s girlfriend, basically, and had this consensual encounter with him. In Jeffrey Toobin’s book A Vast Conspiracy, he describes Steve Jones as having a deep resentment and maybe even hatred of the president going back a long way. So he really didn’t like Clinton. [Toobin] describes Steve as, I think, quite angry in general, which I think the show really leans into.”

The CPAC press conference
“There are a couple of things about it that are really accurate, and there are a few things that are left out, I think, just because you can’t cover everything. So Cliff Jackson was this long-standing Clinton foil. We talked about him in Slow Burn because he basically knew Clinton from way back and came to be involved in a lot of these efforts to uncover him. Basically, this is a guy who was involved here and helped shepherd the Paula Jones case in its very early days. He was really the main one introducing this press conference, organizing it, and they sort of skip over him.

“But in terms of how things unfolded, a lot of these things are direct quotes from the Toobin book or from other recollections of this press conference. The part where [Jones] mentions that [Clinton] asked for a type of sex and then someone says, ‘Is it something that you could do without taking your clothes off?’ That’s a quote. Although, apparently, her lawyer said yes in answer to that question, rather than not answering the question in that moment. The part where her lawyer apparently says, ‘She’ll give a blow-by-blow account,’ and they all laugh, that’s quoted in accounts of this. Basically, the idea that [members of the press] were all very frustrated by what they were expecting and what they were given in this press conference, that seems pretty accurate.”

When Linda meets Monica
“It gets a lot of the broad outlines of their relationship correct. I’m not totally sure about this thing where Linda manages to get another office for a day and that’s where she meets [Lewinsky]. In all the accounts I’ve read, she had those big pictures, they were called jumbos, of Clinton at her desk. But that is what Monica noticed and went up to talk to her about. They bonded over working in the White House. They bonded a lot over antiquing at first. I think they’re just very chatty, both not very happy to have been moved from the White House. So in some ways, they were kindred spirits about that.”

Tripp sensing Lewinsky’s involvement with Clinton this early
“Both seem to agree that Monica didn’t tell her it was Clinton until after the election, but Linda has said that she figured it out before that, which the show definitely seems to imply. Monica did tell her that she had a boyfriend or was in a relationship with someone, and there was this secret relationship that had something to do with her job. And so a lot of those things are accurate, and it’s more like there are discrepancies about when [Tripp] would have figured things out. She did know that [Lewinsky] had a secret.”

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 the meeting between Tripp and Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco) in the bathroom
“I haven’t found anything specific about that incident in particular happening. When Tripp worked in the White House counsel’s office, that suite of offices was right next to the First Lady’s suite of offices in the West Wing, so I definitely think they would have crossed paths. I don’t know that they would have had a lot of one-on-one interaction like that.”

On Vince Foster’s last meal
“Yes, [Tripp] got him a hamburger and M&M’s. I’ve seen it described as ‘a handful,’ so I don’t know whether it was a scoop or a box.

“There is something that they don’t get into here, which I understand, which Tripp brought up later in some of her interviews with the special counsel about Foster: Apparently, she thought it was strange that he took off the onion. There was an onion that came on the hamburger, and he took it off. And she thought that was weird, that she didn’t think that someone who was planning to commit suicide would be worried about his breath.”

On Tripp’s fondness for microwaved baked potatoes
“I don’t know about the baked-potato thing. Definitely, one of the things she and Lewinsky bonded about, which the show gets into when they meet, was different diet programs or dieting in general. I don’t know about this microwave meal in front of the TV every night thing. That might be more of a character choice to show her making these microwave meals.”

On Tripp’s office situation at the Pentagon
“Yeah, she apparently was working in the basement of the Pentagon, and it is described as a cubicle in a lot of places. I think at one point in the show you can see windows, so maybe that was even too cheery of an office scene. It’s one of those things where you’re like, They could have taken this even further.”

On Steve Jones wanting a role on Designing Women
“The closest I’ve found to this is that apparently [the Joneses’] lawyer Daniel Traylor, who’s their first lawyer in this episode, made this connection that the Clintons knew, I think, the creator or showrunner of Designing Women. There might be something there. I don’t know how accurate it would be that this came from Steve Jones being like, ‘I know the president knows these people,’ but it’s not totally out of left field.”

On Paula Jones drawing a picture of Clinton’s “business”
“I don’t know that it happened at this moment in this way. Definitely, her description of his ‘distinguishing characteristics’ was a huge thing for many years. That circulated around this case and definitely was considered part of the potentially strongest evidence, obviously the most salacious evidence she had. I haven’t seen anything that she drew it for [her lawyers] in this moment, rather than just described it to them. But years later, when she was deposed by Bob Bennett, the president’s lawyer, he asked her to draw it. So this might be referencing that. I think probably they also wanted the funny moment of the guy’s head tilting.”

On Clinton calling Lewinsky after her first day
“I don’t know that he called her on her first day, but he definitely called her pretty shortly after she started. So they might have fudged the timing a little bit, but that’s fairly accurate, actually.”

On how Tripp found out about Foster’s suicide
“I think this is probably a very typical type of TV-adaptation thing to fudge, but they show that scene where Tripp finds out about Foster’s suicide from TV news coverage. But actually, she testified later that she got a call from someone connected to the White House around midnight that night letting her know.”

On whether birds fluttered in the forest after Foster’s fatal gunshot was fired

Fact-Checking the Impeachment: American Crime Story Premiere