The Consortium

The Clinton Coup d'Etat?: Part 2

By Robert Parry

I first realized that President Clinton was in for a new round of trouble when the networks reported that his Paula Jones deposition on Jan. 17 had lasted six hours. No one, I thought, could answer hostile questions about his or her sex life for six hours without lying or, at least, dissembling a lot.

Two days earlier, I had visited the White House and talked with one of Clinton's senior advisers. I told the adviser that I knew Clinton would issue a denial to the first question: Paula Jones's improbable story that on May 8, 1991, she innocently visited Gov. Clinton's hotel room to discuss her career, that she rejected two sexual advances and that then Clinton exposed himself, fondled his erect penis and asked the stranger to "kiss it." Jones claimed she was shocked and hastily fled the room, but not so hastily that she did not calculate the organ's size and note a supposed bend to the left.

Whatever actually did happen between the two of them, I was sure that Clinton would deny that. But I wanted to know how Clinton would respond to the next set of questions: a demand that he list all other women with whom he had sex since 1978. That covered his years as state attorney general, governor and president.

The sweeping query was part of an interrogatory submitted by Jones's lawyers -- and it was clearly the dirt that Clinton's right-wing political opponents wanted. They then could leak the names to the news media which, in a tabloid frenzy, would be sure to swarm the unfortunate women like a plague of wind-swept locust.

But Clinton's advisor did not seem worried. As we sat in his West Wing office, he declared that the second set of questions were out of bounds, that U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright had set ground rules to protect Clinton's privacy. That would make for a pretty short deposition, I suggested. The aide happily agreed.

Two days later, on Saturday, Clinton underwent a six-hour grilling from Jones's lawyers. Even discounting time for objections, the length alone suggested that the aide's confidence had been misplaced.

Six hours meant that Clinton must have been confronted with the choice of naming names or dodging the questions. It seemed obvious to me that -- no matter how skillful Clinton's evasions were -- there would soon be demands for a special prosecutor to investigate perjury and obstruction of justice. I must admit, however, I was surprised by the speed -- and the choice of prosecutor.

What I didn't know -- and what Clinton apparently did not fully grasp on Jan. 17 -- was that a trap was springing shut. It was a trap at least four years in construction and one which many Washington insiders predict could end in the first removal of a president by impeachment.

A window onto how the trap was financed briefly opened in the Feb. 9, 1998, issue of the New York Observer. Reporters Joe Conason and Murray Waas disclosed that right-wing moneyman Richard Mellon Scaife had spent $600,000 over four years for a special "Arkansas Project" to uncover negative information about the Clintons.

The $600,000 was funnelled through the American Spectator magazine and, according to American Spectator writer James Ring Adams, included "researcher" payments to ex-state trooper L.D. Brown, a key source for a variety of anti-Clinton allegations, ranging from the president's personal life to his supposed connection to cocaine smuggling out of Mena, Ark.

Stephen S. Boynton, a Scaife-connected lawyer who oversaw the $600,000 fund, also developed close personal ties to David Hale, who had been caught stealing $1.5 million in Small Business Administration funds. Boynton said he became Hale's "friend" in mid-1993, about the time Hale began alleging that Clinton pressured him into making one fraudulent $300,000 loan, the allegation at the center of the Whitewater controversy.

Scaife also has financial ties to Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who plans to head a Scaife-sponsored public policy center at Pepperdine University after finishing with the investigations of President and Mrs. Clinton.

But three obscure middle-aged women would play the crucial roles in this phase of the Clinton "scandal" sagas: Linda Tripp, a 48-year-old disgruntled White House hold-over from the Bush administration; Lucianne Goldberg, a 62-year-old conservative literary agent and onetime dirty trickster for Richard Nixon; and Kathleen Willey, a financially strapped 51-year-old widow.

The chief protagonist was Tripp, a divorcee who had followed her husband through his military career and held clerical jobs in sensitive military programs, including the super-secret Delta Force at Fort Bragg, N.C. Moving to Washington, Tripp landed an administrative spot at the Bush White House. In 1993, she was surprised when the Clinton newcomers allowed her to stay and assigned her to work for White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.

