Clinton and the Intern
By Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas
Over the phone, the two women are talking about sex and its consequences. Night after night, for months on end, they have talked of little else. One of the women, the younger one, sounds like a neurotic, slightly spoiled Valley Girl. The older one, who speaks with a smoker's rasp, is insistent and domineering. On this particular night in December 1997, just before Christmas, both women sound very scared.
They have just been subpoenaed in the case of Jones v. Clinton. The two women know that they may be compelled to testify under oath about the topic that has been, up until now, mere gossip. What was titillating is now deeply threatening. The older woman, Linda Tripp, is urging the younger woman, Monica Lewinsky, to tell all about her relationship with the man they refer to as "the big he" and "the creep." But Lewinsky is resisting, hoping, somewhat plaintively, that she won't get caught. "Nobody saw him give me any of those things and nobody saw anything happen between us," says Lewinsky. "Are you positive that nobody saw you in the study?" asks Tripp. "I'm absolutely positive," says Lewinsky. "How about Betty?" presses Tripp. "Nobody saw him give me that thing," says Lewinsky.
Tripp pushes Lewinsky on another front: "He knows you're going to lie, you've told him, haven't you?"
"No," Lewinsky replies.
Tripp: I thought that night when he called you, you established that much.
Lewinsky: Well, I don't know.
Tripp: Jesus, well, does he think you're going to tell the truth?
Lewinsky: No... Oh, Jesus.
It is clear from this conversation, which was secretly taped by Tripp, that the "big he" is President Clinton ("Betty" is Betty Currie, the president's personal assistant). But what is "that thing" that Clinton supposedly gave Lewinsky? What, if anything, "happened" between Lewinsky and Clinton when they were in "the study" the president's private study off the Oval Office? And most important, did Clinton tell Lewinsky to lie?
Getting the answers to these questions may take months, and the whole truth may never be known. Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct the extraordinary events that led to this phone call, a tape of which was listened to by Newsweek reporters and editors. In one sense, the story is about the workings of the modern Washington scandal machine, but the underlying themes, of hubris and betrayal, are timeless. The motivations of the key participants including Newsweek magazine, which played a minor but real role in the unfolding drama merit scrutiny.
On Nov. 6, 1996, Bill Clinton returned in triumph to a roaring rally at the White House. He had just been re-elected president by a wide margin, the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term. He had survived the media, which had dismissed him as irrelevant; the Republican Revolution, which had seized control of Congress in 1994, and his own propensity for scandal and brinkmanship. Or so it seemed. But look closely at those video clips of Clinton working the rope line at the homecoming on that bright autumn day. There is a flirty girl in a beret, gazing a little too adoringly at the president who in turn gives her a hug that is just a bit too familiar. The young woman, we now know, was Monica Lewinsky. She understood the potential for trouble in that picture. A year later, while she and Tripp were discussing evidence that might ruin them, they were still talking about it. "Flipping amazing," says Tripp, on one of the recordings she made that Newsweek listened to.
Amazing, all right. Also amazing: the special prosecutor's tape of Lewinsky saying that the president's friend and informal adviser, Vernon Jordan, suggested that she be quiet about her alleged affair with Clinton. The reports that Lewinsky kept a dress, streaked with semen, as a souvenir of the president. The tape on which Monica says they aren't really having sex because there is "no penetration."
The White House had vertigo last week. Clinton creates profound insecurity in those who serve him. Are there any more old girlfriends/one-night stands/summer interns waiting to make their debuts? No one at the White House was willing to bet that some new shocker would not emerge from Clinton's past, though it would be hard to top the sex-and-betrayal saga set in motion last week.
The plot twists are serpentine. In particular, Linda Tripp is a character for the ages by turns nosy, shrewd, principled, conniving, cynical and moralistic. Why did she tape her young friend's most intimate confessions? To protect herself, she says, but the conspiracy theorists are already looking for more nefarious motives. Tripp had been a bit player in the Vincent Foster suicide investigation; she is certainly ubiquitous in the story that follows. "She's like Forrest Gump," says a former Bush White House aide. "Time and again, she keeps showing up in the middle of these things. It's like, she's everywhere." She was there for Monica Lewinsky, but not in quite the way Lewinsky had hoped.
I. Monica's World
At the heart of the story is a young woman's craving for recognition and attention. Monica Lewinsky grew up pampered but possibly emotionally neglected in Beverly Hills, Calif. Her father was a cancer doctor with a busy practice; her mother was a socialite who loved to drop celebrity names. She lived in a million-dollar house; Dad drove a Cadillac, Mom drove a Mercedes; the housekeeper took Monica and her brother, Michael, to tennis lessons, Hebrew school and the orthodontist. When Monica was 15, her parents went through a nasty divorce. In court papers, mother charged father with "screaming obscenities" and "belittling the children" by, on "many occasions," saying " 'leave the dinner table,' 'go to your room,' and 'we don't want your opinion'." (Bernard Lewinsky denied the allegations.) Other court documents listing the family's expenses included $760 a month for psychiatrists' bills for the children. Last week Monica's classmates at Beverly Hills High remembered her unkindly as a girl who had "gone to a fat farm" and strived to be popular.
An indifferent student, she went for two years to a local community college and then to Lewis & Clark, a small liberal-arts bastion in Portland, Ore. The real-estate agent who showed the house Lewinsky was renting described her as "cold" and her house as "filthy." Lewinsky "kept a container with about a dozen new condoms by her bed on a table," said the agent, Bob Elston. She was "very flirtatious, also a bit emotional, young and somewhat immature, and she talked a lot," said classmate Steve Enghouse, who spoke to reporters because of his suspicion that Lewinsky had concocted an imaginary romance with President Clinton in order to attract attention. Enghouse told reporters, "I don't think anyone who really knew her would put it past her to have made this up."
