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Jeffrey Toobin Discusses 'A Vast Conspiracy'

Aired January 14, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, they're back: Paula, Monica, Linda, and Lucianne. All back in a new book that says, yes, there was a vast conspiracy against President Clinton. Could it be true? And who took part?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press.

On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the CROSSFIRE, Jeffrey Toobin, author of "A Vast Conspiracy."

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

I know we promised we'd never mention Monica Lewinsky again, but just one year after House managers presented their losing case against President Clinton to the U.S. Senate, ABC legal analyst and "New Yorker" staff writer Jeffrey Toobin has resurrected the whole cast of colorful characters in his new book, "A Vast Conspiracy", in which he concludes, quote, "It was extremists of the political right who tried to use the legal system to undo elections, in particular, the two that put Bill Clinton in the White House."

Well, the case may be closed, but those characters are still out there, an open book. Linda Tripp faces criminal charges for taping Monica, Monica is getting paid for shedding pounds, Lucianne Goldberg is threatening to sue Toobin for bragging -- for saying that she bragged about having an affair with LBJ. Bill Clinton is desperately looking for something to do after the White House, and Ken Starr office, believe it or not, is still investigating something. Will they ever all just go away?


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Could not have said it better, just send them away, send the New York race away, send that vice president away.

Jeffrey, how are you doing?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, AUTHOR, "A VAST CONSPIRACY": But let's have a big wallow, what do you say? One big half hour, right?

MATALIN: One last wallow. Let's wallow away. Well, the book is a scathing indictment of all of my friends in that vast right-wing conspiracy. Let's make -- let's look at some of the claims you make about them for their motivation of going after Clinton, as you say they did.

One, you say they were consumed with hatred for President Clinton. Let me read something to you from your previous book, your best-selling -- prolific author, your previous book "Opening Arguments: A Young Lawyer's First Case: U.S. Versus -- the United States Versus Oliver North."

You say: "I developed" -- I, Jeffrey, developed -- "a disdain for Richard Nixon. I recall my first taste of champagne on the night he resigned."

TOOBIN: Wow. Doing some good opposition research there.

MATALIN: Let me go on and also say...

TOOBIN: Taking that out of the archives, that's great.

MATALIN: ... these extremists that -- from the political right, tried to undo the president, as Bill suggests (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

You said in that same book: "The Walsh office," for whom you worked, "would take on Reagan and all the President's men. We had nothing less than a blank check to uncover and rectify the misdeeds of a corrupt and dishonorable administration. We wouldn't stop until we reached the top."

How are you personally different, as a former associate independent counsel member, from these members that you scathingly indict here?

TOOBIN: Well, I know you have read the entire oeuvre of all the books I've written, and if you got to the end...

MATALIN: Oeuvre?

TOOBIN: ... of opening arguments -- if you got to the end of my first book, you would see that what I concluded in that book was that it was wrong to use the legal system to try to undo elections, that I was wrong. I -- when I got to the end, I realized that that was not what prosecutors should do, that prosecutors should to the extent possible stay out of politics.

In the independent counsel law, the disaster that it was -- it was a disaster under Lawrence Walsh and it was a disaster under Ken Starr. And that attitude which I had is precisely the attitude that the Republicans had going after Clinton, and I was wrong in the old days, and they're wrong now.

MATALIN: So all of your personal indictments on the vast right- wing conspiracy -- they're petty, they're mean, they're extremists, they're zealous -- that really didn't apply to the Walsh people, just...

TOOBIN: Well, I mean...

MATALIN: There is something peculiarly mean-spirited about the right wing?

TOOBIN: Well, no, I mean, I think -- well, I guess there probably is, actually, now that I think about it.

MATALIN: OK, well, I just want to establish the book a little bit there.

