fact vs fiction

Impeachment: Fact-checking Episode Five, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’

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 fifth episode, “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” ratchets up the tension over the Paula Jones lawsuit and its potential to ensnare President Clinton. After years of frustrated investigation into the Whitewater financial mess, the Office of Independent Counsel (OIC), led by Ken Starr (Dan Bakkedahl), can’t bring itself to recommend impeachment, but the Lewinsky affair presents a fresh opportunity to investigate Clinton for misconduct. As tension rises between Lewinsky and Tripp over their subpoenas in the case, Jones’s team seeks support down in Arkansas from Juanita Broaddrick, who’s accused Clinton of sexual assault. Meanwhile, Clinton’s team seizes its opportunity to grill Jones under oath.

The Big Stuff

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

Lewinsky’s reaction to Tripp being subpoenaed
“She was really freaked out by that. She was also freaked out — and this is what they show in the episode — that Linda got served with a subpoena on her birthday in late November and didn’t tell Monica about it for a little while afterward. It’s not just the fact of her being subpoenaed and complicating the ability for Monica to put this all behind her without involving anyone else. It’s that she realizes that her friend, who she’s been confiding in and sharing advice with, is not being 100 percent upfront with her. This is a huge deal, because it ruins her whole plan to get out of this without it becoming public or a big thing. At this point, their relationship becomes a lot more fraught.”

On whether Lewinsky started to think Tripp might be betraying her
“In this episode, Tripp wears a wire to lunch with Lewinsky, and they show Lewinsky going through her purse when she gets up to go to the bathroom. That’s something she did in real life during that lunch, to make sure there wasn’t a listening device hidden in her bag. So she was definitely somewhat suspicious of Tripp and confused about what she was up to. But she was also paranoid in general, not just focused on whether Tripp was doing something behind her back.

“And to some extent, it felt like Tripp was being honest and up-front with her. At one point, Tripp told Lewinsky that she’d written down everything she knew about the affair and given it to her lawyer for safekeeping. And obviously that was really upsetting for Lewinsky, but I think it probably felt like Tripp was at least telling her the main points of what she was up to. Lewinsky knew someone must have been giving information to the Jones team since they knew about some of the gifts, but she doesn’t seem to have zeroed in on Tripp as their source.

“Basically, she was worried that Tripp would betray her in the future by telling the Jones lawyers what she knew, but she had no real reason to suspect that all these betrayals had already occurred.”

Tripp calling Lewinsky at Lucianne Goldberg’s insistence to tell her not to clean the blue dress
“This is a real conversation that they had. She was planning to wear it to Thanksgiving, actually, rather than to a job interview. This episode seems to perpetually take place at Christmas, but they’re mushing together events that take place over a few months. Monica was like, ‘I’m going to get it cleaned because I think it looks good.’ That’s when Linda says, ‘You might want this someday. This is the advice I would give to my own daughter.’ When that doesn’t seem to work, Tripp said later that it felt like the best way to manipulate her in that moment was to say, ‘Are you sure that’s actually as slimming as you think?’ And that apparently worked.”

Lewinsky explicitly asking Tripp to deny the affair under oath
“This is true. On one of the tapes, they have this conversation where Linda lays out, ‘I will not lie under oath in this way that you want me to.’ Very clearly. By this point, Monica is so afraid of her testimony and what would happen if she told the truth that, as she would say later in her biography, she just started throwing stuff at the wall to see if there’s anything she could do to convince Tripp. At one point, apparently, she offered part ownership of this apartment in New York that she had. She was offering her a lot. She would have done anything.”

Ken Starr and company agreeing that impeachment could not be recommended on Whitewater alone
“What’s going on with the Starr team is the most simplified part of the episode. Certain actual charges related to Whitewater and the actual alleged financial misdeeds … those statutes of limitations had long expired by this point. So now they’re really digging into Clinton, Webster Hubbell, and other friends for other financial issues, seeing whether a cover-up was happening, what happened to these documents. They had also done a long investigation and determined definitively that Foster died by suicide, so they’re working on all these other things over these years.

