High crimes? Or just a sex cover-up?
Starr shows all the ways Clinton tried to keep Monica quiet. It's not Watergate
By Eric Pooley
She testified: "I never expected to fall in love with the President. I was surprised that I did." -- The Report
I feel like a character in a novel," Bill Clinton told an aide on the day the Lewinsky scandal broke. With equal parts self-pity and deceit, the President cast himself as the protagonist in Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler's 1941 classic about the victim of a totalitarian witch-hunt. Eight months later, in the pages of Kenneth Starr's report to Congress, Clinton finds himself the villain in a much trashier tale, a fetid blend of libido and legalese that reads like Jackie Collins by way of the Congressional Quarterly.
"In the course of flirting with him, she raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear, which extended above her pants," the report says, describing Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's first encounter, on Nov. 15, 1995. Later that night, according to her testimony, "she and the President kissed. She unbuttoned her jacket; either she unhooked her bra or he lifted her bra up; and he touched her breasts with his hands and mouth." Then he took a call from a Congressman while she performed oral sex on him.
As numbing and repetitive as any porn, the narrative is clinical and sad, a recitation of furtive gropings and panicky zipping-ups between two profoundly needy people, one of whom happened to be the leader of the free world. While Clinton's lawyers thunder that the endless tawdry details serve no purpose but to "humiliate the President and force him from office," Starr argues that Clinton himself made them necessary. Starr's office had originally planned to confine the seamier material to a secret sex appendix, a Starr ally told TIME. But because the President lied so long and hard, the report maintains, Starr had no choice but to include the particulars that proved that, despite Clinton's parsing of the term and even by the tortuous definition used in the Paula Jones deposition, Clinton and Lewinsky had sex, and Clinton lied to cover it up.
No one outside the White House will be quibbling there, thanks to Lewinsky's phenomenal memory and careful record keeping. Awestruck and infatuated though she may have been, Lewinsky was a cool and precise recorder of every moment she spent with Clinton--what they said and did, which Secret Service agents were warily watching them come and go, which aides were shooting daggers at her outside the Oval Office, which phone calls Clinton took during their time together. The narrative relies on Lewinsky's testimony for the particulars of 10 alleged sexual encounters, but to bolster her credibility--she did, after all, perjure herself in her Jones affidavit and cooperated with Starr in exchange for immunity--the report time and again uses White House records and contemporaneous accounts to corroborate her stories. Lewinsky remembers being with Clinton on President's Day 1996, when he spoke to a Florida sugar grower named "something like Fanuli." Phone logs show Clinton spoke to sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul that day. Lewinsky says that during three sexual encounters, Clinton was on the phone with Congressmen; during another, he took a call from his disgraced consultant Dick Morris; in each case, phone logs bear out her account. (Lewinsky says she was performing a sex act on Clinton while he spoke to Alabama Representative Sonny Callahan. The lawmaker, aghast, says they were discussing American troops in Bosnia.)
The report paints a vivid and baffling picture of the relationship. Though Clinton told the grand jury in August that "what began as a friendship came to include [sex]," by Lewinsky's account the reverse was true: the relationship began with hallway flirtation and escalated rapidly to sex (usually oral, never vaginal intercourse, and rarely brought to completion because Clinton, Lewinsky said, did not "know her well enough"). After five sexual encounters, Lewinsky complained to Clinton that they never talked--"Is this just about sex, or do you have some interest in trying to get to know me as a person?"--and after the sixth, on Feb. 4, 1996, they spent 45 min. chatting in the Oval Office. Then, Lewinsky says, "the emotional and friendship aspects" began to develop. They talked about their childhoods, and Clinton told her she made him feel young again; Lewinsky dreamed of being by his side full time after his presidency. They exchanged 48 gifts and had some 50 phone conversations with each other--warm chats, bitter arguments and some 17 late-night phone-sex sessions that Lewinsky says Clinton initiated. Monica sent him an erotic postcard, with a note detailing her ideas about education reform.
The relationship was facilitated by Betty Currie, Clinton's private secretary, a motherly, church going woman who acted as go-between: setting up meetings for Clinton and Lewinsky, connecting them by telephone but not always logging the calls, passing Lewinsky's letters and parcels to him unopened, finding ways to get her into the White House past hostile presidential aides and even coming to the White House on weekends just to escort Lewinsky to the President. Currie had her suspicions, at the very least, but tried hard to stay in the dark. Lewinsky once told her that if no one saw Monica and Clinton together, then nothing had happened. "Don't want to hear it," Currie replied, according to Lewinsky. "Don't say any more. I don't want to hear any more."
