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Fact-Checking Bill Clinton’s meltdown on NBC’s ‘Today Show’

The former president made a number of claims on NBC's "Today Show" that do not pass scrutiny. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Yes [I have apologized to Monica Lewinsky], and nobody believes I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt, but you typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this, and I bet you don’t even know them. This was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American people sided with me. They were not insensitive to that. I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s. I had two women chiefs of staff when I was governor. Women were overrepresented in the attorney general’s office in the ’70s, for their percentage in the bar. I have had nothing but women leaders in my office since I left. You are giving one side and omitting facts.”
— Former president Bill Clinton, in an interview on NBC’s “Today Show,” June 4, 2018

The former president, challenged about how his sexual transgressions look in the #MeToo world, responded with a defense that stressed how much he had done for women as a politician. To a considerable extent, that is besides the point in today’s context, where putative supporters of women’s rights (such as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman) have been forced to step down because of disturbing allegations about their treatment of women.

We are not going to fact-check the entire statement. Clinton later in the interview admitted he had not personally apologized to Lewinsky, the intern with whom he had an affair while president. He had simply apologized in general, which is not what the interviewer originally asked. We were amused that Clinton slipped in the phrase “for their percentage in the bar” when he bragged that women were overrepresented in his office when he was  attorney general in 1977-1979.

That’s a low bar. Between 1918 and 1970, 164 women gained Arkansas law licenses; 22 percent of law licenses were held by women by 1998, two decades after Clinton was attorney general. We could not find an exact figure, but one could imagine the percentage would have been far lower in the late 1970s.

But two of his statements stand out as worthy of deeper fact-checking.

‘I left the White House $16 million in debt’

This was a curious claim, because in 2014, after Hillary Clinton was criticized for saying the couple was “dead broke” when they left the White House, the former president had a much lower number: “It is factually true that we were several million dollars in debt.”

A Clinton spokesman did not respond to a request to explain the discrepancy. But Senate financial disclosure forms filed by Hillary Clinton in May 2001, a few months after he left the presidency, indicate “several million” is closer to the truth.

Senate financial disclosures show broad ranges (i.e., $1 million to $5 million). But the highest possible assets added up to $1.8 million while the lowest possible debts were $2.3 million. That works out to about $500,000 in negative net worth.

The biggest problem with calculating the overall debt is that the form shows the Clintons owed $1 million to $5 million to two law firms, Skadden Arps and Williams & Connolly. (Lesser amounts were owed to three other law firms.) So legal debts to the two firms could have been as low as $2 million or as high as $10 million. At the high end, the couple’s net worth would have been as negative at $9.8 million at the time, though that appears unlikely.

The dictionary definition of “several” is “more than two but not many.” That sounds like $4 or 5 million, which is the midpoint of the two options.

There’s another wrinkle. The disclosure forms do not require the listing of homes used for personal use, and the Clintons had two — a $1.7 million, five-bedroom home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and a $2.85 million, five-bedroom home in the District. The first one was bought in 1999 with a big loan by their pal (and later Virginia governor) Terry McAuliffe. But the Clintons put $855,000 of equity into the second one, the White House said at the time.

If Clinton was adding his mortgages to his overall debt, it still would not add up to $16 million — and it hardly seems kosher to count such fancy lodgings. [Update: After this fact check was published, a Clinton spokesman noted The Washington Post in 2007 reported Clinton had an “estimated $12 million" in legal debts, though the article provides no source for this figure.]

In any case, Hillary Clinton had already signed an $8 million book deal by the time the couple left the White House, and Bill Clinton was set to hit the lecture circuit, earning more than $125,000 per speech. Clinton’s 2001 Senate disclosure shows they paid $1.3 million in legal fees, with the amount owed to Skadden Arps falling below $1 million.

Meanwhile, the Clintons’ 2001 tax return shows they earned $16 million in income that year. Maybe that’s the $16 million Clinton had in mind.

‘I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s’

This document came up in the Paula Jones lawsuit against Clinton for, yes, sexual harassment. Discovery in Jones’s case, of course, exposed Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky and led to his impeachment.

As far as we can tell, the document is not public on the Internet and we could not locate a copy, as it appears to be sealed under court order. It is just listed as “Deposition Exhibit No. 5 — Office of the Governor Sexual Harassment Policy.”

But this exchange in Clinton’s deposition on Jan. 17, 1998, is telling. The president is being questioned by Jones’s lawyer, James A. Fisher.

Q. Is this a copy of a sexual harassment policy that you signed when you were the governor of the state of Arkansas?
A. It is. I signed it in 1987, and I’m fairly sure that I was, we were, the first or one of the very first states to actually have a clearly defined sexual harassment policy.
MR. FISHER: Objection, nonresponsive beginning with the words, “I’m fairly sure.”
Q. Mr. President, the criteria there under Roman numeral III were actually federal guidelines that you were adopting as the policy in the state, correct?
A. Yes.

Yikes, quite a burn by Fisher.

In other words, Clinton is bragging today about a state policy that merely implemented new federal guidelines, probably as a result of the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment, including a hostile work environment, was indeed sexual discrimination. It’s not as if he was a trendsetter.

Indeed, a state-by-state guide published in 1987 by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund listed Arkansas as among the dozen worst places to live for any woman concerned with equal rights under the law.

It’s also worth recalling the allegations made by Jones that led to her sexual harassment lawsuit in federal court.

In 1991, while Jones was working at a state-sponsored conference, a state trooper asked her to meet with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in his hotel room. When she arrived, she says, Clinton tried to kiss her and then dropped his pants and underwear and asked her to “kiss it.” She refused and quickly left the hotel room.

Her account was backed up by people who said she told them at the time about the alleged encounter. Pamela Blackard, a state employee sitting at the registration desk with Jones, said she noticed Clinton staring intently at Jones and witnessed a state trooper asking Jones to go to Clinton’s hotel room. She recalled that about 10 minutes later, Jones returned, “shaking,” and she told Blackard in detail about Clinton’s actions. Blackard told her to tell no one, as she was afraid they would lose their jobs.

Ultimately, the Jones case was dismissed by a federal judge, who ruled that even if her allegations were true, such “boorish and offensive” behavior would not be severe enough to constitute sexual harassment under the law. That ruling was under appeal when Clinton in 1998 settled the suit for $850,000, with no apology or admission of guilt.

The Pinocchio Test

In both cases, Clinton skirts close to Four Pinocchios. He did have large legal debts, perhaps several million as he once said, but $16 million is clearly wrong. In any case, he and his wife were able to quickly dig themselves out of that hole. As for the sexual harassment policy, he was simply implementing federal guidelines — and it’s an odd thing to brag about, given the circumstances.

Three Pinocchios

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Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Three Pinocchios
"I left the White House $16 million in debt"
in an interview on NBC’s Today Show
Monday, June 4, 2018
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Three Pinocchios
"I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the eighties"
in an interview on NBC’s Today Show
Monday, June 4, 2018