TOOBIN: But there is -- I think the hostility towards Clinton went way beyond anything having to do with his policies. It was cultural. It was about him as a baby boomer, as a draft dodger, it was about -- you know, I'll give you an example from the book, you know, why this was such a story of generational tumult. At one point, in one of the interviews with Monica Lewinsky, she said, you know, President Clinton didn't smoke the cigars because smoking is forbidden in the White House. See, that's what baby boomers care about. They care about smoking.

MATALIN: What I want to get at is, you're writing this book, and there really is -- to a large extent the right wing is presented as a bunch of kooks and extremists, as the Clintonistas would have us believe, and I want to get to your motivation.

You say right here in the jacket it's unbiased, yet we see from your previous books, whatever you are saying about the legal system, that you had a disdain for Nixon, you had a disdain for Reagan. Your unbiased about the right wing? This is not a pro-Clinton book?

TOOBIN: And I had a disdain for O.J. Simpson in the book in between them. I mean, you know, I -- look, my book is chock-full of opinions, and I don't spare anybody -- Bill Clinton, Linda Tripp, the whole motley cast of characters,

But look, I spent three years working on this story. You bet I have plenty of opinions about it, and they're all there.

PRESS: See, I've heard someone else say, when you don't like the message, you attack the messenger -- now we can never get over it.

Jeffrey Toobin, I love the last -- just about maybe next-to-last sentence in the book: "He was impeached for what?"

I mean, OK, I've been away for a long time. Did we -- did the United States Congress really impeach a president of the United States for lying about oral sex under oath?

TOOBIN: Well, the image that I try to use in the last paragraph...

PRESS: I mean, we couldn't have done that.

TOOBIN: ... is sort of 50, 60, 100 years from now, trying to explain to people what it was like.

I mean, one of my favorite moments during the Senate trial was Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida standing in the well of the United States Senate before the chief justice of the United States and saying, the president touched her breasts eight times and her genital areas six times. And I'm thinking: We are in a parallel universe here. That this could be the route of an impeachment was mind-boggling to me.

PRESS: Now let me ask you another question. Again, I've been off the scene for a little while. Did the Republicans in the Congress really impeach a president of the United States for having an affair and lying about it at very same time that the house speaker, Newt Gingrich, was having an affair and lying about that too?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I think here we have to be careful.

PRESS: Tell me it is not true, Jeff.

TOOBIN: Well, the fact is -- I mean, look, I am -- this book is strongly anti-impeachment. It is not pro-Clinton. I mean, I don't think you can simply equate Newt Gingrich's behavior with Bill Clinton's behavior. I mean, Newt Gingrich, it was embarrassing, he was certainly not a good husband, but he wasn't asked about it under oath, and I do think that takes it a different magnitude. Impeachable no, but more serious, yes.

PRESS: So it's OK to cheat on your wife as long as you don't -- and lie about it, as long as you don't lie about it under oath? Is that the standard now?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, it's -- none of -- neither of them are impeachable. I mean, you know, one of the messages...


TOOBIN: ... I think that comes out of the story, where the public was way ahead of the news media, was that there is a difference between public behavior and private, and that the personal and political are not the same.

PRESS: Now just a quick question there, because you refer, of course, to the moment where the title of your book kind of got currency. You weren't the first one to use the phrase "a vast conspiracy"...

TOOBIN: Well, it's obviously a reference, yes.

PRESS: Reference to the first lady on "The Today Show" being interviewed by Matt Lauer, where she said, quote, "This is the great story here, for anybody who is willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy," there's the phrase, "that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

You spent three years writing the book. Was there in fact, in you're view, a vast right-wing conspiracy?

TOOBIN: There certainly was an organized effort since -- practically since the day Bill Clinton was inaugurated. I mean, one of the things that's important to remember about this story, is the Paula Jones case surfaced in December of 1993. He hadn't even had been president for one year, and Cliff Jackson, his mortal enemy from Arkansas, brought Paula Jones to the public stage, brought her to favored journalists. Then he found David Hale, who was the key witness in Whitewater, got him to favored reporters, got the Whitewater independent counsel reported.