Currie was the perfect assistant to a man who had been concealing sex for decades. Starr alleges no fewer than five Clinton perjuries in the Jones deposition on the issue of whether the President and Lewinsky had a sexual affair, three more in Clinton's Aug. 17 grand-jury testimony (claiming, for example, that he hadn't touched Lewinsky's breasts or genitals) and one lie in his televised statement to the American people that night, when he said his Jones testimony had been "legally accurate." The President, Starr also alleges, lied when he claimed he couldn't recall being alone with Lewinsky, lied when he said he hadn't discussed her Jones affidavit with her, lied when he said he hadn't helped her find a job. Since perjury is exceptionally difficult to prove--especially when the witness is as skilled at evasion as Clinton--it is questionable whether any of these misleading statements could be grounds for impeachment, as the prosecutor claims. And there is reason to recoil at some of Starr's tactics; he included far more sexual detail than was necessary to prove his point, and at times ignored or discounted evidence that contradicts his case. Still, many Americans--even those who have long assumed Clinton was lying--will be appalled by the depths of the President's recklessness and deceit. Others will say, Tell us something we didn't know.
So Starr tells them. After the initial shock wears off, readers may find the most damaging sections of the report to be not the salacious details that demonstrate Clinton's deceit but rather the staggeringly detailed account of the cover-up effort he directed: a campaign to avoid discovery that, Starr alleges, amounts to abusing the powers of the office to stymie Starr's investigation. Though the outlines of the story have long since been told in press accounts, the report offers scores of damning new details that drive home the truth of a 25-year-old cliche: the cover-up is worse than the crime.
Most accounts have dated Clinton's alleged scheme to buy Lewinsky's silence by finding her a New York job to the fall of 1997, when she was named as a possible witness in the Jones suit. But the report demonstrates that its roots went back much further. By early spring of that year, according to the report, Clinton began focusing on the threat Lewinsky represented, asking her whether she had told her mother, Marcia Lewis, of the affair. Word of the relationship had leaked to Lewis' friend, Walter Kaye, who mentioned it to White House aide Marsha Scott. Not long after that, Lewinsky received an invitation from Betty Currie to visit the President. On Saturday, May 24, Clinton told Lewinsky he wanted to break off the affair. The President noted, she testified, that "he could do a great deal for her."
Three days later, the Supreme Court ruled that the Jones case could proceed during Clinton's term. Soon after that decision, Jones' lawyers announced they would try to find other female subordinates who had been approached sexually by Clinton. That gave him an even stronger motive for helping Lewinsky. The report details a truly extraordinary job search on her behalf, one driven in part by Lewinsky's extortionate demands. Clinton instructed Currie and Scott to find Lewinsky another White House job after she had been exiled to the Pentagon. Currie argued against it because she felt Lewinsky was "a little bit pushy," but Clinton, Currie testified, "was pushing us hard." She said it was the only time he had ever pressed her to find someone a White House job.
When nothing opened for Lewinsky, she vented her frustration in a July 3 letter to Clinton. If she wasn't going to return to the White House, she wrote, she would "need to explain to my parents exactly why that wasn't happening." She then suggested that he help get her a job at the U.N.
The next day he called her back to the Oval Office. The President berated her for threatening him, but the visit ended affectionately, with Clinton saying he wished he had more time for her and suggesting that after his term was up, he "might be alone."
By autumn, the stakes were rising for Clinton. On Oct. 1, he received interrogatories from Jones' lawyers asking for a list of women other than his wife with whom he had sought to have sexual relations. Six days later, Lewinsky sent the President another letter complaining about her stalled job search. She was cooling on the U.N. idea now and wanted Clinton to help her get a job in the private sector. After 2 a.m. on Oct. 10, the report says, Clinton called Lewinsky and unloaded on her: "If I had known what kind of person you really were, I never would have gotten involved with you," he told her. She complained that he had not done enough to help her. Clinton said he was eager to help. She told him she wanted a job in New York City by the end of October, and he promised to try.
