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Fact-Checking Impeachment: American Crime Story

Yes, Monica Lewinsky really did call Linda Tripp a “treacherous b*tch.”

Originally Published: 
Clive Owen as Bill Clinton and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky in 'Impeachment: American Crime S...
Tina Thorpe/FX

Almost 22 years after President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Impeachment: American Crime Story is revisiting the scandal that started it all: his affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Throughout the season, we’re introduced to a number of important players, each of whom played a part in widening the scope and exposing the affair. Here’s what the show gets right — and wrong — about how everything unfolded.

Episode 1

Monica Lewinsky

The episode opens with a dramatic ambush by Linda Tripp and the FBI, who bring Monica Lewinsky in for questioning regarding her relationship with Clinton. The approach happened mostly as depicted: Lewinsky was waiting for Tripp at the Pentagon City Mall food court for a lunch date when Tripp showed up with FBI agents who told Lewinsky to come with them. Tripp assured her that the same thing had happened to her, but Lewinsky caught on.

As Lewinsky wrote in her 1999 book, she did indeed ask agents to keep Tripp around without mincing words: “Make her stay and watch. I want that treacherous b*tch to see what she has done to me.”

Paula Jones

Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones in Episode 1 of Impeachment: American Crime Story.Tina Thorpe/FX

As portrayed in Impeachment, Jones alleged that Clinton — then the Governor of Arkansas — exposed himself and propositioned her during a private meeting in his hotel room after the Annual Governor's Quality Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1991. After coming forward in 1994, she really did have a press conference at CPAC where she shared a vague account of her allegations.

Her then-lawyer Cliff Jackson later called the press conference “a giant dud,” but it did get the attention of Ann Coulter — who, as Impeachment shows, helped Jones get in touch with more established lawyers. Jones later said that she was “used” by the right wing groups she fell in with. But she successfully sued Clinton for sexual harassment while he was in office, two days before the three-year statute of limitations expired. The case was settled out of court in 1998.

Linda Tripp

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in Episode 1 of Impeachment: American Crime Story.Tina Thorpe/FX

Linda Tripp’s role in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is notorious and often one-note: she was the “supervillain” who lied to Monica Lewinsky and schemed to bring down the president. “Central casting couldn’t have cast a better villain,” Tripp, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2020, told Slate’s Slow Burn podcast in 2018. “The entire country had decided who I was, and it was evil incarnate.”

Impeachment isn’t kind in its portrayal of Tripp, but in real life she was more complicated, even for colleagues who she often rankled. She really did believe she had been exiled to the Pentagon, and reportedly actually did tell her coworkers that she needed a private office because she “knew too much about Whitewater.” But she could be charming, an energy that ultimately brought Lewinsky into her confidence.

In Impeachment, Lewinsky is endeared to Tripp nearly immediately after their first meeting at the Pentagon in April 1996 and begins telling her salacious details about her affair with a high-ranking political figure. In reality, it took a bit longer; it wasn’t until months later that Lewinsky disclosed the identity of her married suitor to Tripp.

Impeachment also takes a hard stance on Tripp’s motivations for exposing Lewinsky, but according to Tripp, her aims were bigger than fame or political power. After serving in George H.W. Bush’s White House, she was disturbed by what she saw of Clinton and began harboring contempt for him and his family, particularly after Vince Foster’s suicide. “We were not allowed to be interviewed without the presence of a White House attorney,” Tripp told Slow Burn. “I realized how deeply entrenched I was becoming in the Clinton cover-ups.”

Tripp came to peddle the same sort of conspiracy theories about Foster’s death as Donald Trump did during the 2016 election, alleging — despite the conclusion of five official investigations — that Foster was actually murdered and the Clintons were somehow involved. Much of this perspective was informed by Tripp’s proximity to the office and how quickly White House officials came to believe it was suicide.

Tripp felt it was her responsibility to expose the corruption around her, and it’s ultimately this — in addition to her literary aspirations — that drove her to betray Lewinsky.

Episode 2

Tina Thorpe/FX

In Episode 2, we get a glimpse into how the Clinton-Lewinsky affair started. All of this is true to life: it began during the 1995 government shutdown, when Lewinsky was assigned to work in Chief of Staff Leon Panetta’s office. According to her account, Lewinsky flirted with Clinton heavily, including at one point lifting her jacket so he could see her thong. She said Clinton would come up with maneuvers for her to see him by asking her to bring him things like pizza. Impeachment doesn’t show anything beyond kissing, but it was during this time that their relationship became sexual.