Tripp found herself on the fringe of several Clinton controversies. She brought lunch to despondent deputy counsel Vincent Foster on July 20, 1993, right before he left the White House to commit suicide. In the aftermath, Tripp sent e-mails complaining about Nussbaum and other lawyers as the "Three Stooges."

After Nussbaum's resignation, Tripp found herself with little to do, except look for work elsewhere in the federal government. But Tripp later claimed to be in position to see Kathleen Willey in November 1993 after Willey left an Oval Office meeting with President Clinton.

Nearly four years later, Willey would claim that Clinton had groped her in the study off the Oval Office. To back up Willey's account, Tripp would assert that she saw Willey with her blouse pulled out and her lipstick smeared.

In summer 1997, Willey's allegation would become important to the Paula Jones lawsuit. That case was floundering in Arkansas as the Jones lawyers failed to find other examples of Clinton grossly propositioning women. Willey's assertion filled that void. But her story was marred by a potentially strong motive for making a "copycat" allegation. She was desperate for money. Plus, she also had been caught lying about an earlier corroborating witness.

Willey was a Democrat, an attractive former flight attendant whose husband came from a prominent Virginian political family. Willey and her husband were strong Clinton supporters in 1992 and had celebrated the electoral victory with the Clintons in Little Rock.

But Willey's husband fell deeply into debt, a financial crisis that, in fall 1993, was pulling down Kathleen Willey, too. On Nov. 29, 1993, she visited Clinton seeking a full-time White House job to help her family. That same day, her husband committed suicide in a wooded area outside Richmond. [For details, see WP, Jan. 29, 1998]

More than three years later, in April 1997, Willey was still hounded by creditors seeking payment of a $400,000 promissory note she had co-signed. It was then that she decided to go public with her allegation that Clinton had fondled her during their meeting on Nov. 29, 1993. She chose to recount the story to Michael Isikoff, the Paula Jones writer who had moved from The Washington Post to Newsweek.

After hearing Willey's Clinton tale, Isikoff asked if she had told anyone at the time, someone who could serve as a corroborating witness. Willey claimed she had informed a friend, Julie Steele. But Willey was lying.

As Isikoff was driving to Steele's house, Willey called Steele and asked her to pretend that she had heard the Clinton-groping story on the evening of Nov. 29, 1993. When Isikoff arrived, Steele lied, "corroborating" that Willey had told her about the Clinton incident within hours after it had occurred.

But Steele later recanted her corroboration. "She [Willey] did not come to my house that night," Steele admitted. "I didn't know a thing about this. I never heard that she had been groped by the president until the guy from Newsweek was on his way to my house." [NYT, Jan. 31, 1998]

With Newsweek nervous about the story and its dubious support, Tripp, who had moved to an $88,000-a-year job at the Pentagon, stepped forward as another "corroborating witness." Newsweek published the Willey allegation in August 1997. At long last, the Paula Jones case possessed a second example of a crude Clinton come-on.

The third middle-aged woman who figured in the current White House crisis was Lucianne Goldberg. A New York City book agent, Goldberg represents right-wing authors, including former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman whose O.J. Simpson book soared to the top of the best-selling charts.

Goldberg also had a checkered political past. In 1972, she had earned $1,000 a week working for Nixon strategist Murray Chotiner as a spy planted in George McGovern's presidential campaign. Several times a day, Goldberg would call the Nixon re-election committee with tidbits of intelligence. "They were looking for really dirty stuff," she said later. "Who was sleeping with whom, what the Secret Service men were doing with the stewardesses, who was smoking pot on the plane -- that sort of thing." [See Nightmare by J. Anthony Lukas.]

A quarter century later, Goldberg saw dollar signs in the sex stories about Clinton. A number of Clinton-hating books had sold quite well, largely because of national promotion from conservative radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy. Unlimited Access by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich hit the top of the best-seller lists with its widely discredited accounts of Clinton sneaking out of the White House for trysts at the Marriott Hotel.

Tripp discussed with Goldberg the idea of writing a tell-all book and drafted two chapters with a ghost-writer. But Tripp claimed she had changed her mind and the book project was going no where when she befriended another White House exile who had landed at the Pentagon.

