fact vs fiction

Fact-checking Impeachment’s Dramatic Sting Operation

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 it happens, the sixth episode, “Man Handled,” covers the dramatic day that unfolded in the first episode of Slow Burn: January 16, 1998. On the eve of President Clinton’s deposition in the Paula Jones civil case, Ken Starr’s team arranges to have Linda Tripp set a meeting with Monica Lewinsky at the food court in Pentagon City Mall. Once the trap was sprung, FBI agents working with the OIC (Office of Independent Counsel) escort Lewinsky to Room 1012 of the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel, where she’s interrogated by all male prosecutors, chiefly Mike Emmick (Colin Hanks) and Jackie Bennett (Darren Goldstein). A sliver of the episode is also given over to Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) and George Conway (George Salazar), who have copies of the Tripp-Lewinsky tapes and treat themselves to a listening party.

After watching “Man Handled,” Kaplan talked about Lewinsky’s long, traumatic, and, at times, surreal day with her interrogators, Tripp’s uncomfortable role in the sting operation, and the questionable strategy used to persuade Lewinsky to cooperate.

The Big Stuff

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

Tripp’s feelings going into the day
“She definitely said that she felt bad about [the sting operation], but she also said she believed it was absolutely the right thing to do at the time. In this episode they seem to show a lot of her maybe wavering on whether doing this was the right thing or whether she should show up and go through with it at all. But in her recollections, it seems that she felt guilty about it and was stressed and scared during this period, but she was also convinced that this was the right thing for Monica.”

Tripp actually being present at the hotel
“This is often described as the result of poor planning or confusion. And I think the intensity of Monica’s immediate reaction kind of threw [Starr’s team]. They were set up in these adjoining hotel rooms and when they got up there, Monica remembers saying, ‘Make her stay and watch. I want that treacherous bitch to see what she’s done to me,’ which they used at the very beginning of the first episode. And then they’re like, ‘Okay get Tripp out of here.’ And they put her in the other room, where they apparently interviewed her for a few hours before letting her go. Obviously it was very distracting that she was there at all. And I’m sure it didn’t help their chances at getting Monica to cooperate that she associated them so strongly with her friend’s betrayal.”

Mike Emmick’s role
“One of the people we interviewed for Slow Burn was Bruce Udolf, who worked in the independent counsel’s office and is not in these episodes. He was one of the more suspicious people about this [operation], he said he was concerned about how it might go.  He asked something like, ‘Could we have a woman come?’ Or ‘Why aren’t there any women?’ And he was told that none were available that day to do this.”

“The absence of any women is a very striking detail. Also that they felt the best good cop that they had to try to convince her was Mike Emmick. Every single thing written about him, like the very first clause after his name, is that he’s a ‘charmer,’ that he’s a charming guy, a ladies’ man. He was someone who was thought to be better to make this first approach than someone like Jackie Bennett.”

“Obviously they’re throwing this together pretty last-minute, but it was surprising the extent to which they were unprepared for her reaction. They thought that this would potentially go down very quickly and she would agree to cooperate.”

Lewinsky’s deflected requests for a lawyer
“This whole episode draws very heavily on Lewinsky’s recollections. Obviously, she’s the person this is happening to. And so a lot of this is described in her authorized biography, these repeated attempts to ask for a lawyer. Being rebuffed in different ways. Not being told ‘no’ explicitly, but being told it’s ‘very time-sensitive’ or ‘we don’t want too many people involved here.’”

“This became a real point of contention afterwards about whether there was any misconduct and whether they kept her there against her will or whether they actually told her she could leave. She said later she felt like she couldn’t leave, even if they didn’t say that explicitly. The independent counsel’s office was very clear afterward: ‘We never told her she couldn’t speak to a lawyer.’ There’s a lot of legalistic distinctions here. I don’t think this is too far outside the norm of how a brace like this would go, in terms of how they approach the witness and try to get their cooperation. It’s not that far outside the norm for them not to go out of their way to encourage her to leave and contact an attorney.”