These were the things that were not done because they thought that there was any justice for Paula Jones. They were done because they could damage a president politically. That's what I object to, that the use of the legal system for political ends. It was wrong when I did it in working for Lawrence Walsh, it was wrong when Starr, Paula Jones, the Rutherford Institute all did it these past two years.

MATALIN: Did I hear you right that these conspirators, I say that arguendo, in Arkansas, got appointed the independent counsel. Didn't Bill Clinton call for an independent counsel himself after Jeff Gerth and "The New York Times," where all the news that's fit to print? That's the origin of Whitewater. A Whitewater investigation which Bill Clinton himself asked for is the origin of all that came after, with Janet Reno reauthorizing the independent counsel's mandate every inch of the way. How could you blame this on the conspirators?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, we're coming up on an important birthday. You know, it is now 22 years since the Clinton's invested in the Whitewater project. And Ken Starr's investigation is now -- well, he's no longer independent counsel -- I think is in its fifth year now.

What's gone on here is these investigations have taken lives of their own that are far beyond their original mandates, and I think, you know, there has to be some end to this.

MATALIN: Well, there is, there is no independent counsel statute, which Republicans opposed from the outset. It is no longer reauthorized.

PRESS: But the office is still open. They're still investigating.

MATALIN: The investigation is not done.

PRESS: What are they investigating?

MATALIN: You know, as always, Bill has misstated what it was the Republicans were saying. The Republicans were saying the same thing Susan Webber Wright said, the only person in your book who doesn't get knocked around. Of her, you say she's an isolated beacon of sanity in the darkness around her, and what she said about the man that you said was nothing more than a victim of his own peccadillos, is there is simply no escaping the fact that the president deliberately undermined the integrity of the judicial system. TOOBIN: And she's exactly right. And you're right that that's what he did. The question is not whether he was wrong; the question is: What is the remedy? What do you do to a president who behaves that way? You find him in contempt of court, you punish him individually; you don't exercise the extreme constitutional power of high crimes and misdemeanors.

PRESS: Let me ask you about where this all started, this investigation, which was an alleged incident at the Excelsior Hotel back down in Little Rock. I was really stunned to read in your book your conclusion of that event, if I may quote you: "Based on the available evidence, it appears that Bill Clinton and Paula Jones both lied about the incident. All in all, the record suggest that Clinton and Paula Corbin" -- now Paula Jones -- "had a consensual sexual encounter in the room at the Excelsior Hotel."

What's your evidence for that? You really believe that they both lied when they said that nothing happened?

TOOBIN: I do. And you know, I go through in rather torturous detail the prior records of both of them, their history of relationships and the way they, you know, dealt with people of the opposite sex, and the circumstances of that day, and that is, you know, as Paula Jones told me personally, well, you weren't there -- and that's an understatement; I certainly wasn't there, but I mean, that's the conclusion I reach. And you know, I think it's pretty remarkable that all of this has spun out of it.

PRESS: So that's what? This whole sordid circus has all, in your judgment, all started with a lie in Little Rock?

TOOBIN: And it wasn't Paula Jones. Paula Once said to me, we were having a conversation, she said the Republicans, are they the "goodins" or the "badins?"

PRESS: Do you want me to answer that?


TOOBIN: Now she's not...

PRESS: Do you want me to answer that?

TOOBIN: We could have a debate about that.

But she is not I would call sophisticated political analyst. It's the people who attach themselves to her case, it's the people that didn't have Paula Jones' best interest at heart, but had the interest of people who wanted to destroy Bill Clinton.

MATALIN: And, of course, it was a governor who was much more sophisticated and older than her who employed her, that called her up to the room. Do we have to relive...

PRESS: She invited herself to the room. Read the book. She invited... MATALIN: She did not invite herself.

PRESS: Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: I mean, she told the trooper, in immortal words, you know, he has sexy hair.

MATALIN: They all have bad taste. More and more, believe me there is more. I can't believe it myself. Stay with us for it on CROSSFIRE.

