fact vs fiction

Impeachment: Fact-checking Episode Three, ‘Not To Be Believed’

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.

The third episode, “Not To Be Believed,” opens with the Big Bang moment in the creation of the right-wing digital media ecosystem: Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) logs into his AOL account to publish a scoop on the details of Jerry Seinfeld’s million-dollar salary negotiations at NBC, one of the biggest entertainment stories of the day. Later in the ep, Drudge will break news of a bombshell story in the works from Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff (Danny A. Jacobs); he’s reporting on Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser), a White House volunteer who claims Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her. But Tripp, who saw Willey after her encounter with Clinton, undermines this account during a clandestine meeting with Isikoff. Other major events in this episode, which jumps around in time a bit, include Clinton breaking up with Lewinsky in March 1997 and Paula Jones, under pressure from her husband and Susan Carpenter-McMillan, refusing a $700,000 settlement offer in October 1998.

Kaplan talked about Drudge’s origin story, the discrepancies between Tripp and Willey over Clinton’s alleged assault, and the elevation of the Jones lawsuit to a national scale.

The Big Stuff

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

Matt Drudge’s humble beginnings
“He worked in the CBS gift shop. He was a manager, and he apparently did get scoops by looking through trash. But it seems like he knew when [executives] would throw away the Nielsen ratings they had just gotten that nobody had published yet. He would get scoops like that out of the trash. The Seinfeld scoop was a notable one for him, but I don’t know about that scene [where he dumpster dives for it]. Drudge said the scoop was a bit of sound-stage gossip he overheard.”

Drudge’s effect on the impact of the Newsweek story
“Drudge published multiple scoops around this time — one saying Michael Isikoff was reporting out a story about Clinton propositioning someone, and then another naming Kathleen Willey as the subject of that story. That led to a lot of speculation about who Willey was and what exactly she was alleging, which put pressure on Isikoff and Newsweek to get the story together and publish it. The way Drudge would publish sensitive information and report things so irresponsibly, in Isikoff’s view, became incredibly exasperating for him. This whole saga led to a ton of media stories that summer about how the World Wide Web can be a major factor in media now, with quotes from Isikoff and Drudge going back and forth about this stuff. It was a turning point in the journalism world, especially for Drudge’s reputation as a pretty effective gadfly.”

Tripp’s motive for contradicting Kathleen Willey’s account of her encounter with Clinton
“At the time, Tripp was very clear that she disagreed with Willey’s memory of that day, and that she thought Willey was very excited and not at all disturbed by what happened. The way that [Tripp] described it most recently in her memoir is that she later came to believe that she misinterpreted things; that in looking back on it later, she could see how that was a bad experience for Willey, and she wished she had realized that at the time. I think Tripp would probably say that she earnestly misinterpreted, and that she did not feel that she was being at all dishonest, but that she was accurately representing what she remembered.”

The confrontation between Tripp and Willey
“It has been reported by Isikoff that Tripp called Willey after the first time Isikoff reached out to her. I’m not totally sure about this in-person meeting, though. I’m not sure that that happened. I haven’t seen anything about it, if it did.”

Lewinsky calling Tripp after the Clinton breakup
“I’m certain they talked about it. I don’t know that she immediately called her from a pay phone, or however they show it. Lewinsky actually testified, and this is something the show skipped over, that she talked, or cried, to Betty Currie after leaving the room that day. So there are other conversations that she potentially had.”

Did Tripp help draft Lewinsky’s letter to Clinton that he so detested?
“I couldn’t find anything about [Tripp] writing this letter or helping her with this letter. Definitely during those taped phone calls later, they draft certain letters, or Monica asks for her help with punctuation and what she’s going to say. So they might be borrowing a little bit from that. When Monica testified about writing this letter, she didn’t mention anyone else helping her with it. Also, I’m pretty sure that this letter was actually handwritten, that she wrote it on white paper and sent it to him.”

Did the letter reflect Tripp’s thinking, though? 
“That definitely checks out with what she did later on, in terms of reminding Lewinsky of the importance of getting a job and telling her that basically, [Clinton] can help you get a really good job. He can help you find other work somewhere, maybe in New York..”