A White House internship gave Lewinsky a shot at reflected glory. (The job was arranged by Democratic moneyman Walter Kaye, a family friend who has donated more than $300,000 to the party.) Among staffers at the White House, where she arrived in June 1995, Monica Lewinsky was known as a "clutch." If an important person shook her hand, she wouldn't let go. Her determination to enter the inner sanctums of the White House was exceptional, even among other star-struck young interns. Lewinsky was relegated to room 93 on the ground floor of the Old Executive Office Building, where she opened mail. But her blue "hard pass" allowed her to freely roam the corridors of the White House, and she never passed up an opportunity to linger outside the Oval Office.
At the White House, female interns tend to be willowy and well bred. With her heavy makeup, revealing blouses and occasionally ribald comments, Lewinsky did not really fit in. While some colleagues remember her as "bubbly," others called her pushy and self-aggrandizing. She tended to exaggerate the importance of her menial tasks, and to hint at important "political connections." She bragged that she had used her White House pass to get into Democratic Party fund-raisers downtown, where she could be close to the president as he pressed the flesh.
Lewinsky inevitably attracted the attention of Evelyn Lieberman, then deputy chief of staff and a close friend of Hillary Clinton's, who served as a kind of informal hall monitor and watchdog. Lieberman sent Lewinsky home to change when she showed up for work in a low-cut white dress, and repeatedly scolded the 21-year-old intern for spending too much time hanging around at Rose Garden ceremonies, receptions, fund-raisers, any event where the president might appear.
Lieberman, White House sources say, wanted to get Lewinsky far away from the Oval Office. In April 1996, Lewinsky was shuffled off to a job at the Pentagon. In a three-page letter to her former supervisor at the White House, Lewinsky protested the transfer; according to a source who has seen the document, the tone was, "how could you do this to me?" Working as an assistant in the public-affairs office, she continued to boast about her White House connections. Once, when Clinton appeared on TV, Lewinsky announced that the president was wearing a tie she had bought for him. Willie Blacklow, a former deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Pentagon, says he was always a bit skeptical of Lewinsky's professed intimacy with the president, until he accompanied her to a White House Christmas party in December 1996. Lewinsky was "dressed to the hilt, with a semi-low-cut red dress." They were going through the receiving line when, Blacklow recalls, Clinton gave her an enthusiastic greeting, saying "Hi, Monica!" and "hugged" her. "I was kind of stunned," Blacklow said. "There was no question that she was something more than just another gofer." (Blacklow recalled that Hillary Clinton also recognized Lewinsky and shook her hand.) Blacklow says he liked Lewinsky, considering her a "sweet young kid," but said it was something of a "mystery" how someone with her youth and inexperience had landed her Pentagon job a post that came with a top-secret security clearance and took her on a half-dozen trips around the world. "Her knowledge of politics was extremely limited," he said.
According to her co-workers, Lewinsky also bragged about romantic flings with a midlevel civilian official at Defense and a colonel working on the Joint Staff (both men told friends the stories were untrue). Most of Lewinsky's colleagues ignored or were bemused by her girlish showing-off. But one who listened closely was Linda Tripp, an aide in the Pentagon's public-affairs office. Tripp, 48, soon struck up an intimate friendship with Lewinsky. Though Tripp was more than twice Lewinsky's age, the two bantered easily about sex and shopping. Lewinsky played the role of ingenue, Tripp that of wiser woman of the world. Over time, the friendship evolved into a kind of mother-daughter bond.
Because Tripp plays such a critical role in surfacing Lewinsky's alleged relationship with President Clinton, and because her later exposure of her friend seems perplexing, if not downright suspicious, Tripp's personality and character bear close examination. A career civil servant who had followed her husband, an army officer, around the world until their divorce in 1992, Tripp is described by co-workers as warm and nurturing also as domineering and manipulative. She has a love of office intrigue, sometimes playing off different officemates against each other and delighting in water-cooler gossip, especially about the foibles of her bosses. A holdover from the Bush administration who got a job as an administrative aide to White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, Tripp was around for the early stumbles and scandals of the Clinton administration. She was the last person to see deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster alive on the day he shot himself (Tripp brought Foster lunch: a hamburger and some M&Ms). Left without duties when Nussbaum quit the White House, Tripp spent much of the day polishing her resume and sending out caustic e-mail. One of the notes, written during the search of Foster's office, described Nussbaum and two other top officials as "the Three Stooges."
She had a strong sense of rectitude "Things like this would never happen in the Bush days," she declared more than once and a willingness to strike back. When her neighbor's dog repeatedly left messes on the front lawn of her house in Columbia, Md., she tried to consult the White House counsel's office about suing the neighbor. Chatting with FBI agents on the White House detail, she became friendly with Gary Aldrich, the renegade agent who later wrote a best-selling, if somewhat unreliable, expose of the Clintonites. In "Unlimited Access," Aldrich describes the early Clinton White House as a den of pot-smoking, promiscuous twentysomething slackers. (Aldrich also purports to describe the president's sneaking out for late-night trysts at a nearby hotel.) Aldrich says that Tripp was a pleasant, competent staffer who helped him make his rounds as he conducted security checks but he denies that she was a source for his book.
By August 1994, Tripp had found a better-paying job at the Pentagon. Though she worked in a different office a floor below Lewinsky's, the two were drawn together by their experiences at the White House and a shared love of gossip in high places. Over coffee at the Pentagon Starbucks down the corridor, Tripp played the role of romantic adviser to Lewinsky. Lewinsky was eager to confide: she was, she told Tripp, engaged in a dangerous liaison with an older married man whom, at first, she did not name. Pressed by Tripp, Lewinsky confessed that the man was President Clinton.