We'll be right back.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

You thought you knew everything and more about Monica and the motley crew? No way. There's always more. The story that won't go away. Jeffrey Toobin, a former independent counsel associate himself, says that's because a vast conspiracy kept it alive and thriving.

Now back to his version of the real story of the sex scandal that nearly brought down a president -- Bill.

PRESS: Jeffrey, my hero of course in all of this is Ken Starr, because he single-handedly killed the independent counsel law. You quote in your book Ken Starr writing to the magazine "Brill's Content," quote, "This office never asked Ms. Lewinsky to agree to wire herself for a conversation with Mr. Jordan or the president."

That was a fat lie, wasn't it?

TOOBIN: Well, it was either a lie or an illustration that he was so out of touch with his own investigation...

PRESS: That he didn't know?

TOOBIN: ... that he didn't understand what was going on. I mean, the meeting with Monica Lewinsky, the famous, as Lewinsky has called it, the nightmare in room 1012. I don't think Starr's office did anything wrong with her. But the whole purpose was to flip her and get her to make controlled phone calls against Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie, and eventually, the president.

PRESS: Well, wait a minute, you say in your book, that they met every morning around this conference table, Starr let everybody talk, and you point out over, and over, they keep coming back to wanting to wire her right until the very end, through negotiations with Ginsburg and then later with Plato and Jake Stein.

So how could he not know what was going on?

TOOBIN: See, what was my grievance with Starr, I think the Clinton people were way wrong when they said that Starr violated the law, that he was breaking laws. His problem was incompetence and overzealousness. You know, in the key moment in this case, they had a chance, in February, right when the story broke, right after, you know, within a week, to make a deal with Monica Lewinsky and her attorney, the famous, or infamous, Bill Ginsburg, and they could have had the dress, they could have had her testimony within a week, but they made the mistake that Clinton's enemies always make, which was thinking no, no, no, there is more out there, there is a shoe to drop; we don't give her immunity now, because she'll give us some big conspiracy later. But they were wrong, and they blew their case.

PRESS: Just to make the point and then go back to Mary, in fact, you sum it up that what Starr was left with after the people that were working for Robert Fiske left were the unemployable and the obsessed? That sums up the staff?

TOOBIN: And it really was that's who was in charge of this investigation, and that's why it was such a failure.

MATALIN: Can I go to that staff question?

PRESS: Sure.

MATALIN: The staff had at least six former Supreme Court clerks. It had federal and state prosecutors from across the country. It had two John Marshall Award recipients. You know what those are of course. There's only one a year awarded at the top litigator at the Department of Justice. They brought 16 convictions, and at the appellate level, they were 20 for 20 against the biggest, baddest law firm in Washington. Why do you say the staff is so bad and Ken Starr is so incompetent?

TOOBIN: Ken Starr didn't know a thing about being a prosecutor, never prosecuted a case in his life. The person he put in charge of the investigation was a guy named Robert Bittman, whose sole qualifications were that he had prosecuted some street crimes in Annapolis, not one federal case. He had two exceptionally qualified people, in Michael Emmick, the former head of the public corruption unit in Miami -- in Los Angeles. and Bruce Udolf, the former head of the public corruption unit in Miami. And they're the people who wanted to make the deal with Monica right away, and they ignored their advice of the truly qualified people and took the advice of the zealots. And the results speak for themselves.

MATALIN: No, I don't want to go guy by guy. But Bittmann had extensive prosecutorial experience at the state level. And if the criteria for a federal prosecutor or anyone who can work at the judicial system at the federal level is federal experience, well, how do we get Janet Reno, who had absolutely zero federal experience?

TOOBIN: Well, I don't know how we get -- I mean, I'm not here to defend Janet Reno. But, I mean...

MATALIN: All right, but I don't -- you know, but she -- but Bittmann.

TOOBIN: ... I'm not saying... MATALIN: ... But you're attacking Bittmann, and he had far more experience than Janet Reno has. And let me go to this prosecutorial experience...