“From their perspective, too, Vernon Jordan got her that lawyer. So who’s to say that the lawyer’s not also implicated here? I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think it’s the craziest thing in the world to say, ‘Part of what we’re investigating here is whether [Jordan] got her a job to keep her quiet. And then this guy also got her a lawyer to file this false affidavit?’ That’s part of what their thinking was about.”

“These misconduct accusations ended up coming before a federal judge, and the judge ruled that the Starr team didn’t do anything wrong here. Basically, because she hadn’t been charged with a crime and was free to go if she wanted, she didn’t have a right to an attorney in that moment that could be violated. But the judge also criticized the prosecutors for talking to Lewinsky about a possible immunity deal without a lawyer present. So that was a contentious issue here too.”

Lewinsky seeing the news clip about Clinton getting deposed the next day
“That felt like it was for the audience’s benefit. In the biography, she remembers that when she asked for a lawyer and was told, ‘This is very time-sensitive,’ she immediately understood that it was time-sensitive because Clinton was being deposed the next day. I mean, anyone who followed the news even a little would have known about his deposition, let alone someone who was thinking and worrying about him constantly.”

Lewinsky’s growing awareness of what was happening
“Her immediate reactions were panic and despair, and the prosecutors weren’t really prepared for how intense her reaction would be. She definitely worried very quickly about feeling like her life was over. That exchange where she wonders what would happen if she were to jump out the window is something she remembers from that day.”

“Another really key element here is they literally tell her, ‘You could be facing 27 years in prison for what you’ve done.’ So not only will her entire reputation be ruined when this becomes public and everyone knows about it, she could also spend more than her lifetime to that point in prison. She doesn’t know that they’re probably not going to prosecute her. It’s super rare to prosecute perjury in a civil case, especially when you’re not the one being sued. But she’s not a lawyer. She doesn’t know how ridiculous it was to suggest this kind of time for what she did. Which, of course, does not help in the panic department at all. I think they expected that a young woman panicking about spending decades in prison would be relatively easy to convince, but she was much more forceful in her own instincts about what to do than they thought she would be.”

Lewinsky’s encounters with Tripp on the day
“I’m not sure about the specific line, ‘Linda, what did you do?’ I’m just purely speculating here, but I think because [the show] used that line where she calls Linda a treacherous bitch in the first episode, they wanted that moment of anger again here, of her realizing what Linda did and being very angry. Monica did confront her very angrily when they were both taken up to those rooms. And she realized what was happening, and that Linda is responsible for this happening to her.

That scene later on when Monica is walking through the mall and sees Linda carrying shopping bags, that’s an actual moment she remembers from that day. And apparently Linda again said to her during that run-in, ‘They did the same thing to me.’ So they actually had an exchange then, too.”

Jackie Bennett’s interrogation style
“He’s definitely described as the bad cop coming in. Monica said later, ‘It completely changed the tenor of the room as soon as he entered.’ He took a much more upfront and aggressive approach, totally different personality and style. I think they were probably just thinking like, ‘This is taking so long. Let’s try a different approach.’ Which also ends up not working.”

Lewinsky and Emmick’s shopping trip
“They did go to Crate & Barrel first. They apparently just made a lot of small talk, maybe about a decanter, I don’t know. Then she saw an opening to go to a payphone in the Macy’s and try to call Betty Currie, which is also shown here. Monica felt like, for obvious reasons, Betty Currie would be a person you could call in this scenario. She thought that if [Currie] picked up, she could say something kind of cryptic to her and she would know something was going on.”

“Then they did get dinner at Mozzarella’s American Grill, where they have the conversation pretty much as depicted. She asked, ‘Okay, can you walk me through? Where are you getting the number of years in prison from?’ And ‘What are the charges you’re talking about here?’ She apparently paid for her own dinner because she did not want to owe them anything.”