As Lewinsky told the story, she had flirted with Clinton at a White House office party for the legislative-affairs staff (where Lewinsky worked after her internship expired) in November 1995. Lewinsky was wearing a revealing dress; Clinton took a more-than-avuncular interest. Tripp was somewhat disapproving she began referring to Clinton as "the big creep" but she was eager for details. In one conversation (taped by Tripp, without Lewinsky's knowledge), Monica, while discussing how many men she had slept with, failed to mention the president. "What about the big creep?" asked Tripp. "No," said Monica. "There was no penetration." Lewinsky said Clinton preferred oral sex. (It may or may not be relevant that one of Clinton's state troopers in Arkansas once said that the governor told him he did not consider oral sex to be adultery.) Lewinsky said that Clinton also liked phone sex; the president, she said, would awaken her at 2 or 3 a.m. to "talk dirty." After she went over to the Pentagon, Lewinsky visited Clinton at the White House more than a dozen times, usually during the afternoons and weekends and, on one occasion, late at night. According to Lewinsky, the two exchanged small gifts (a tie for him, a book of poetry Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" for her). Lewinsky told Tripp that she was keeping, as a kind of grotesque memento, a navy blue dress stained with Clinton's semen. Holding it up as a trophy to Tripp, she declared, "I'll never wash it again."
Prosecutors will have some opportunity to check out Lewinsky's lurid account. The dress, if obtained by Starr, can be sent to a crime lab. White House visitors logs and phone records can be examined. It is, of course, possible that Lewinsky was exaggerating or even fabricating her sexual relationship with the president. She does not sound unbalanced or delusional on the tapes heard by Newsweek. Still, a neurotic young woman trying to impress a worldly confidante might be tempted to embellish a flirtation at the highest levels.
In addition to Tripp, Lewinsky may have been trying to impress someone else: her mother. Marcia Lewinsky is an interesting role model for her daughter. After her separation, Monica's mother had helped write a column on showbiz for The Hollywood Reporter. Moving to Washington in 1993, she wrote, under the pen name Marcia Lewis, a saucy celebrity biography called "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors," about opera stars Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo. In November 1996, shortly before the book was published, a gossip-column item appeared suggesting that Lewis had done some firsthand research on the sex life of Domingo. Recounting descriptions of the opera singer's "orgasmic screams," the item, by Cindy Adams in the New York Post, said that Lewis "sort of semi-denies this rumor, but it could account for the inside dish/dope/dirt."
It appears that Lewis may have started the rumor about herself and then denied it. Lewis wrote her own publisher a proposed press release: "How did the author, a glamorous Beverly Hills writer formerly with The Hollywood Reporter, get all the inside dope? She denies rumors she and Domingo were more than friends in the Eighties, but read the book and see what you think." According to a source who saw the draft of her manuscript, she described, at length and in vivid detail, what it would be like to be a woman lying in bed waiting to have sex with Domingo, as the great opera star dropped his robe. Lewis's publishers excised the scene because it was too purple. It is impossible to know whether the scene was based on real life. Through a press agent, Domingo acknowledged to Newsweek that he knew Marcia, but flatly denied that he had ever had an affair with her.
For much of her time at the White House and Pentagon, Lewinsky lived in the family apartment at the Watergate. On the tapes recorded by Tripp, Monica talks of confiding in her mother about her relationship with the president.
II. A Winding Trail
In the spring of 1997, Michael Isikoff, a reporter for Newsweek and a coauthor of this article, first met Linda Tripp. At the time, Isikoff was investigating Clinton's alleged relationship with yet another woman. The twists and turns of Isikoff's reporting are complex, and normally Newsweek would not detail the behind-the-scenes work of its own reporter. But as will become clear, Isikoff's actions had an unavoidable impact on the story as it played out.
At the time, Isikoff, who is based in Newsweek's Washington bureau, was reporting on Paula Jones's lawsuit against President Clinton. In January 1997, one of Jones's lawyers told Isikoff that he had been given a tip about a sexual incident between Clinton and a female staffer at the White House. In hopes of buttressing their sexual-harassment case against Clinton, Jones's legal team was eager to find other women who could tell of sexual encounters with Clinton, particularly women who worked for the president. The name of the woman in question, Isikoff learned after some further reporting, was Kathleen Willey, a low-level White House aide. Isikoff also got a lead on a possible witness: Linda Tripp.
In March, Isikoff found Tripp working at her desk in the Pentagon. Tripp suggested that they go into the Pentagon courtyard, where she could smoke. Tripp was very reluctant to talk, but she agreed to stay in touch with the reporter. Events then took over: on May 27, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that Paula Jones's case could proceed to trial. Jones's lawyers soon subpoenaed Kathleen Willey. Working on the story for Newsweek, Isikoff went back to Tripp, who agreed to go on the record about what she had seen. Tripp told Isikoff that she had run into Willey by the elevator in the West Wing. Willey looked disheveled and her makeup was smeared. The two women went out to a picnic table outside the White House, where Willey told Tripp that the president had kissed her and fondled her in his hideaway study off the Oval Office. Willey had told friends the advances were unsolicited and unwelcome. Tripp begged to differ: Willey did not seem upset at the time, Tripp said. Her face was flushed and joyful.
When Newsweek was preparing to report this in an issue that appeared the first week in August, Clinton's lawyer Robert Bennett lashed out. "I smell a rat," he said, using a line he would repeat last week. "Linda Tripp is not to be believed." Tripp began to feel afraid. She worried that she, too, would now be subpoenaed in the Jones case. She was fearful that she would be asked if she knew any other women who had had sexual relations with Clinton. If she lied, and did not reveal what she had heard from Monica Lewinsky, she would be vulnerable to a perjury charge. On the other hand, if she told the truth, she would be savaged by Bennett and the White House team and probably lose her $88,000-a-year job at the Pentagon (Tripp was still helping pay for her daughters' education; her financial-disclosure forms show that she has more debts than assets). Tripp decided that she needed to protect herself. She bought a tape recorder and began secretly recording her conversations with Lewinsky.