The next day, a Saturday, she was invited for a visit with Clinton, according to the report. They met in the study and discussed jobs. He told her to prepare a list of New York companies she wanted to work for. She suggested that the hyperconnected lawyer Vernon Jordan might help. Clinton was receptive. He also told her that he had asked White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles to get her old boss, legislative affairs director John Hilley, to write a recommendation.
On Oct. 16, Lewinsky sent Clinton a "wish list" of jobs she'd like in New York. Later that fall, U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson decided to interview the former intern in Washington. The night before the meeting, she says, Clinton called to boost her confidence. Eventually, Richardson offered her a job. She turned it down.
It fell to Jordan to find the right job. In his testimony, he claimed to have received assurances from Lewinsky and Clinton that there was no sex. But Lewinsky testified that Jordan knew "with a wink and a nod that I was having a relationship with the President." Just after the Oct. 11 meeting in which Monica suggested to Clinton that Jordan help her find a job, Clinton spoke to him by phone. Clinton has testified that it was Currie who brought Jordan into the effort. But Lewinsky testified that Currie called Jordan at the President's initiative. Jordan, who met Lewinsky in November, said he assumed the same.
Jordan moved slowly at first; he had no contact with Lewinsky for more than a month. But by Dec. 6, Clinton had even more reason to placate the woman: his lawyers showed him a list of witnesses the Jones team was planning to call. Among them was Lewinsky. On Sunday, Dec. 7, Jordan met with the President at the White House. Jordan denied that Lewinsky or the Jones case was discussed, but four days later he was meeting with Lewinsky for the second time, giving her the names of three business contacts. Later that day he called three executives to recommend her.
In that meeting, Jordan got a clue, if he needed one, that Lewinsky was more than an acquaintance of Clinton's. She said she got angry at Clinton "when he doesn't call me enough or see me enough." Lewinsky says he told her to take her frustrations out on him rather than on Clinton. "You're in love, that's what your problem is," he said. After the meeting, Jordan says, he called Clinton and told him that he would try to get Lewinsky a job in New York.
The President was now devoting a lot of attention to the Monica problem. After 2 a.m. on Dec. 17, he called her at home and told her she was on the witness list. According to Lewinsky, he told her that "it broke his heart" to see her listed. But if she were subpoenaed, he said, "she could sign an affidavit to try to satisfy the inquiry and not be deposed." He also went over what Lewinsky calls one of the "cover stories" they had discussed as the affair unfolded: her frequent visits to the White House were to see her friend Currie. Starr calls this a case of subornation of perjury. Clinton testified that he didn't recall saying it.
Over the next couple of days, the twin worries of affidavit and job only grew. So did Jordan's role. On Dec. 18 and 23, Lewinsky interviewed at two New York firms contacted by Jordan. On Dec. 19, she was served with a subpoena to testify in the Jones case. On Dec. 22, Jordan took Lewinsky to her new attorney, and the two discussed her job prospects, the subpoena and the Jones case during the ride in his limousine.
For a man who claimed to see no connection between jobs and affidavit, Jordan was at the intersection of both. Immediately after she was subpoenaed, on Dec. 19, Lewinsky called Jordan, who invited her to his office. Ten minutes after she arrived, he received a call from Clinton and spoke for four minutes. A minute later, he called the attorney he had chosen for Lewinsky, Francis Carter. Monica gave Jordan more reason to suspect an affair at that meeting when she asked him about the future of the Clintons' marriage. Concerned that she seemed "mesmerized" by Clinton, Jordan says, he asked if there was a sexual relationship. She denied it--but told the grand jury she thought Jordan knew of the affair and was asking her not what had happened but what she would tell Paula Jones' lawyers. Jordan said he took her reply literally. When he met with Clinton that night, Jordan testified, he asked him if there was a sexual relationship. Jordan says the President replied, "No, never."
Three days later, when Jordan escorted Lewinsky to Carter's office, he was again confronted with the true nature of the relationship. She told him she was worried about someone's eavesdropping on her phone calls with Clinton, which would be a problem because "we've had phone sex." At the same time, she says, she showed him gifts Clinton had given her. (Jordan denied it.)
Lewinsky was getting worried about all those gifts--souvenirs from Martha's Vineyard, a special edition of Leaves of Grass. She testified that on Dec. 28, during an early-morning meeting with Clinton at the White House, she asked him if she should "put the gifts away outside my house somewhere or give them to someone, maybe Betty." Clinton responded, "I don't know" or "Let me think about that." Later that day Currie called Monica and said, according to Lewinsky, either "I understand you have something to give me" or "The President said you have something to give me." Currie then went to Lewinsky's apartment, took a box of gifts and hid them under her own bed. She later gave them to Starr.
