Will Trump Be Impeached or Resign? It Took Months—and a Blue Dress—to Impeach Clinton

Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton
Former President Clinton is shown in a photo from evidence gathered by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in the White House sex scandal investigation. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline "Lewinsky vs. Clinton" on August 10, 1998. In light of recent news involving President Donald Trump and his potential impeachment, however unlikely, Newsweek is republishing the story.

Late last fall, Monica Lewinsky had something she wanted to show her friend Linda Tripp. She opened up the closet in her Watergate apartment and pointed to a blue cocktail dress. It bore the stain of President Clinton's semen, Lewinsky told Tripp. The former White House intern claimed that she would never wear the dress again—or have it cleaned. A few nights later, Tripp told her pal, literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, about what she had seen at Lewinsky's apartment. Goldberg had encouraged Tripp to tape her phone conversations with Lewinsky, as self-protection against White House attack and as proof of Clinton's scandalous behavior. Now, according to Goldberg, the two women discussed purloining Lewinsky's dress to obtain irrefutable evidence.

But how? Perhaps, on a return visit to Lewinsky's apartment, Tripp could lift the dress, throw her overcoat over it and walk out. Goldberg wondered if there was a way to test the garment to see if the stain was really the president's semen. So she called her client and close friend, former Los Angeles homicide detective Mark Fuhrman, of O. J. Simpson fame. Is there any way to get a DNA sample from such a garment? she asked. Sure, said Fuhrman. Get a Q-Tip, some sterile water and a plastic baggie. Run the Q-Tip over the stain, throw it into the baggie and take it to a private lab.

Tripp and Goldberg may have cooked up an even more elaborate ruse to get at the dress. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Lewinsky remembered getting a call from Tripp in November or December. Tripp told Lewinsky that she was so broke that she was selling her own clothes. Would it be possible, Tripp asked, to borrow some of Monica's? When? asked Monica, who was not at home at the time. Right away, said Tripp. She suggested that Lewinsky tell the doorman to let her in the apartment. When Lewinsky hesitated, Tripp asked, "What, you don't trust me?"

Nothing came of these plots. "We were just two girls having a Nancy Drew fantasy," says Goldberg. But the dress acquired a life of its own when the Lewinsky story broke in late January. At first, tabloids screamed about the "Love Dress." When the garment failed to materialize, press critics began to write about the "phantom semen-stained dress." Now that the dress sits in an FBI lab, undergoing tests to determine whether the stain is semen and, if so, whether it matches the president's DNA, it looms as a threat to the Clinton presidency.

The case against Bill Clinton may finally be coming together. It is in many ways the same case that Americans first learned about when the scandal became public last January. What's changed is that Monica Lewinsky is now willing to tell her story to the grand jury under oath, and Bill Clinton has volunteered, however reluctantly, to submit to the prosecutor's questioning. The president is undoubtedly in a tight spot, caught in his still-unexplained relationship with Monica Lewinsky and enmeshed in a web spun by Tripp and Goldberg.

Lewinsky, who has been spending several hours a day talking to prosecutors, may begin testifying as early as this week. Informed sources say her account of a sexual relationship with the president is essentially the same one she first offered to tell Kenneth Starr—in exchange for a promise of immunity from prosecution—last January. Why did it take Starr so long to strike a deal?

Part of the problem was trust. Starr's team thought that Lewinsky's first lawyer, William Ginsburg, was unreliable and a little flaky. By contrast, Starr has known and liked one of Lewinsky's new lawyers—Jake Stein, a respected Washington lawyer and himself a onetime special prosecutor—for many years. Talks between the two sides had come to a halt two weeks ago when Starr called Stein directly. In order to remove any bad blood between the prosecution and Lewinsky's defenders, Starr cut his more hawkish deputies out of the negotiations. In their place he substituted Sam Dash, an old Washington hand (he had been the chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee) who had an easy relationship with Stein and his co-counsel, Plato Cacheris. Meeting at Dash's home over bagels, the two sides worked out an arrangement that would allow Lewinsky to give prosecutors a preview of what she would be willing to say under oath. Early last week Lewinsky flew from her home in Los Angeles to a secret meeting with prosecutors in New York City, far from the Washington media stakeouts. Questioned first by a friendly lawyer from Cacheris's office, then by the prosecutors, Lewinsky talked for four and a half hours. By the next morning, the two sides had a deal.