In the past, Tripp had explored another potential source of income. After Foster's suicide in the summer of 1993, Tripp considered writing an "inside the White House" memoir. She had been approached by a New York literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, who was shopping for a book about the Clintonites ("Everybody was curious about these people from Arkansas," says Goldberg) and had heard about Tripp from an old friend in the Bush administration. Goldberg herself had a political background as an undercover operator for the Nixon White House in 1972. Posing as a reporter for some women's organizations, Goldberg had been a Nixon spy on the George McGovern press plane, passing on advance copies of press releases and whatever salacious gossip she could pick up. Goldberg immediately hit it off with Tripp. "She was a straight shooter and she had great dish," said Goldberg. "I love dish." The book idea they discussed was not, Goldberg insists, a sex expose, but rather about the culture of the Clinton White House. Goldberg couldn't find an interested publisher, however, and the project died.
Then, last October, Tripp called Goldberg again. "There's more stuff, and it's far worse," Tripp said to Goldberg. "And it outrages me." Tripp revealed her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. "Oh my God," Goldberg exclaimed. "I'm coming down." At the Washington home of her son, Jonah, Goldberg was given a tape of a conversation with Lewinsky. She was not impressed. "It was two white chicks talking," said Goldberg. Lewinsky and Tripp were chatting about a sale at Nordstrom's department store, about their breast sizes, about how they looked in different outfits. "It was slumber-party city," says Goldberg. At the time, the agent and Tripp did not talk about reviving the book idea. "Absolutely not," says Goldberg. "We maybe spoke one sentence about how someday we could get a book. That's the way agents think. But it was on the back burner."
There was another guest at Jonah Goldberg's house in the Adams Morgan section of Washington that day. For some months, Newsweek's Isikoff had been in touch with Tripp "hounding" her, Goldberg claims. Aware that Isikoff knew of rumors that Clinton was having an affair with a former White House staffer, Goldberg suggested to Tripp that she play the tapes for Isikoff. Uncomfortable with the whole taping process, Isikoff declined to listen and left Goldberg's house.
In their many phone conversations that fall, Lewinsky complained to Tripp that she was being neglected by the president. After she had been farmed out to the Pentagon, Clinton tried to reassure her that he would "get her back" to the White House as soon as the 1996 election was over. Lewinsky told Tripp that Clinton had even made vague (and preposterous) hints that he would see more of his paramour in the ill-defined future. According to Lewinsky, Clinton talked about strains in his marriage and suggested that he would be "alone" after he left the White House. In fact, however, Lewinsky was stuck at the Pentagon; her application for a White House job was just sitting on the desk of White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta. By the fall of 1997, Lewinsky was complaining that Clinton's ardor for her seemed to be cooling. He wasn't calling her much, and he rarely returned her increasingly frantic calls. Lewinsky was restless and bored at the Defense Department. True, she got to travel the world on official trips, but the broad dull corridors of the Pentagon could not compare with the cozy warren of the West Wing. Her mother had moved to New York, and Lewinsky wanted to be close to her. Maybe the president could help her get a job in New York City.
In October, White House officials acknowledge, Podesta at the request of Betty Currie asked U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson if he could help Lewinsky. At a breakfast meeting at the Watergate, Richardson offered Lewinsky a public-affairs job at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She turned him down because, she said, she wanted to work in the corporate sector. The White House tried to accommodate her wishes. In November, Currie sent Lewinsky to see Washington superlawyer Vernon Jordan.
On the Washington power spectrum, Jordan is at the extreme opposite end from a low-level aide like Lewinsky. Jordan is the ultimate insider, a master fixer to whom the powerful turn when they need advice or help. He is in the tradition of Clark Clifford, the famed counselor to presidents who helped persuade Lyndon Johnson to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Vietnam War and who quietly handled John F. Kennedy's girlfriends. Jordan is almost too powerful to hold government office himself; a public job would limit his flexibility and discretion. A former civil-rights activist before he turned corporate lawyer, Jordan is an old friend and golfing buddy of Bill Clinton's. They have a similar smooth charm and fondness for ribald jokes.
Jordan has power in part because of his favor bank. He routinely renders services, large and small, for the powerful, with the implicit understanding that the favor might be returned one day. Getting a job for Monica Lewinsky was actually a pretty routine task for someone like Jordan. As he publicly acknowledged last week, Jordan made calls to Young & Rubicam, the New York ad agency; to American Express, and to Revlon ("where I am privileged to be a director," Jordan said in his prepared statement).
Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 8, according to messenger-service receipts obtained by Newsweek, Lewinsky sent out nine packages from the Pentagon eight to the White House, listing Currie's phone number as the contact, and one to Jordan's office on New Hampshire Avenue. Some of those packages contained job-search materials letters and resumes. But, Lewinsky told Tripp, they also included letters to the president, and in one case contained a sexually provocative audiotape that Lewinsky told Tripp was meant for the president's listening pleasure.
III. Turning Up the Heat
In mid-December, the catty, can-you-believe-this conversations between Lewinsky and Tripp took on a whole new tone. Both women were served with subpoenas in the case of Jones v. Clinton. Jones's lawyers already knew about Tripp from Newsweek's story about Kathleen Willey in August. They also had heard rumors about Lewinsky's alleged affair sometime in the fall.