“By this point, it did seem in some ways that things were winding down. There were disagreements about whether certain other avenues could be included or not in the investigation. But by and large, it was understood that they could keep going to the same places, but they were going to keep encountering the same roadblocks: of the Clintons not helping them get documents, of people protecting them. They’d reached a lot of dead ends of where they could go with this. Also, earlier in ’97, Ken Starr announced that once they were wrapped up, he’d be leaving to become the Dean of Pepperdine’s law school. He got a lot of flack for this because his critics were like, ‘Okay, so you’re already lining up your next job, which means that you’re done with what you’re doing here?’ Then he decided to stay on. So there was a lot going on here behind the scenes.”

On disagreement within Starr’s team about the Lewinsky angle
“They’re pretty accurate in showing that Starr deputy Jackie Bennett thought this was relevant and there was a strong case to be made that this would fall under their mandate. But there was a lot of disagreement about this. Something the show skips over in these discussions is just how time-sensitive they were. Like, ‘How do we figure out if we can look into this before Clinton’s deposition, which is just a few days away?’ Ken Starr apparently thought, ‘I’m not sure whether we should hang onto this, since it somehow involves Clinton and there could be a quid pro quo. Or whether, because this is kind of about Vernon Jordan, we should give this to DOJ and they can decide what to do.’

“Two days before the sting operation at the mall, Bennett calls Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general, who’s at a Washington Wizards game. He says, ‘We have some new information and we really need to figure out whether it’s relevant to us and whether we can look into it because we’ll need to get approval.’ Then they have a meeting where Holder is like, ‘I do think you probably have to investigate this before the deposition and there’s not much time. If we take it on [at DOJ], it’ll look like too much of a conflict of interest within the administration. So you should go for it.’ Then they get approval from Janet Reno. So there’s this whole drama going on behind the scenes, and even Ken Starr is not totally sure and wants and needs an outside opinion. So these discussions are not just internal to them, like the way they show it onscreen.”

Brett Kavanagh’s role on Starr team
“He was a big part of this, though he actually left between November ’97 and April ’98 and came back when there was a lot to do that spring. So during this period, he wouldn’t be present at this meeting when they first learned about the Lewinsky affair. But he clerked for Anthony Kennedy and worked for Starr for about four years. He was pretty young, but he did a lot for them. He was very involved in a lot of discussions. He infamously suggested including extremely explicit questions to ask Clinton during the investigation. There was disagreement among the team about what to do about that. And then later on — which they may or may not show when they get to the Starr report — he wrote a lot of the section laying out the grounds for impeachment.”

Paula Jones’s mother meeting Susan Carpenter-McMillan
“I don’t know about this very specific meeting. Other than Clinton’s deposition, the rest of these depositions are taking place in Little Rock. So Paula was there a lot. This scene felt to me like the writers needed to catch the audience up on what’s going on here, because we haven’t seen these characters in a little while.

“Paula’s mom was approached by a ton of reporters while the case was going on, and they would often write about her not seeming super-connected to the news. She didn’t watch TV. She was somewhat naïve about the way the case worked. But I thought that the extent to which she didn’t know at all what was going on in the scene seemed a little far-fetched, because she was deposed herself about this in October. So I think they just had to get a scene of Paula explaining exactly where they are in the case at this point.”

The private investigators who turn up to ask Juanita Broaddrick to support Jones’s case
“This is a fun fact: The private investigators who show up on Juanita Broaddrick’s porch, asking for her support, are Rick and Beverly Lambert. Those are the parents of Miranda Lambert, the country singer. They were hired to go out and try to interview people and track down these leads. So they did show up to her house and then you have something fairly similar to this conversation, which we know because they recorded it and there’s a transcript. Certain things are simplified, but the line where Juanita Broaddrick says of Paula Jones, ‘She’s telling the truth. Anything she says about him is true’ — that’s something she said during that conversation.”