Monica's Obsession

Half Tripp's age, this vivacious young woman had a different kind of obsession about President Clinton -- and a fondness for blabbing about her sex life. Her name was Monica Lewinsky, now 24.

Lewinsky, a chubby brunette with an exotic-looking face, had grown up in wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods, including Beverly Hills of "90210" fame. Her father was a wealthy doctor and her mother was a freelance writer fascinated by the private lives of the rich and famous. A soap opera devotee, Monica Lewinsky attended a junior college in Santa Monica before finishing her undergraduate studies at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon.

Unlike many bright young people who land internships at the White House, Lewinsky did not gain her appointment through a brilliant academic career or hard work on a campaign. Her road to a White House internship was paved by a family friend, a rich New York insurance executive, Walter Kaye, who was a major Democratic party donor and staunch Clinton backer. Kaye knew Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, who had moved East after divorcing Monica's father.

Also after moving East, Marcia Lewis wrote the 1996 book, The Private Lives of the Three Tenors: Behind the Scenes With Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras. The book contains juicy tidbits about the singers' personal lives and suggests that the author had an affair with Domingo, a rumor which Lewis coyly denies in a publicity release. (Domingo also denied an affair with Lewis.)

But Lewinsky learned from her mother the tricks of attracting powerful men. According to Monica's ex-boyfriend Andy J. Bleiler, Lewinsky fantasized about having sex with the president even before she went to Washington. Lewinsky continued making such indiscreet comments after arriving in the capital. The Washington Post quoted an unidentified White House co-worker as saying that Lewinsky would "talk about how she wanted to have sex in the Oval Office, on the desk." [WP, Jan. 29, 1998]

During a temporary government shutdown in 1995, Lewinsky put herself closer to her goals. She impressed White House officials by volunteering to answer phones and help with other clerical chores. By November 1995, Lewinsky had secured a regular paying job in the office of legislative liaison, a position that gave her at least intermittent access to the Oval Office.

According to Tripp's account of her conversations with Lewinsky, the sexual affair with Clinton started on Nov. 15, 1995. But Lewinsky's behavior -- and obsession with the president -- soon raised concerns within Clinton's inner circle. A transfer to a public relations job at the Pentagon was arranged by April 1996. But Lewinsky routinely obtained clearances for return visits to the White House, a reported 37 times, though it remains unclear how many visits she actually made and to whom.

In mid-1997, Lewinsky reportedly told Tripp that Clinton had ended the affair, partly out of concern over the Willey allegations in Newsweek. Tripp's "corroboration" of Willey's account also had prompted Clinton's lawyer Robert Bennett to question Tripp's credibility, a criticism that infuriated Tripp.

One of the many mysteries about the Lewinsky case is why the young woman would continue to trust Tripp with confidences about the president after the Willey story had appeared in August 1997. But Lewinsky apparently did continue to pour out her heart to Tripp.

Tripp took the steamy stories to book agent Goldberg and sought advice about what to do next. Tripp said in a statement that she went to see Goldberg "as a friend in the fall of 1997 for advice and counsel." [NYT, Jan. 31, 1998].

Goldberg, the onetime dirty trickster, persuaded Tripp to tape the conversations with Lewinsky so she could corroborate allegations of a presidential affair. Goldberg claimed her advice was a reaction to Bennett's earlier criticism of Tripp's credibility.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Goldberg made no secret about her animus toward Clinton. She said she hoped the tapes would "get" the president and make her a "hero." Goldberg even suggested that her contempt bordered on the violent. She told the Post that if Bennett had maligned her credibility the way he had Tripp's, "I'd be on the lawn of the White House with a deer rifle." [WP, Jan. 24, 1998]

So, from her home in Maryland, Tripp began tape recording Lewinsky's calls. Before long, the tapes covered 20 hours or more of Lewinsky's ramblings. At some point, Tripp shared the tapes with Goldberg who then arranged a meeting with Isikoff in Washington.