Lewinsky was panicked by the summons to testify in the Jones case. She told Tripp that she called the president, who told her not to worry he would set her up with his friend Vernon Jordan. As Jordan himself publicly recounted, he found a lawyer for her Frank Carter, a respected white-collar-crime specialist. Jordan personally accompanied her to Carter's office. At Jordan's press conference, he stated that Lewinsky had told him "in no uncertain terms" that she did not have a sexual relationship with the president. "At no time," Jordan continued, "did I ever say, suggest or intimate that she should lie."
As for the lying, Lewinsky spun a somewhat different story, Tripp later told prosecutors. According to Lewinsky, Jordan told her to remain silent. He told her that witnesses are never indicted in civil cases. In fact, witnesses rarely, if ever, go to jail for perjury in a civil case. This case, however, may be different. Just exactly what Jordan said, or didn't say, on that ride to Carter's office is one of the most crucial questions in the special prosecutor's obstruction-of-justice investigation. Jordan's many defenders around Washington insist that he was too ethical and too smart to instruct Lewinsky to lie. Speaking not for attribution, however, several white-collar-crime lawyers suggested that Jordan may have coached Lewinsky in a way that subtly got the message across without exposing anyone to obstruction-of-justice charges. When preparing witnesses, a clever lawyer can ask questions that produce answers the lawyer wants to hear without ever suggesting that the witness lie.
That night, after Lewinsky met jordan, she spoke to Tripp on the phone. Newsweek editors have listened to a tape of that conversation. There is nothing on the tape that either strongly supports or flatly contradicts the allegation that Jordan coached Lewinsky to lie. There is only the most cryptic reference to Jordan. At one point, Tripp and Lewinsky discuss telling President Clinton that Lewinsky has told others about their sexual encounters. Tripp fervently wants her to. She thinks that if Clinton knew the secret was out, he would settle the Jones case and thereby save Tripp and Lewinsky from having to testify (and possibly lie) under oath. For a moment, Lewinsky seems to entertain the idea of threatening to tell all tell Clinton that she intends to reveal the truth if she is questioned by Jones's lawyers. "Maybe we should just tell the creep," she says. "Maybe we should just say, don't ever talk to me again, I f-----d you over [by telling others about the affair], now you have this information, do whatever you want with it." But then she seems to lose heart. "He won't settle [the Paula Jones case]," she says. "He's in denial." Tripp says she cannot lie under oath, she has to tell the truth, and she again urges Lewinsky to "tell the big one [Clinton]" that she has already confided in Tripp. "I can't," pleads Lewinsky. "If I do that, I'm just going to f---ing kill myself." Then Lewinsky makes a reference to Jordan, whom she calls "the other one." "The other one, the one I saw today, asked me, 'You didn't tell anybody, did you?' " If Lewinsky is accurately recounting her conversation with Jordan, her version suggests that Jordan did know that Lewinsky claimed to have some kind of sexual relationship with the president. But Lewinsky is silent on the question of whether Jordan told her to keep quiet or outright lie. The only other apparent reference to Jordan is a remark of Tripp's: "Maybe Vernon's right and it's a huge fishing net because of the rumor [that Lewinsky was having sex with Clinton]." As for Clinton, Lewinsky says she will lie "so he will not get screwed." Lying seems to come naturally to Lewinsky. "I was brought up with lies all the time... that's how you got along... I have lied my entire life," she says. But she does not say that Clinton told her to lie.
Tripp and Lewinsky were busy plotting their own deceits. In their conversation that night just before Christmas, they discuss a plan for Tripp to have a "foot accident" while she is traveling and end up in a hospital at just the time she is scheduled for deposition. As they talk, Lewinsky's mother interrupts on call waiting. After a minute, Lewinsky comes back on the line. She announces that her mom thinks that the "foot accident" plan is "brilliant." Monica's mother even offers to help pay for Tripp's medical expenses (not necessary, says Tripp; she's insured).
Tripp and Lewinsky worry that Paula Jones's lawyers will find some incriminating physical evidence. Tripp wonders if the lawyers have searched Clinton's trash. "My fear is that they have information that we don't know they have... and they can nail us," says Tripp. "God forbid," Lewinsky says, "somebody had a video camera of him and me." Lewinsky recalls a thank-you note she wrote the president after her family was allowed to watch him tape a radio address. "I sent a note to Nancy [Hernreich, an assistant to the president], a note to Betty [Currie], and a note to the creep... 'Dear Schmucko, thank you... As my little nephew said, 'It was great to meet the principal of the United States'."
For all their jokey intimacy about "the creep," it is clear in this conversation that Lewinsky and Tripp have decided to take separate paths. "Look, Monica," says Tripp, "we already know you're going to lie under oath..." Tripp continues: "I'm being a sh---y friend and that's the last thing I want to do because I won't lie. How do you think that makes me feel? I can make you stop crying and I could make your life so much easier if I could just f----ing lie... I feel like I'm sticking a knife in your back, and I know at the end of this, if I have to go forward, you will never speak to me again and I will lose a dear friend." Lewinsky does not know that the tape recorder is already turning.
On Jan. 7, Lewinsky signed a sworn affidavit. She "cannot fathom" why Paula Jones's lawyers would seek information from her, she says in the document, which was obtained by Newsweek. She says that while she has met the president several times, "I have never had a sexual relationship with the president, he did not propose that we have a sexual relationship, he did not offer me employment or other benefits in exchange for a sexual relationship... I declare under the penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct."
Five days later, on Monday, Jan. 12, Tripp placed a call to the office of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.
Over the phone, Tripp briefly outlined her story: The president of the United States was having an affair with a government employee. She had been subpoenaed in the Paula Jones case. Clinton and his friend and lawyer Vernon Jordan had told the woman to lie. The woman had signed an affidavit denying the affair. Tripp had 20 hours of tapes to back her up. Within an hour, there were a half-dozen federal prosecutors and an FBI agent sitting in Tripp's living room.