On Clinton’s lawyer, Bob Bennett, asking Jones forceful questions
“During the deposition, Bennett is the one who asked her about the ‘distinguishing characteristic,’ and he asked her to draw it. And then the other attorney who’s asking questions, Bill Bristow, asked her this question: ‘Have you taken anatomy? Oh, so then where does your experience come from?’ So yes, questions were basically as intrusive as they show here.

“One dynamic that’s slightly changed for TV is the drama of Paula seeming blindsided by this. For a long period of time, it was pretty clear that Clinton’s attorneys wanted to try to introduce things from her past, to introduce explicit details about her personal life. This was something they knew was coming. And by this point, the guy that they mentioned, Dennis Kirkland, had been deposed and Paula was present for his deposition. She did have to answer all these extremely graphic and intrusive questions during her own deposition, but she wouldn’t have been totally blindsided that she was about to do that. They were prepared that it was going to be an awful grilling.”

Clinton’s legal strategy regarding Jones
“In her initial lawsuit, Jones is suing Clinton. Then she’s also suing one of the state troopers from this original Troopergate story, the guy who said, ‘Her name’s Paula. She wants to be the president’s regular girlfriend.’ She sued him for defamation. Because she sued him for defamation of her reputation, that is what allowed Clinton’s team to say, ‘Okay, well, if you’re saying your reputation is harmed, we will prove that your reputation wasn’t harmed by this because your reputation was bad to begin with.’ That was the approach here.

“From her perspective, obviously this is horrible and very painful to go through. Her lawyers end up filing to remove the defamation claim so that her reputation is no longer at issue at all in this case. And the judge ends up granting that, in December of ’97.”

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 Lewinsky’s evening with Jake Tapper
“This happened. They compress it into one evening, but he met her while he was at a going-away party at a bar and then got her number. They eventually went to dinner just before Christmas of ’97. Something that really shows how quickly things are about to escalate is that just over a month after they had that dinner, Tapper published a really long article all about their date that was on the front page of the Washington City Paper. Almost instantly, this is going to become really public. He remarked that she offered to pay, which I think they show in the episode.”

On whether Lewinsky was really that well-liked by co-workers
“Her Department of Defense boss Ken Bacon apparently did like her, and he had good things to say about her in recommendations and felt she was a good employee. Some of the first articles about Monica after the affair became public talked to co-workers at all these places she worked. Some people thought she was not super-focused on her work; others thought she was fun and funny to be around. Kind of all over the board. Ken Bacon eventually got in trouble for releasing personal background information about Linda Tripp after everything became public. Information from her personnel file. So he gets wrapped up in this, too.”

On whether Starr would open a meeting with a Bible verse
“He’s a very deeply religious person. In a lot of the reporting from the time, one of the big questions was, ‘Did he bring his religion into the workplace?’ And the answer seems to have always been ‘No.’ He had a scripture-a-day calendar, for example, but he kept it at home. He wrote in his memoir that when he worked as the solicitor general under George H.W. Bush, he would try to have a key scripture in mind during important meetings, but it doesn’t seem that he would really bring that out into the open in the workplace the way that they showed here.”

On the Christmas party at Tripp’s house
“One dynamic that’s not really introduced here: After the fact, it came out that several of Linda Tripp’s friends knew about the affair and knew that Linda was taping calls before it became public. It was later reported that she introduced these friends to Monica at this Christmas party they show in the episode. So Linda had this group of friends there who were thinking, Oh man, I know stuff about you that Linda’s told me. I think the number of people who are aware of her secret adds this other horror element.

“Something that Jake Tapper wrote in his piece about their interactions is that when he first noticed her at the bar, a friend mentioned to him that she had a bad reputation or she had a reputation for hanging out in the White House trying to get close to the president. The rumor mill was pretty expansive by that point.”

Impeachment: Fact-checking Ep 5, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’