The prosecutor labels this obstruction of justice by Clinton--concealing the truth by concealing the gifts. But Currie's testimony disputes Lewinsky on the key question of who initiated the call. Currie said Monica called her first and asked her to take the gifts. Currie testified that she didn't remember talking to the President about the gifts before or after she fetched them from Lewinsky, which raises the question, What would have motivated Currie to act on her own initiative? Still, the White House notes that Starr's report relies on Lewinsky's version of events as accurate and dismisses Currie's contradictory testimony, even though Lewinsky is an admitted perjurer and Currie is not.
Three days after Currie collected the gifts, Jordan allegedly caused the destruction of other evidence linking Lewinsky to Clinton. According to the report, at a Dec. 31 breakfast meeting between Jordan and Lewinsky, she told him that Linda Tripp might have seen drafts of highly charged notes she had written the President. "Go home and make sure they're not there," Jordan allegedly told her. When Lewinsky returned home that day, she says, she threw out some 50 draft notes to Clinton.
The report suggests an active role by Clinton in creating Lewinsky's affidavit denying a sexual relationship. He had suggested the affidavit in the first place, and though Lewinsky says he never explicitly asked her to lie, they had often discussed keeping their relationship secret. As Lewinsky told Linda Tripp in a recorded conversation, "I don't think he thinks of [it as] lying under oath... He thinks of it as...'We're being smart; we're being safe; it's good for everybody.'" Jordan testified that Clinton was "concerned about the affidavit and whether it was signed or not," and he had kept up "a continuing dialogue" with Clinton on the matter. Phone records for Jan. 6, for example, show Jordan in contact with the White House twice, Lewinsky three times and her attorney Carter four times. In one flurry, Jordan called the President less than 30 minutes after speaking with Lewinsky and then called Carter immediately after that.
On Jan. 7, Lewinsky signed the affidavit and brought a copy to show Jordan. He placed three long calls to the White House that day in which he told the President, according to his testimony, that she had signed the affidavit and that he was continuing to work on getting her a job. In both cases, Jordan testified, the President said, "Good."
The next day Jordan applied a little of what he calls the "Jordan magic" to close the deal on Lewinsky's job. On that day Lewinsky interviewed in New York City with a top executive of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc., billionaire Ron Perelman's umbrella company, but the executive decided she was unsuited for any opening. (Jordan is on the board of Revlon, a MacAndrews subsidiary.) Lewinsky reported to Jordan that the interview went "very poorly." So Jordan called Perelman. "I have spent a good part of my life learning institutions and people, and in that process, I have learned how to make things happen," he explained to the grand jury. "And the call to Ronald Perelman was a call to make things happen, if they could happen." (He also made three calls to the White House that day.) According to Perelman, Jordan touted Lewinsky as a "bright young girl who I think is terrific." It was the first time in the 12 years Jordan had served as a Revlon director that he had called to recommend someone for a job.
By the end of the day, Revlon called Lewinsky for an interview. On Jan. 9, she met with one executive from MacAndrews and two from Revlon. Within hours, Lewinsky was informally offered a job. She informally accepted and reported the news to Jordan. He immediately informed Currie and Clinton: "Mission accomplished." But Lewinsky still needed references, and Clinton reached down into the White House staff to make sure Lewinsky would get a favorable one. In the end, Revlon withdrew the job offer after the scandal broke.
During his Jones deposition on Jan. 17, Clinton was barraged with questions about Lewinsky. After the interrogation was finished, he called Currie and summoned her to the White House the following day, a Sunday. In the meeting, Currie testified, Clinton made a series of statements about himself and Lewinsky. "You were always there when she was there, right? We were never really alone. Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?"
None of them were right, but Currie felt "the President wanted her to agree with them," the report says. Starr charges that Clinton, worried Currie might be called for a deposition, was engaging in witness tampering. Clinton lawyer David Kendall rejects the charge, arguing that Currie was not a witness in any proceeding at the time (she was never called in the Jones matter). Clinton, in his August grand-jury testimony, conceded that Currie "may have felt some ambivalence about how to react" to his words. He said he had always tried to prevent her from learning of the affair. "[I] did what people do when they do the wrong thing," he said. "I tried to do it where nobody else was looking at it."