IV. Starr Goes for Broke
Tripp's phone call promised both deliverance and danger for Starr and his team. After four years and $30 million, the Starr investigation was stalled. Starr's deputies were grumbling that the White House had stonewalled them, while Democrats and pundits were calling Starr a Republican stooge. The press and the public had long since lost interest. If Tripp was telling the truth, here was a chance to penetrate the president's inner circle. Starr's men were particularly interested in Jordan. For months, Starr had been investigating whether former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell, an old Friend of Bill's, had been given hush money to buy his silence in Whitewater. Jordan was one of Clinton's friends who had arranged to get lucrative consulting contracts for Hubbell.
At the same time, Starr's deputies knew that following Tripp's leads would be a risky business. Starr had already been roundly criticized for interviewing Arkansas state troopers who had allegedly procured women for the then Governor Clinton. Starr could not afford to be embarrassed by a failed fishing expedition into the president's sex life. Still, as they listened to Tripp's tapes that afternoon, Starr's team realized that Lewinsky and Tripp were not just engaged in idle chatter. To be sure, the tapes themselves would not be worth much as evidence; they had not been authenticated, and taping a phone conversation without the consent of both parties is generally illegal in the state of Maryland. But the information on them, if true, could wind up impeaching the president. To learn more, and develop more solid leads, Starr decided to set up a sting operation. Tripp provided just the opportunity. The next day, she was scheduled to have lunch with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City.
The next morning, FBI agents wired Linda Tripp with a secret listening device. Over lunch, while hidden tapes turned, Tripp walked her unwitting friend back through the whole story. According to knowledgeable law-enforcement sources, Lewinsky made particularly damning statements about Vernon Jordan. "He said, 'It doesn't matter what anybody says, you just deny it'," Lewinsky said, recalling her ride with the superlawyer. She quoted Jordan as saying: "As long as you say it didn't happen, then it didn't happen. You're not going to jail. You're not going to jail." As they listened in an upstairs room at the Ritz, the prosecutors and gumshoes were stunned by the gravity of the moment, the sources said. Somebody could go to jail, they realized, and not just Monica Lewinsky.
The next day, Lewinsky, still unaware of her friend's deception, dug herself in deeper. That afternoon she showed up at Tripp's Pentagon office and offered Tripp a ride home. On the way, she handed her a piece of paper that may turn out to be a smoking gun. The top read simply, "points to make in an affidavit." The rest of the three-page, single-spaced typed document offered Tripp some helpful suggestions, should she wish to make a sworn affidavit in the Jones case. Jones's lawyers, it will be recalled, wanted to ask Tripp about Kathleen Willey as well as Monica Lewinsky. Tripp had been quoted in Newsweek saying that she had seen Willey, after she emerged from the Oval Office, with her lipstick smeared and her blouse askew. Such a description, if repeated in court, would be damaging to Clinton it would buttress the image of him as a sexual predator. So "points to make in an affidavit" baldly instructed Tripp to change her story: "You now do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened. You now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked blouse, etc. You never saw her go into the Oval Office, or come out of the Oval Office. You have never observed the President behaving inappropriately with anybody." And if she was questioned about Lewinsky, Tripp was told to simply dismiss her as "this huge liar." Tripp was told to say, "I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that." Before signing the affidavit, Tripp was told to show it to "Bennett's people" Clinton's lawyers.
On its face, "points to make in an affidavit" is what lawyers call subornation of perjury. Lewinsky was giving Tripp a road map to lying under oath. Starr's goal in the sting operation was to "flip" Lewinsky to confront her with crimes he could charge her with. Among her choices were to join the government's team as a cooperating witness, or face indictment and possibly jail. That Wednesday night, when Tripp handed Starr's deputies "points to make in an affidavit," the prosecutors knew they had been given a powerful tool to squeeze Lewinsky. What's more, Starr strongly doubted that Lewinsky had drafted those talking points herself. That meant she was getting coaching from whom?
Starr had tapes; he had a piece of solid evidence. It was time to call the Justice Department and make it official: the Whitewater independent counsel wanted to investigate the president and his best friend for suborning of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Paula Jones case. First, however, he needed to get permission. Under the act creating the independent counsel, the Justice Department and a three-judge panel from the federal court of appeals must sign off on any requests by special prosecutors to expand the scope of their investigations.
On Wednesday night, Deputy Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder Jr. was in his seat at the MCI Center watching a Washington Wizards basketball game when his beeper went off. It was Jack Bennett, the deputy Whitewater special prosecutor. "Something has come up," Bennett said, "and it could be serious." The story Bennett spun out the next day stunned and troubled Holder. Lewinsky's claim that Jordan told her to "deny it" was particularly disturbing. Later, with his colleagues, the deputy attorney general wondered what business Starr had investigating the president's private life. But he thought the evidence on the tapes demanded a criminal investigation. By whom? They seriously considered secretly requesting another special prosecutor. And Holder and his deputies pondered having the Justice Department open its own investigation. He knew that Attorney General Janet Reno would not want to be seen as impeding Starr's investigation. Nor would she jump at the chance to investigate Bill Clinton's private life. Still, it was clear that someone in law enforcement had to. That night, Lewinsky visited the White House, but did not see the president.
The Justice Department's hand was forced in part by the press. On Thursday morning, Starr's office had received a call from Newsweek's Isikoff. The day before, he had learned about Starr's sting operation against Lewinsky. Before Newsweek could publish a story, Isikoff said he needed to contact the subjects of the investigation, Lewinsky and Jordan. Starr's deputies asked him to hold off. Isikoff agreed to wait until 4 p.m. Friday. That gave the prosecutors less than 36 hours to move.