MATALIN: Archibald Cox had no prosecutorial experience. The guy you worked for, Lawrence Walsh, had absolutely no experience on intelligence or the matters that were at the heart of Iran-Contra. Why are you singling out Ken Starr, who was a highly esteemed solicitor general on the Supreme Court short list, as a boob and a dork?

TOOBIN: See, this is why Bill Clinton leads a charmed life. Because if only the right-wing judges on the special division hadn't been such extremists and fired Bob Fiske, who really was qualified and really had a good staff, Clinton couldn't have made such hey out of this political appointee they put in. So Clinton would have had a real problem with Bob Fiske, whose credentials were unassailable. They brought in Ken Starr. As always, the excessiveness of Clinton's critics came back to haunt them.

MATALIN: Do you want to know...


MATALIN: Wait a minute. Do you want to know -- and I don't mean to insult you -- but you know how you sound like? My husband.

PRESS: Oh, my goodness.

MATALIN: Do you know why Ken Starr turned into a zealot? Because people like Corporal Cue Ball were attacking his integrity for an entire year. I think you'd flip, too. And you sound just like him.

TOOBIN: I guess...

PRESS: You don't have to defend yourself.

TOOBIN: But James Carville I have to defend. I'm sorry, go ahead.

PRESS: Take -- wear it as a batch of honor. Let's get juicy here real fast...

TOOBIN: Please.

PRESS: ... real quickly, OK?

TOOBIN: Linda Tripp faces criminal charges in Maryland. Quickly, from the evidence that you know, did she knowingly break the law?

TOOBIN: I think the prosecution of Linda Tripp is a total outrage. I think it is ... PRESS: But did she break the law?

TOOBIN: I think in some perhaps technical way, but no one except a politically unpopular person like Linda Tripp would have been prosecuted for the crime, especially no one who had been immunized. I think it's precisely the wrong lesson. It's another politicized use of the judicial system.

PRESS: You say in your book that Lucianne Goldberg was known for bragging about an affair with LBJ. She's threatened to sue you. Are you standing behind that and do you have the evidence?

TOOBIN: I'm not only standing behind it, I learned in "The Washington Post" this week, that Lucianne Goldberg is bragging -- fasten your seatbelts -- about an affair with Hubert Humphrey as well. Yes, I don't know about you. It's a shocking thought.

MATALIN: Oh, you've redeemed yourself on the Linda Tripp.

PRESS: My idol -- my idol Hubert Humphrey, no, with Lucianne Goldberg?

TOOBIN: Well, I don't know.

MATALIN: These Democrats...

PRESS: Jeffrey Toobin.

MATALIN: ... that's what they do in the White House.

PRESS: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you for writing the book, thank you for coming on CROSSFIRE.

Mary Matalin and I, who still can't accept the fact that Bill Clinton is still in office, will be back with our closing comments.


PRESS: OK, stick around. Tonight's guest, Jeffrey Toobin, will take your questions at right after the show.

And tomorrow's Republican debate from Des Moines, Iowa will not only be live on right here on CNN, it will be video streamlined live and available on demand at

Mary, I just want to say one thing. I never had sex with that woman, Lucianne Goldberg.

MATALIN: You may...

PRESS: And I don't think you want me (OFF-MIKE) either.

MATALIN: You may be the only guy she wouldn't have sex with.

PRESS: I beg your pardon. I also say this about the whole scandal... MATALIN: You are very sexy. I take that back.

PRESS: Never -- thank you -- never was so much made out of so little as this whole sordid mess. I'm glad it's over.

MATALIN: Well, now that we have these sex documents that give us the size of the president's penis, maybe you're lying about that statement.

PRESS: Is that all you can think about? Are you one of 75 percent of American women who obsess about him?

MATALIN: Not in the way you're thinking is the case.

PRESS: Oh, I hope not.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good for CROSSFIRE. Have a good weekend.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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