The snippets of the taped conversations, later released by Newsweek, revealed Lewinsky as a salty-tongued young woman who spoke about Clinton in highly derogative terms, such as "the Creep" and "Schmucko." She complained about his supposed insistence on oral sex only. But the tapes underscored her credibility problems. She reportedly declared on one tape, "I have lied my entire life."

Starr's Chamber

Meanwhile, in the first week of October, an anonymous female caller telephoned the Rutherford Institute with a tip about a "Monica" who had been having a sexual relationship with Clinton. The caller contacted Rutherford again in late October with the last name of Lewinsky and her mother, Lewis. [NYT, Feb. 9, 1998] Rutherford's director John Whitehead told me that the caller's identity remains unknown, but he is certain it was not Tripp.

Armed with this new information, Jones's lawyers issued a subpoena to Lewinsky on Dec. 19, making it clear they believed she had had a sexual relationship with the president. A panicked Lewinsky apparently called the Oval Office and spoke with Clinton, who referred her to his close friend, Vernon Jordan. He, in turn, put her in touch with a respected Washington lawyer Francis D. Carter.

Jordan, a renowned Washington lobbyist and powerbroker, also agreed to help Lewinsky land a job in the private sector. He called top executives at Revlon and two other companies on Lewinsky's behalf.

Lewinsky sought Clinton's help even more directly, meeting with him on or about Dec. 28, according to published reports. The precise contents of that conversation remain at the center of Starr's investigation into whether Clinton urged Lewinsky to lie about the affair.

On Jan. 7, the Lewinsky situation rose to a new legal level. Lewinsky signed an affidavit swearing that she never had a sexual relationship with Clinton. Carter, her lawyer, then began calling Paula Jones's attorneys. He finally reached them on Jan. 12, but failed to persuade them to quash the Lewinsky subpoena. A few days later, Revlon offered Lewinsky a job in the corporation's public relations office.

But the story was taking other turns. Also, on Jan. 12, Tripp approached Starr's office with her tapes. Tripp was effectively admitting to a crime, because Maryland law requires two-party consent for phone tape recordings. But Starr granted her immunity from prosecution and secured her cooperation.

The next day, Tripp arranged for a lunch with Lewinsky. This time, Tripp was carrying a concealed tape recorder provided by Starr. She drew Lewinsky into a discussion about her affidavit and tried to get Lewinsky to repeat the information about the Clinton affair.

On Jan. 15, Starr contacted the Justice Department with a request to expand his investigation. Attorney General Janet Reno, who had been criticized by Republicans for failing to appoint a special prosecutor to examine Democratic fund-raising, immediately acquiesced. The three judge-panel, headed by Sentelle, quickly approved, authorizing Starr to investigate Clinton and Jordan.

The model for this new probe, however, would be less the complex Whitewater inquiry than the narrowly focused case against Henry Cisneros. As Clinton's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Cisneros was perhaps the nation's most prominent Hispanic politician. But when interviewed by the FBI in a background check, he allegedly understated how much he had paid an ex-mistress to keep her quiet. His allegedly false statement led to demands for a special prosecutor which Reno referred to Judge David Sentelle's three-judge panel.

To investigate Cisneros, Sentelle again turned to his reliable stable of conservative attorneys. He picked David M. Barrett, who had been head of Lawyers for Reagan in 1980 and who himself had been linked to Reagan's HUD scandal in the 1980s. Barrett built the Cisneros false statement case into an 18-count felony indictment against the HUD secretary who resigned to battle the charges.

Starr now had a similar opportunity to bag Clinton on a sex-and-perjury case. The prosecutor finally senses that he has his presidential quarry squarely in his sights.

Tripp's Travels

On Jan. 16, Tripp set another date with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, a section of Arlington near the Pentagon. But to Lewinsky's surprise, she was surrounded by FBI agents and federal prosecutors. They escorted her upstairs to a hotel suite where they threatened to charge her with obstruction of justice unless she cooperated. The 10-hour negotiation pulled in Lewinsky's parents and a family lawyer, William H. Ginsburg.

According to Ginsburg, Starr wanted Lewinsky to surreptitiously record phone conversations with Clinton and Jordan to implicate them in criminal actions. Starr "didn't just want our client to tell her story; they wanted her wired," Ginsburg said later. [NYT, Feb. 9, 1998] Ginsburg postponed the decision.