On Friday morning, Tripp was once again wired up by the FBI. Once more, she met the unknowing Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton's bar in Pentagon City. Only this time, the prosecutors moved in. Starr's deputies and the G-men ushered the stunned, crying Lewinsky to a room upstairs. "You're in trouble," she was told by Michael Emmick, one of Starr's deputies. For two hours, Emmick laid out the evidence: transcripts of tape-recorded conversations, and photos of her and Tripp at the Ritz-Carlton three days earlier. The government had Lewinsky's sworn affidavit denying a sexual relationship with the president and a tape recording of her affirming it. "My life is ruined," said Lewinsky.
The prosecutors had a proposition to make. She could go to jail for perjury. Or she could be the bait in a sting operation and be offered complete immunity from prosecution. She would have to agree to be "wired" fitted with a secret recording device, or make calls on phones that had been tapped by the government. Starr's deputies did not tell Lewinsky whom they wanted her to secretly record. But the obvious target was Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary. That would take the prosecutors closer to their real targets, Jordan and Clinton. But they needed Lewinsky's cooperation, and they needed it fast. Lewinsky had to agree that night or the deal was off. The reason: Starr's team believed that Newsweek was getting ready to publish Isikoff's article, and that Isikoff would call Jordan on Saturday, thus tipping him off.
Still crying, Lewinsky called her mother. Marcia Lewis took the next train down from New York. For the next five hours, Lewinsky and her new acquaintances in the independent counsel's office uneasily killed time. They looked at pots and pans at Crate & Barrel at the mall, they had dinner at Mozzarella's Cafe. They watched Ethel Merman in "There's No Business Like Show Business." Finally, shortly after 10 p.m., a very shaken Lewis arrived at the Ritz. She was herself at risk. On the tapes, Lewis was aware of the affair and condoned their efforts to avoid testifying about the matter.
Lewis tried to act nonchalant. According to The Washington Post, she asked the prosecutors why they were making a criminal case. "What's the big deal?" she asked. "So she lied and tried to convince someone else to lie." But she called her ex-husband Bernard in Los Angeles, who called the family lawyer, William Ginsburg. Ginsburg did the lawyerly thing: he stalled. No deal tonight, he told Starr's deputies at about 11 p.m. The next morning, he flew to Washington.
At Newsweek, the editors were running out of time on the decision whether to go with Isikoff's story. The magazine had continued to hold off before calling Jordan, the White House and Lewinsky. Some editors and reporters were reluctant to go forward before the prosecutors' interrogation of Lewinsky revealed the strength or weakness of their case. Others argued that the magazine's responsibility was to report the news, which this certainly was. On Saturday morning, reporter Daniel Klaidman learned that the Justice Department had approved of Starr's widening of his investigation to include obstruction of justice by the president and Vernon Jordan. But the editors decided to let the magazine's Saturday-night deadline pass. The decisive factors in holding off: the lack of any independent evidence for the obstruction-of-justice charge and of enough firsthand reporting about Lewinsky to judge her credibility.
In the cyber age, scoops rarely hold for a week, and by Sunday morning a dubious Internet gossip columnist named Matt Drudge had his own scoop. He reported some aspects of the story, and that Newsweek had spiked it (not quite right; the reporting went forward, and Drudge was completely unaware of the the most compelling part of the story: Starr's criminal investigation). But Drudge's item about Newsweek had an impact. It helped poison some tense negotiations between Starr's deputies and Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg. Ginsburg and another attorney, Nathaniel Speights, made what is known as a proffer. According to knowledgeable sources, they indicated that their client would be willing to say that she had a sexual affair with the president if she was granted full immunity. But the prosecutors wanted more. She had to be willing to testify on exactly what the president and Jordan told her. The lawyers balked; the talks collapsed with a dismissive obscenity from Ginsburg.
It was only a matter of time before the story broke in the mainstream press. Around midnight, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry got word that the next day's Washington Post would report that Starr was investigating Clinton and Jordan for obstruction of justice. He didn't have the heart, or the energy, to talk to Clinton, who was meeting late with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Five years into the Clinton presidency, the veteran staffers are used to scandals and media feeding frenzies, even ones over sex. But the mood inside the West Wing on Wednesday morning had never been grimmer. Staunch defenders who had lived through all the various gates were disconsolate. There were tears and anger, and a sense that maybe this time Clinton, the great survivor, was pushing his luck. Restrained and courtly, chief of staff Erskine Bowles tried to remind the staff to stick with the nation's business, but it was impossible. The baying from the press room was too loud.
Looking uncharacteristically tense, McCurry read a statement about how "outraged" the president was by the allegations, and declared that the president denied ever having had an "improper relationship" with Lewinsky. Under his breath, ABC's Sam Donaldson, whose return to the White House beat was well timed, muttered, "Boy, you're going to earn your pay today." Querulously, McCurry and the reporters sparred over the meaning of the word "improper." McCurry repeatedly refused to "parse that statement," which had clearly been written by lawyers.
As it happened, Clinton was scheduled to be interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS about the State of the Union. The subject immediately became sex. Looking uncomfortable, Clinton said, "There is no improper relationship." Soon, all the networks were reporting that Clinton had used the present tense. Clinton has such a history of making tortured semantic distinctions possibly to fool himself as well as the public that this latest equivocation was like a flashing light. McCurry had to trudge back to the Oval Office to report that his remark was being dissected with "Talmudic precision." "OK," shrugged Clinton, "I'll use the past tense."
Hillary Clinton was out of town, making a speech on race relations at Goucher College. She greeted the news about her husband with public aplomb, deflecting reporters' questions. "Certainly, I believe they [the allegations] are false absolutely," she said. "It's difficult and painful any time someone you care about, you love, you admire, is attacked and subjected to such relentless accusations as my husband has been." The First Lady's basic instinct, said a supporter, is to "fight back now, find out about the affair later." She immediately began calling old Clinton hands to plot a defense. But it did not go unnoticed that at a glittery dinner for contributors to a White House preservation fund in the East Room that night, Hillary made no eye contact with her husband as he introduced her as the after-dinner speaker.
