November 9th, 2019


Presidents and Impeachment: The Impeachment of Bill Clinton

The last President to be impeached was Bill Clinton. The subject of his impeachment is probably too detailed for a single entry, but here is an abbreviated explanation. In 1998 the media reported that between 1995 and 1996, President Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky were having an illicit sexual relationship. Clinton initially responded to the rumors by telling the media that he "did not have sexual relations" with Lewinsky, but further investigation led to charges of perjury and to the Clinton's impeachment in 1998 by the House of Representatives.

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In 1995, Lewinsky, a graduate of Lewis & Clark College, was hired to work as an intern at the White House during Clinton's first term. She later became an employee of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. While Lewinsky worked at the White House, Clinton began a personal relationship with her, the details of which she later confided to her Defense Department co-worker Linda Tripp, who secretly recorded their telephone conversations. When Tripp discovered in January 1998 that Lewinsky had sworn an affidavit in the Paula Jones case denying a relationship with Clinton, she delivered the tapes to Kenneth Starr, the Independent Counsel who was investigating Clinton on other matters. The wide reporting of the scandal led to criticism of the media for how it covered the scandal. The incident received a number of nicknames such as "Monicagate," Lewinskygate," "Tailgate," "Sexgate," and "Zippergate.

Lewinsky told Starr's investigators that she had sexual encounters with Bill Clinton on nine occasions from November 1995 to March 1997. First Lady Hillary Clinton was at the White House for at least some portion of seven of those days. In April of 1996, Lewinsky's superiors relocated her job to the Pentagon, because they felt that she was spending too much time around Clinton and had suspicions about some inappropriate conduct occurring. United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson was asked by the White House in 1997 to interview Lewinsky for a job on his staff. He did so and offered her a position, which she declined.

Lewinsky confided in her friend Linda Tripp about her relationship with Clinton. Tripp persuaded Lewinsky to save the gifts that Clinton had given her, and not to dry clean a blue dress she had that was stained with Clinton's semen. At the suggestion of Tripp's literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, Tripp began secretly recording her conversations with Lewinsky in September 1997. Goldberg also urged Tripp to take the tapes to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and also share them with the lawyers who were working on the Paula Jones case. In the fall of 1997, Goldberg began speaking to reporters, including Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, about the tapes.

In January 1998, Lewinsky had submitted an affidavit in the Paula Jones case in which she denied having any sort of physical relationship with Clinton. Lewinsky asked Tripp to lie under oath in the Jones case, but instead, Tripp gave the tapes to Ken Starr who was investigating Clinton over the Whitewater controversy and some other matters. With evidence of Lewinsky's admission of a physical relationship with Clinton, Starr decided to widen his investigation to include Lewinsky and her possible perjury in the Jones case.

News of the scandal first broke on January 17, 1998, on the political website the Drudge Report. Drudge reported that Newsweek editors were sitting on a story by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff exposing the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky. The story broke in the mainstream press on January 21 in The Washington Post. Clinton denied the allegations and on January 26, with the First Lady by his side, Clinton spoke at a White House press conference, and issued a forceful denial. He told the media:

"Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you."

First Lady Hillary Clinton remained supportive of her husband throughout the scandal. On January 27, in an appearance on NBC's Today she said, "The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

For the next several months the media was unable to disprove Clinton's denial because Lewinsky was unwilling to discuss the affair or testify about it. But on July 28, 1998, Lewinsky received immunity in return for grand jury testimony concerning her relationship with Clinton. She also turned over her semen-stained blue dress to Starr's investigators, the blue dress that Linda Tripp had encouraged her to save without dry cleaning. Starr's investigators had clear DNA evidence that proved the relationship despite Clinton's official denials.

On August 17, 1998, Clinton admitted in taped grand jury testimony that he had what he called an "improper physical relationship" with Lewinsky. That evening he gave a nationally televised statement admitting his relationship with Lewinsky which was "not appropriate".

In his deposition for the Jones lawsuit, Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. The blue dress with Clinton's semen gave Starr evidence that led him to believe that the president's sworn testimony was false and constituted perjury. During the deposition, Clinton was asked "Have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1?" The judge ordered that Clinton be given an opportunity to review the agreed definition. Afterwards, based on the definition created by the Independent Counsel's Office, Clinton answered, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky." Clinton later stated, "I thought the definition included any activity by me, where I was the actor and came in contact with those parts of the bodies". Clinton denied that he had ever contacted Lewinsky's "genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks", and effectively claimed that the agreed-upon definition of "sexual relations" included giving oral sex but excluded receiving oral sex.

In December 1998, a majority of the House of Representatives agreed that that Clinton's giving false testimony and allegedly influencing Lewinsky's testimony were crimes of obstruction of justice and perjury and thus impeachable offenses. The House of Representatives voted to issue Articles of Impeachment against him. This which was followed by a 21-day trial in the Senate. All of the Democrats in the Senate voted for acquittal on both the perjury and the obstruction of justice charges. Ten Republicans voted for acquittal for perjury and five Republicans voted for acquittal for obstruction of justice. Clinton was acquitted of all charges and remained in office. There were attempts to censure the president by the House of Representatives, but those attempts failed.

The scandal arguably affected the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Democratic Party candidate and sitting vice president Al Gore felt that Clinton's scandal had deflated the enthusiasm of their party's base, while Clinton felt that the scandal had made Gore's campaign too cautious, and that if Clinton had been allowed to campaign for Gore in Arkansas and New Hampshire, either state would have given Gore enough electoral votes for a victory in the election.

Two months after the Senate failed to convict him, Clinton was held in civil contempt of court by Judge Susan Webber Wright for giving misleading testimony regarding his sexual relationship with Lewinsky, and was also fined $90,000 by Wright. Clinton did not appeal the civil contempt of court ruling, claiming financial problems, but he maintained that his testimony complied with Wright's earlier definition of sexual relations. In 2001, his license to practice law was suspended in Arkansas for five years and later by the United States Supreme Court.


There was one other media aspect to the Lewinsky affair. During the scandal, some of Clinton's supporters argued that there was considerable hypocrisy by some of those who called for Clinton's removal from office. During the House investigation it was revealed that Henry Hyde, Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee and lead House manager, had an affair while in office as a state legislator. Hyde, aged 70 during the Lewinsky hearings, dismissed it as a "youthful indiscretion" when he was 41. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, offered a $1 million reward to anyone who could provide information that would embarrass any Republican members of Congress who was part of the impeachment campaign against President Clinton. Congressman Robert Livingston of Louisiana abruptly retired after learning that Flynt was about to reveal that he had also had an affair. Livingston had been expected to become Speaker of the House in the next Congressional session. After Flynt revealed Livingston's affair, Livingston resigned and challenged Clinton to do the same. Flynt also claimed that Congressman Bob Barr, another Republican House manager, had an affair while married. Barr had been the first lawmaker in either chamber to call for Clinton's resignation due to the Lewinsky affair.

Clinton later told historian Taylor Branch that he felt "beleaguered, unappreciated, and open to a liaison with Lewinsky" after the Democrats' loss of Congress in the November 1994 elections, the death of his mother the previous January, and the ongoing Whitewater investigation.