Three days later the scandal broke. That day Clinton got a call from Dick Morris, his longtime consultant, who'd resigned in disgrace amid his own sex scandal in 1996. "You poor son of a b____," Morris said consolingly. The consultant testified that he assured the President that "there's a great capacity for forgiveness in this country, and you should consider tapping into it."
"But what about the legal thing?" Morris says Clinton replied. "You know, Starr and perjury and all?" Clinton had already denied the affair in his Jones deposition, but, Morris says, the President admitted to him that "with this girl I just slipped up."
Morris says he took a poll on the voters' willingness to forgive confessed adultery. He phoned back a few hours later to tell Clinton that voters would forgive adultery "but not perjury or obstruction of justice." In other words, it was already too late. Morris testified that Clinton said, "Well, we just have to win then."
So the President denied the affair on television and in one-on-one conversations with aides who, perhaps believing the lie, repeated it endlessly when spinning the press and testifying before the grand jury. He used the power of the Executive Branch--the White House megaphone and the counsel's office--to attack Starr and impede his investigation with a series of privilege claims that were rejected by the courts. Through such tactics, the independent counsel's report claims, Clinton "abused his constitutional authority."
The charge echoes the second article of impeachment passed by the House in 1974, the one that charged Richard Nixon with "abuse of power." That count, an especially eloquent and sorrowful passage in the impeachment record, accused Nixon of no specific crime but rather of acting "in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States." Such abuse of power goes to the heart of the framers' conception of high crimes and misdemeanors, by which they meant offenses against the state and injuries to the Republic itself. Does Clinton's conduct reach that level?
Anyone with children may easily say yes. Yet clearly, nothing Clinton did sinks to the depths of what Nixon did, such as using the IRS to hound opponents and dispatching the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation. The claim that Clinton abused the counsel's office by invoking privilege claims is "nonsense," said White House counsel Charles Ruff, a respected former Watergate prosecutor and U.S. Attorney. "He did so on my advice. I went to the President and said the independent counsel is seeking to intrude into the legitimate, confidential discussions you have with your lawyers and that your senior staff have among themselves. It is your obligation as the President to protect the core constitutional interests of the presidency."
Some constitutional scholars argue that Clinton's more frivolous privilege claims injured the presidency, because Supreme Court rejection of the claims narrowed the circle of confidants any President can count on. But whatever the merits of the ploy, it is to Nixonian abuse as the Berkshires are to the Rockies.
What's more, Clinton's entire campaign of lies and obstructions in 1998 was designed to combat an investigation that Clinton--and many other Americans--viewed as fundamentally illegitimate. The only justification for Starr's probe of the Lewinsky affair--the reason Janet Reno authorized it--was an alleged pattern of obstruction that Starr said stretched back to the Whitewater case.
Starr believes that Jordan and other Clinton pals steered some $540,000 in consultant contracts to former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell in exchange for his silence about an Arkansas land deal Starr was investigating. Starr saw the same pattern in Jordan's attempts to steer Lewinsky into a job. But Hubbell is barely mentioned in Starr's report. The independent counsel repeats the Hubbell allegation but does not explore it, or any other aspect of Whitewater. (Starr says he has not decided "what steps to take, if any," in referring any other matters to Congress.) The report is also silent on Travelgate and the White House's alleged misuse of fbi files, implying that no impeachable offenses have been uncovered in those matters. As Clinton's defenders like to say, Starr spent four years and $40 million trying to prove substantive presidential wrongdoing, came up dry, and then used Linda Tripp's tapes to set a trap to catch the President in sordid personal behavior. Clinton's obstruction of justice--shameful though it may have been--amounted to trying to wriggle out of that trap.
Ken Starr's report, though lacking the balance of Watergate independent counsel Leon Jaworski's effort 24 years ago, does one thing quite clearly: it offers a portrayal of a President who seems cunning but emotionally vacant, a man wasting his talents and powers on an empty affair with a woman who was in many ways still a child. Public revulsion may yet drive Clinton from office--not because he has been proved a Nixonian crook but because he has been proved an X-rated cartoon.
--With reporting by J.F.O. McAllister, Jodie Morse, Elaine Shannon and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
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Cover Date: September 21, 1998
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