Back came the anchors from Cuba, where they had been covering the pope. Up went the crisis in the white house graphics on all the news shows. Extra makeup artists had to be hired to handle all the talking heads. Reporters tried, not very hard, to hide their glee. Washington has been boring for months. "Is this the low point of the Clinton presidency?" demanded CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "Not yet," replied McCurry.
Day two was no better for McCurry: he was still held hostage in the press room. This time he had to deal with a Washington Post story that Clinton had admitted under questioning by Paula Jones's lawyers, in his secret deposition the Saturday before, that he had had sex with Gennifer Flowers. How did that square with Clinton's denials back in 1992? The press hounds demanded to know. No contradiction, said McCurry, weary enough to keep a straight face. In a stab at business-as-usual, reporters were led into the Oval Office, where they found Clinton and Yasir Arafat chatting. Lined up on a silk couch, looking very grave, were national-security adviser Sandy Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and gravest of all Vice President Al Gore. The reporters showed perfunctory interest in the Middle East peace talks, which were at a critical juncture, before peppering the president with sex questions. Arafat's translators did not bother to translate. Albright briefed an almost empty press room on the progress of the talks. The Iraq crisis started heating up again, bringing a lot of jokes among White House staffers about the new movie "Wag the Dog," about a political guru who starts a fake war to distract attention from a sex scandal that is about to engulf the president.
The subpoenas began to arrive on Thursday. White House staffers have learned to dread subpoenas, whether or not they have anything to hide, because they can mean crushing legal fees. There were particular commiserations for Betty Currie. A much-beloved motherly figure, Currie will need an expensive lawyer. About the only heartening moment came when Vernon Jordan, at a crowded press briefing on Thursday afternoon, gave a lesson in how to deliver a denial. He was, as always, crisp and elegant, with his gold stick pin and $1,000-an-hour smile. "May I have your attention?" he asked as he stepped to the podium. "My name is Vernon Jordan," he announced to a roomful of reporters, many of whom had played golf with him, or summered on the Vineyard, or lunched at the Palm, or asked him for one favor or another. He smoothly and calmly explained that, of course, he had gotten Lewinsky a lawyer and a job. The message was, why, I'd do the same for you.
Other lawyers were looking less composed. Bob Bennett, Clinton's lawyer on the Paula Jones case, took a long and unpleasant walk down the driveway of the West Wing, through the media gantlet. Bennett likes reporters, but on this morning he looked like he never wanted to see another one again. Meanwhile, the Clintons' Whitewater lawyer, David Kendall, quietly slipped through a side door. Kendall belongs to the "never complain, never explain" school of lawyers, a safer place to be in a sex scandal. Behind the scenes, a very critical legal game began to choose up sides. A basic rule of defense lawyers is "hang together or hang separately." In a case with a number of potential defendants any one of whom can be "flipped" by the prosecutor to turn state's witness it is critical to make sure all the defense lawyers are working together on a united defense. Prosecutors, by the same token, like to "divide and conquer." Thus, the president's legal team was scrambling to make sure that low-level aides were represented by counsel who would be loyal to the president.
V. Hunkering Down
Ginsburg, however, is not part of the Washington defense lawyers' fraternity. He isn't even a white-collar-crime lawyer. He is a medical-malpractice lawyer in Los Angeles. Clinton's lawyers watched with horror last week as Ginsburg seemed to beg for a deal on television. Ginsburg announced that his client was sticking to her affidavit "for now," clearly signaling she would change her story for the right price. Starr's team was content to let Lewinsky sweat. As of Saturday night, Ginsburg was telegraphing that, in exchange for a grant of immunity, Lewinsky would say that she had had sex with the president. His client, Ginsburg said, would not be like Webb Hubbell or Susan McDougal, who have been willing to sit in jail rather than sell out Clinton on Whitewater.
While Ginsburg played "let's make a deal," the White House PR machine was paralyzed. Clinton's political advisers understood the need to get out a coherent defense before too many news cycles went by with fresh revelations (she kept sex dress, bannered the New York Daily News on Saturday morning). But Clinton's legal team had warned that they couldn't shape a story until they knew what Lewinsky would say. Wary of Ken Starr, they believed that the special prosecutor would coerce a version of the story any version of the story from Lewinsky that would contradict Clinton. So Clinton remained silent into the weekend, watching movies.
By Saturday night, there was a Final Days atmosphere around the White House. The True Believers had been summoned home: former Commerce secretary Mickey Kantor by the president, shunned deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes by the First Lady. CNN was playing, over and over, that tape of Lewinsky and Clinton in November 1996 she standing a little too close, eying the president with a seemingly proprietary, come-hither look. Aides were beginning to speculate that Clinton would have to acknowledge some kind of sexual contact with Lewinsky while still furiously denying that he had told her to lie. Would the voters tolerate another Clintonian confessional? Could he pull a modified-Swaggart? Or maybe 12-step his way out of the crisis?
The White House story line, when it emerged, would undoubtedly involve character attacks on Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky. Tripp would be accused of plotting with right-wingers and other Clinton enemies. Lewinsky would be portrayed as troubled the president, perhaps, was just reaching out to her, feeling her pain. Tripp may at least get a book deal out of the whole mess. Lewinsky, well, she'll get a place in history. Presidents have been laid low by assassins, dragged down by war and dissent, disgraced by their own corruption. But no one, up until now, had ever been done in by a young girl desperate for attention.
With Daniel Klaidman, Karen Breslau, Mark Hosenball, Lucy Shackelford, Pat Wingert, John Barry, Gregory L. Vistica and Andrew Murr
© Copyright 1998 Newsweek