After three months, Clinton ended the relationship. But only a few weeks later, he called Lewinsky at home and ultimately re-initiated the affair. It happened just as Lewinsky says in the show: a member of the senior staff saw her hanging around the Oval Office a little too much, decided she was too much of a risk, and reassigned her to the Pentagon. For about a year afterward, she and Clinton strictly spoke on the phone, with Lewinsky occasionally turning up to events to grab his eye. (She never made a spreadsheet of her encounters with Clinton, although she says Tripp took notes.)

One of the biggest discrepancies is the episode’s final scene between Lewinsky and Clinton. While he did present her with a hat pin and copy of Leaves of Grass after a radio address in February 1997, the actual encounter was far more consequential. After receiving the gifts, Lewinsky moved to the bathroom with Clinton to “fool around” with more privacy. During oral sex, he climaxed for the first time during their affair, leaving a small stain on her Gap dress. This dress became infamous once their affair became public knowledge. It’s unclear if Impeachment will incorporate this detail, considering Beanie Feldstein’s Monica is wearing a very different black outfit in the scene.

Also happening:

  • Paula Jones’ lawsuit moved forward, and she brought in anti-abortion activist Susan Carpenter-McMillan as an ally. While Impeachment takes a pessimistic view of their relationship, Carpenter-McMillan told Slate in 1997 that Jones was like her “younger sister.” What Impeachment does capture is how much Jones took Carpenter-McMillan’s advice into consideration; it was Carpenter-McMillan who later convinced Jones to turn down an initial $700,000 settlement offer, prompting her attorneys Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata to quit.
  • Ann Coulter did get fired from MSNBC, except she was even more direct to the Vietnam veteran she spoke to on-air, telling him, “No wonder you guys lost.”
  • Washington Post reporter Michael Iskoff did indeed clash with his editors about how to report the Paula Jones story. However, when he went to Linda Tripp to back up Kathleen Willey’s story, she confirmed that after Willey left Clinton’s private office, her “face was red, and her lipstick was off” and she appeared “flustered, happy and joyful.”

Episode 3

Tina Thorpe/FX

Episode 3 of Impeachment introduces us to someone who will become a major player in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair: Matt Drudge, played by Billy Eichner. After his father bought him a desktop computer because he was concerned Drudge was aimless in his job at the CBS Studio’s gift shop, Drudge started an email newsletter in 1994 about the insider gossip he learned while working at the shop. Later, he began seeking out high-level documents from trash cans as he does on the show.

By 1997, Drudge had 85,000 subscribers and was breaking stories in the political realm too. He’d started to make a name for himself in conservative circles like Ann Coulter’s, but his big break wouldn’t come until later in the Clinton timeline. In between, he was instrumental in helping to push Michael Isikoff to report about Clinton for Newsweek and in preventing Paula Jones from settling, a prospect Coulter says “terrified” her since her “purpose” was to “[bring] down the president.”

Elsewhere in Episode 3, Lewinsky and the president break up, something which did happen in May 1997; he told her that he had made a concerted effort since he turned 40 to be faithful after a number of affairs, and that she could still visit him but only as a friend.

In return, Lewinsky sent him an email strongly implying that she expected to get her job back, and he summoned her to the White House for a “very emotional” talk, where he told her it was “illegal to threaten the President of the United States.” Lewinsky testified that she left the conversation “knowing” he was in love with her. On her way out, she mentioned Kathleen Willey’s forthcoming Newsweek article. Clinton immediately made calls to follow up on the story. Ten days later, he summoned Lewinsky back to the Oval Office to confirm if her friend Linda Tripp knew about the story.

On Aug. 4, 1997, Newsweek published Isikoff’s account of Willey’s claims. Tripp is quoted as saying she spoke to Newsweek "to make it clear that this was not a case of sexual harassment,” and thoroughly disputed Willey’s account. Isikoff also said Tripp teased him by saying, “There’s another story here but it’s not the one you think it is.”

Episode 4

Tina Thorpe/FX

As Episode 4 makes clear, Tripp and Lewinsky talked constantly about various topics, spending hours and hours on the phone. Although she didn’t tell Lewinsky, Tripp was concerned about Lewinsky being taken advantage of and felt an urge to protect her. “Had you spent any time with her alone, you would feel like you were dealing with a child in a woman’s body,” she told Slow Burn in 2018.