Tripp’s secret meeting with Isikoff about an intern affair
“Yeah, that happened. It was slightly less cloak-and-dagger than they make it seem on the show, where she’s like, ‘Meet me at this address, at this time.’ I think it was more, he called her in the morning and then she was like, ‘I have a hair appointment, so why don’t you just meet me there?’ And then he went there. But yes, they met there, and another journalist he knew did walk in. [Isikoff] remembers it as when the reporter shows up, he leaves and is like, ‘Come meet me at a coffee shop after this.’ And then she covers by saying, like, ‘I’m a friend of his uncle.’ So some of that stuff is pretty accurate, of throwing [the other reporter] off the scent.”

The domestic tensions between Steve and Paula Jones
“I don’t know that much about the particulars of their relationship. They did divorce just a few years after this. But when it comes to the settlement that they get into in this episode, [Steve] was apparently, along with Susan Carpenter-McMillan, very anti-settlement. Whereas Paula was maybe not so sure, or might’ve been inclined to accept before they talked about it. He’s definitely described as having a deep dislike of Clinton and being motivated in some way by that. There was this shift from wanting to just clear her name to wanting to hurt Clinton or to get him to admit that he did something bad.”

The media’s treatment of Jones
“They can’t cover everything, obviously, but there’s a lot of the media coverage of her, throughout this whole time, that is honestly pretty shocking by today’s standards. Maybe even by the standards then, I don’t know. The attacks on her character were really, really sexist and very classist. There’s actually New York magazine cover story in the ’90s about the age of white trash. It is about her and her family, in large part, and other examples basically saying like, ‘She’s part of this phenomenon.’ There’s comments that James Carville made about her, too, like, ‘If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.’ Her lawyers on the show get into this when they advise her not to go to trial and to take the settlement, in part because her name will be dragged through the mud: They will try to uncover every stone. Make this about you personally. To some extent, that was already happening. It actually caused a large rift in her immediate family among her siblings. There was a lot going on with her personally.”

Jones getting bullied into rejecting the settlement
“That’s how she’s described it, honestly. In reflecting back on this, she has often said that she felt used by various parties; that people saw that they could use her for their own ends, as opposed to having her best interest at heart. She’s said that she would have wanted to settle but that Steve and Susan Carpenter-McMillan, in particular, didn’t want her to.”

Clinton’s reaction to the 9-0 ruling in Clinton v. Jones
“The White House was definitely surprised that it was unanimous. And also that John Paul Stevens wrote the decision, when they might’ve expected him, as one of the court’s liberal members, to agree with [Clinton]. Apparently during oral arguments, it seemed like they might have some people inclined to vote their way, so they were definitely surprised and quite frustrated that it was that unanimous and unequivocal.”

Hillary Clinton not wanting him to settle
“This is pretty interesting. Bill, for a long time, was not inclined to settle. I’ve heard a lot that they agreed on this point — that it was not smart. The way they dealt with such things in the past, which they felt would still work, is to fight them out. They felt that accepting a settlement or offering one would make the problem worse rather than just make it go away. They seem to be on the same page about that a lot. Apparently he said that he couldn’t do this to her. The moment where he calls his lawyer and says, ‘I’ve changed my mind [about deciding to settle]’ … I’m not sure how accurate that is. That said, I did find an article from around this time on CNN that reported that sources close to the First Lady said that she thought he should settle.”

Was Disease and Misrepresentation the last gift from Lewinsky?
“No, it was not. They switched the order again. I think because that’s an interesting gift that she gave him. She actually gives that to him later. Not to spoil anything, but there are more gifts that are going to be exchanged. And more conversations after this breakup. Apparently on this particular day that he breaks up with her, she brought him a Banana Republic shirt and some kind of puzzle. The phrasing is ‘a puzzle on golf mysteries.’ I don’t know what that means. I don’t even know what kind of format that would take.”

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 Ann Coulter sizing up Laura Ingraham at a party
“They definitely ran in the same circles. They both knew George Conway. That checks out to me, that they would all be in the same social scene.”

On Tripp making arrangements for Major Dad (Gerald McRaney) to tour Andrews Air Force Base
“I have not seen anything about Major Dad. I definitely Googled ‘Linda Tripp Major Dad’ and I feel like if it existed, it would’ve come up, but you never know. But by this point, she actually had been switched to a slightly different job at the Pentagon, which did involve organizing military tours for civilians. It’s probably true that this wasn’t her favorite assignment or where she wanted to be.”

Fact-checking Impeachment Episode 3, ‘Not To Be Believed’