Tripp's work that night, however, wasn't done. After waiting several hours with FBI agents in the room next to the suite where Lewinsky was undergoing interrogation, Tripp slipped away to return home. There, in the evening hours, the newly immunized federal witness met with Jones's legal team and briefed them on the details of the alleged Clinton-Lewinsky affair, according to a report in The Washington Post. [Feb. 14, 1998]

But Clinton apparently was oblivious to these developments on Jan. 17 when he was deposed for six hours by Jones's attorneys in Bennett's law office with Jones present. Clinton was surprised by the detailed questions about Lewinsky, but reportedly denied any sexual relationship and any cover-up. Afterwards, he canceled plans for dinner and contacted his private secretary, Betty Currie, to ask her to report to the White House the next day to review the facts as he had presented them in the deposition.

That Saturday night, Jones and her lawyers had a very different reaction. They went out on the town to celebrate. They were seen popping champagne corks at the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant near the White House. Also that night, partly in deference to Starr's expanding investigation of the president, Newsweek editors held off publishing Isikoff's story.

The story broke with full force anyway on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, with The Washington Post's banner lead. Within hours, the capital was swept by speculation about Clinton's possible resignation or impeachment.

Mobs of reporters and cameramen descended on every conceivable Monica-related event with an O.J.-like frenzy. All-news networks, CNN and MSNBC, gave the scandal nearly full-time coverage, virtually blotting out Pope John Paul II's historic trip to Cuba and Saddam Hussein's latest standoff with the United States.

The intensity of the coverage, however, did not match its quality. Many of the most damaging leaks soon were disputed, modified or outright retracted.

One widely reported account claimed that Lewinsky had received a gift dress from the president, that it was stained with semen and that Lewinsky was saving it as kind of a love trophy. After the dress story swirled around Washington for a week, Lewinsky's lawyer, Ginsburg, said no soiled dress existed and downgraded the gift from a dress to "a long T-shirt." CBS later confirmed with the FBI that no DNA evidence was recovered from Lewinsky's wardrobe.

Other breathless disclosures about a Secret Service agent spotting Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising situation were rushed onto newspaper Web sites and almost as quickly yanked down amid embarrassed explanations about questionable sources and competitive pressures.

A Coup d'Etat?

Yet, as Washington could talk about nothing else, the "outside-the-beltway" public mostly found the Lewinsky circus morbidly amusing. Polls revealed that the American people drew a distinction between a leader's personal life and his work. That reality began to hit home after Clinton's State of the Union address in which he touted his administration's success in eliminating the federal budget deficit and sustaining a strong economy.

Clinton's approval ratings shot up to the 70 percent range, the highest of his presidency. Simultaneously, the public's view of the national news media and Ken Starr darkened. Washington pundits and conservative politicians were left to bemoan the moral decay of the nation. The American people, the experts concluded, cared only about bulging pocketbooks, not about important moral questions.

The pundits also heaped ridicule on Hillary Clinton's complaints about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" which she claimed was out to destroy her husband and reverse the results of the 1992 and 1996 elections. Mrs. Clinton's conspiracy charges, however, struck a responsive chord with the public at large, according to the polls.

For his part, Starr made clear that he was determined to press ahead with his "serious" criminal investigation of the president's sex life and the alleged cover-up, regardless of what the public wanted. But whether a possible cover-up of an adulterous relationship was "serious" or not, Starr seemed to have no choice, if he cared about his future as a conservative political operative.

Many analysts believe that Starr plans to "punt" the case to the House Judiciary Committee for the launching of impeachment proceedings. There, the committee already has an impeachment resolution submitted by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. But Barr might prove an imperfect champion in a political battle over private morality. He is on his third marriage and once made headlines at a charity fund-raiser by licking whip cream off the breasts of two women.

The larger danger to the Republic might come if Starr succeeds in making the Lewinsky affair the predicate for ousting an elected president of the United States. If that happens, the Right-Wing Machine in Washington will have demonstrated that it has the power to make even the most human of offenses into a scarring national crisis. ~

(c) Copyright 1998 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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