After hearing that Lewinsky had told the president she knew about the affair, Tripp felt compelled to go public in order to protect herself. Enter literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. The two came up with the idea to buy a tape recorder so that Tripp could have some substantive proof of the affair (the pair’s initial conversation was not recorded, despite what Impeachment depicts, but later planning between them was).

However, Impeachment portrays Tripp’s betrayal of Monica as much more conspiratorial than it was in reality. It’s true that by recording their calls (and attempting to capitalize on her access), Tripp manipulated Lewinsky; listening to the tapes, you can hear how Tripp steers the conversations, encourages Lewinsky’s obsessive thoughts, and even advises her on some of the jobs that Clinton tried to line up for her (including at Revlon and the UN). Ultimately, she recorded some 22 hours of their conversations.

Once she found out about the blue dress, Tripp did offer it to Michael Isikoff for his story about Clinton (he declined). But while Impeachment’s version of Isikoff doesn’t seem at all excited about the information Linda is offering him, Tripp has said Isikoff at least tacitly endorsed her tactics in real life. “He didn’t say create more tapes, but it was understood that clearly I needed to document what I was trying to document,” she told Jeffrey Toobin in his book A Vast Conspiracy.

Goldberg did eventually broker an introduction to Jones’ legal team, and helped secure a (conservative) lawyer for Tripp. Once she did, both Tripp and Lewinsky received subpoenas. And while Impeachment downplays Isikoff’s involvement in this stretch of the story, Toobin credits it as the first time the three threads — the mounting Kenneth Starr investigation into the Clinton’s finances, the Paula Jones case, and the affair with Lewinsky — all started to converge.

Episode 5

Tina Thorpe/FX

Christmas has arrived, but the Yuletide spirit is not leaving anyone more merry. Monica learns she’s been subpoenaed for the Paula Jones lawsuit, and she and Linda both struggle to get control of the story.

Tripp had a leg up on Lewinsky at this point, and really did encourage her to keep the blue dress stained with Clinton’s DNA. “I would say to my own daughter, for your own ultimate protection, which mea culpa, I hope you never need it. But I don't want you to — to take it away, either,” Tripp told Lewinsky on one of their many phone calls. When Lewinsky still made plans to get the dress dry cleaned, Tripp did indeed tell her it made her look bad.

As Episode 5 shows, Tripp eventually went to the FBI in part to help secure immunity for illegally recording Lewinsky. She went on to wear a wire for them in order to secure tape for the Kenneth Starr investigation. One of these instances was a lunch in Virginia, where Lewinsky pressured Tripp to lie under oath about the affair. Unsurprisingly, it caused strain on their friendship from both sides. Lewinsky was already prepared to lie herself, having written an affidavit with her lawyer procured by Vernon Jordan where she stated she’d “never had a sexual relationship with the President.”

The final conversation Clinton and Lewinsky had during this period was much different than the one they share in Impeachment. Although Clinton and Lewinsky talked about the affidavit, neither of them remembers him pressuring her to lie about their relationship (although he did prompt her to say “people in Legislative Affairs” got her her new job). In fact, their final conversation in January 1998 was over the phone, not in person. What’s more, Tripp told Slow Burn that she understood Clinton knew about her knowledge of the affair in July (although the podcast couldn’t find an independent corroboration on that). All in all, the scene between Monica and the president in Impeachment seems largely fabricated, even if the spirit of it is true.

Elsewhere in the episode, we see a few historical cameos from people who became important down the line. The first is Juanita Broaddrick, who alleged that Clinton raped her during his 1978 campaign for Arkansas governor (Clinton’s attorney David E. Kendall called Broaddrick’s accusations “absolutely false” in a statement at the time, and the former President has never admitted any wrongdoing). As in the show, the real Broaddrick declined to speak with Jones’ representatives in an effort to protect her privacy, and ultimately did not come forward until her testimony to Starr was leaked.

The other cameo comes from a tossed off line to a young man working in Starr’s office, referred to as “Kavanaugh.” That is indeed future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who worked for three years in Starr’s office and even filed a memo strongly advising the office go tough in their questioning of Clinton. In it, Kavanaugh argues that it’s the job of the office to expose Clinton’s “pattern of revolting behavior.”

Episode 6

Tina Thorpe/FX

When Episode 6 of Impeachment opens, the FBI is confident about their mission: They’ll get Lewinsky to confess her part in the affair to Kenneth Starr’s team, Clinton will testify the next day and be caught lying under oath, and Michael Isikoff will go to print with the story in 48 hours. But the confrontation agents estimated would take only 30 minutes to an hour on Jan. 16, 1998 ultimately stretched much farther. And remarkably, Impeachment portrays almost every bit of the surreal scene accurately.