Lewinsky’s mother, Marcia Lewis, pushing for cooperation
“One of the other prosecutors who was there that day, Steve Binhak, who was also interviewed for Slow Burn, said that he overheard them talking in the hall when Marcia Lewis arrived. And she basically said, ‘Tell them everything. Put this behind you. We have to be thinking about you here and your future.’ Then Lewinsky responded by saying, ‘I’m not going to be the one to bring down the president of the United States.’”

The quick end to the interrogation
“Yes, it ended pretty quickly once Bill Ginsburg got on the phone with Mike Emmick. And the tenor of the conversation was basically the same as on the show. Ginsburg swore a lot and called Emmick names and was very skeptical of everything he was telling him. The big sticking point was whether they could give Lewinsky an offer of transactional immunity on the spot, so that she would be completely protected in exchange for talking to them. They have this whole back and forth about, like, ‘Can you get this in writing?’ and ‘Why can’t you?’ Ginsberg calling their bluff about not having access to a fax machine. He apparently asked whether they could handwrite the immunity deal instead, which was not a suggestion they accepted.  There was also some disagreement about whether they could actually give her transactional immunity in that moment at all. So Ginsburg eventually tells Lewinsky something like, ‘All right, I’m pulling the plug. Don’t tell them anything. Go home. This isn’t happening.’ And then it’s finally over.”

Ann Coulter and friends getting the tapes
“So there’s something the show skips over here, probably because it’s so complicated. When Tripp has that meeting in a previous episode with her lawyer and she says like, ‘I have all these tapes that I’ve made’ and he says, ‘Why do you have those? This is a two-party consent state. So that’s a crime,’ she really didn’t like that lawyer. She thought that he was not looking out for her interests. Because his reaction was, ‘We should take this to the Clinton attorneys and they will want to settle the case. And that’s the best thing for you because then these tapes don’t become relevant. You won’t be charged.’ Which is good legal advice.”

“But she didn’t like that advice. She was thinking, ‘Okay. So my lawyer is telling me that we should go to the Clintons and resolve this that way, which is not what I want.’ So she gets a new lawyer. And as part of this chain between her and Lucianne Goldberg and then the elves working on the Paula Jones case, Ann Coulter suggests this guy, Jim Moody, who’s a friend of hers, to be Tripp’s new lawyer. And it’s through him that [Coulter] gets the tapes.”

“The way that Coulter remembers this is different than the way they show it here. She said in the middle of the night, at 3:00 a.m., she gets a call from Jim Moody and George Conway, and they’re like, ‘We just got Linda Tripp’s tapes. We got to listen to these. Can we come over?’ Because Ann Coulter is a huge Deadhead and had an amazing speaker system. Apparently the way it went down was that they showed up at her place in the middle of the night and listened to some of the tapes.”

The tapes being boring
“There are certain incriminating things that are on the tapes. But it’s a really mammoth task to listen through all these hours of tape to find those little bits. Plus they’re mostly interested in whether she incriminated Clinton, not whether she incriminated herself. It makes sense to me that you would listen to a bunch and be like, ‘I just heard a lot about a lot of stuff and I’ve no idea what’s going on. And a lot of it’s really mundane.’”

Odds and Ends

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

The TV shows they watched during downtime at the Ritz-Carlton
“Apparently they were looking for something to watch on TV. NYPD Blue was on, and it felt like as they were flipping through, it was just cop shows. [Prosecutors] really didn’t want that because obviously that’s just going to make her think more about what she’s doing there. And what if there are like, plotlines about witnesses or cops acting in bad faith or something? So they changed the channel until they found an Ethel Merman movie. And that’s what they watched together. Because that felt, I guess, like that wasn’t going to interfere with their investigation.”

A Pentagon City Mall detail not in the episode
“There’s something that they could have included, but I think that if they included it, as an audience member, you’d be like, ‘There’s no way that actually happened.’ Apparently on the same day at the Pentagon City Mall that Monica Lewinsky is being braced by prosecutors and the FBI, Susan Carpenter-McMillan was at that same mall shopping for an outfit for Paula Jones to wear the next day to Clinton’s deposition. So she could’ve had a cameo in this episode.”

Fact-checking Impeachment’s Dramatic Sting Operation