After showing up to what she thought was just a lunch with Tripp, Lewinsky was escorted by federal agents to Room 1012 of the Ritz-Carlton, where she was threatened with jail time for lying in her affidavit for the Paula Jones case unless she agreed to cooperate with their case against Clinton. Although the threat of perjury was legitimate, it was unheard of in these sorts of cases; as a few characters say aloud in Impeachment, it was primarily a ploy to secure Lewinsky’s testimony. They wanted her to wear a wire and get confirmation that Clinton’s camp — the president, Vernon Jordan, and even Betty Currie, the president’s personal secretary — had compelled her to lie under oath. During the 11 hours or so that Lewinsky was detained by the agents, they also prevented her from calling her lawyer (out of fear it would get back to Jordan and the president’s camp). By the time they ultimately relented, Lewinsky’s lawyer had left for the day.

As Impeachment shows, the whole night was distressing for Lewinsky. Agents recall that she was volatile, at one point sobbing so loudly Starr’s team could hear her from the hallway. Two hours in, she asked to call her mother — a move which drove the most combative member of Starr’s team to tell her, “Monica ... you’re 24 years old. You don’t need to call your mommy.” Ultimately, Monica did in fact call her mom, who hopped on a train from New York City. As they waited for her to arrive, Lewinsky really did walk around the Pentagon City Mall with FBI agents, making stops at Crate & Barrel and Mozzarella’s American Cafe. The whole time, Lewinsky was trying to get a message out for help: “It sounds crazy, but it was this feeling like somebody would be able to look at me, and they would be able to sense that I was — like, mental telepathy. Help me. Help me. I’m in trouble,” Lewisnky later told The New York Times.

She also made an attempt to call Curie and try to warn the president, but didn’t get through. By 10 p.m, Lewinsky and the agents had retired to the hotel room and her mom arrived. She pushed her daughter to comply, got Monica’s father involved, and ultimately secured the help of William Ginsburg, a family friend who specialized in medical malpractice, to represent her daughter. (No relation to the Supreme Court justice.) He told the FBI that his client would not be making a deal yet, and told Lewinsky and her mother to leave, which they did.

Episode 7

After being tipped off by Tripp’s agent Lucianne Goldberg, Matt Drudge published his post about Newsweek sitting on the Lewinsky-Clinton story on Jan. 17, 1998. It took days and a front-page Washington Post article for the news to reach wider circulation.

Though we know little about Clinton’s private actions during this time, his friend Dick Morris was one of his first calls, days after he lied in a deposition to Paula Jones’ lawyers. “He told me, ‘Ever since I got here I’ve had to shut my body down — sexually, I mean,’” Morris told Slow Burn of his conversation with Clinton. “‘Whether I f*cked up with this girl. I didn’t do what they said I did. But I think I did enough so I cannot prove my innocence.’”

The president addressed the affair 10 days later, surprising reporters and White House staffers at a press conference about expanding after-school care and lying about what had happened between him and Lewinsky.

It left Lewinsky in a tricky place with prosecutors, as the publicity made authorities want to ensure a slam-dunk from her testimony before they offered her full immunity. Though she was negotiating immunity as early as January 1998, she didn’t secure a deal until the end of July. It’s unclear what the stall was due to, but it’s certain that Lewinsky’s lawyer William Ginsburg was no help. He ultimately became such a public liability to her case that Alan Dershowitz went on TV and implored the Lewinsky family to hire a new attorney.

What Episode 7 of Impeachment underscores most, though, is that while the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was a tough storm to weather for a lot of people, no one felt more battered by it than the women involved. After Lewinsky and Tripp’s names became public knowledge, they were forced to contend with a misogynistic media much more inclined to believe Clinton than them. Tripp’s insulting high school nickname of “Gus Johnson” became public knowledge, and SNL ran a series of Lewinsky-Tripp sketches in which John Goodman did indeed portray Tripp.

By then, Lewinsky’s life was already a circus and her name was a punchline on every late night show — including Jay Leno and David Letterman. (Although Impeachment shows both these events happening in the days before the president publicly denied the affair, they actually happened in the months after and continued to be a subject on the shows for a long time.) Lewinsky’s high school teacher also held a press conference to admit to an inappropriate relationship with her. And Mad TV made sketches to mock Lewinsky. As Impeachment captures, it’s no surprise that Lewinsky has revealed this time period resulted in her receiving a PTSD diagnosis.

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