Starr's team had some extra leverage to make sure Lewinsky was willing to tell the whole truth. Sometime last winter, Lewinsky had given the dress to her mother, Marcia Lewis, for safekeeping. That made Lewis a possible target of Starr's probe, a reality that was brought home to her when she was summoned before the grand jury last February—and collapsed under questioning. Under last week's deal, Lewis is also immune from prosecution.

The hard-liners on Starr's team had been hesitant to offer promises of immunity to Lewinsky without very specific promises of testimony in return. They felt badly burned by former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell, who promised to give testimony in the Whitewater investigation in return for Starr's help in securing a lighter sentence after Hubbell pleaded guilty to overbilling his law clients in 1994. The prosecutors believe that Hubbell basically pulled a bait-and-switch, refusing to say much of anything once he had a deal. Starr's team was determined not to make the same mistake with Lewinsky.

In addition to the dress, Lewinsky turned over tapes of several voice-mail messages allegedly left by Clinton. The president's words did not seem sexually suggestive—"Hey, it's me," he reportedly said. "Sorry I missed you." But the familiarity between the chief executive and former intern was embarrassing. "There's always been an assumption that the president wouldn't be stupid enough to leave his voice on an answering machine," said one disheartened White House aide. More dangerous are the gifts that Lewinsky turned over to the president's secretary rather than comply with a subpoena in the Paula Jones case.

In the tape recording of a conversation between Lewinsky and Tripp last December that Newsweek was permitted to hear, Lewinsky was eager to get rid of any incriminating presents. She referred to an official White House photograph and worried that the inscription from Clinton was so personal that lawyers for Jones would use it against her. She told Tripp that she had tried to call Betty Currie, the president's secretary, to ask for a clean copy of the picture so that she might have one to give Jones's lawyers. But on the tape, she complains that Currie was unavailable. There may also be another photo of interest to the prosecutors. According to Goldberg, Lewinsky was photographed standing beside the president in the Oval Office. She was wearing a blue cocktail dress.

If the reported stain on the dress turns out to be the president's semen (the lab tests may take several weeks), Clinton has an immediate perjury problem. Last January he denied under oath in his Jones deposition that he had ever had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Lying about a sexual relationship in a deposition in a civil case may not be perceived as a serious offense. Lying before the grand jury in a criminal investigation is more grave. It would surely be an indictable offense in a normal criminal probe. Less certain is whether it is an impeachable offense in Congress, which will probably serve as Clinton's judge and jury.

The ultimate focus of Starr's case is not sex, but obstruction of justice. Under the immunity deal worked out between Starr and Lewinsky's lawyers, described to Newsweek by a knowledgeable source, Lewinsky will testify that she and the president discussed cover stories designed to keep their alleged relationship private. Lewinsky reportedly will say that at a meeting at the White House in late December, she told the president her worries about the subpoenaed gifts, which included a brooch and a book of poetry. The president did not directly tell her to lie, she says. Rather, he spoke hypothetically. If you don't have the gifts, he allegedly said, you can't turn them over. Such a veiled suggestion would hardly be the kind of evidence a prosecutor needs to win a conviction for obstruction of justice. But physical evidence makes the case far stronger.

Much depends on the testimony of Betty Currie, who allegedly took back the gifts, and who has by now been thoroughly grilled by prosecutors. Clinton cannot afford to contradict her. It is more than likely Clinton knows what she told the grand jury—under a "joint defense agreement," lawyers for witnesses like Currie, other aides and various Secret Service men routinely share information with Clinton's lawyers. But the president can't be sure he knows everything Starr knows, and one false step before the grand jury puts him at risk.

Normally, a grand jury "target" like Clinton would simply invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. But a president cannot afford to be seen hiding behind the Fifth. Likewise, the White House decided it was too politically risky to argue that, under the Constitution's separation of powers, the chief executive cannot be forced to testify by the judicial branch. Last week the tough-minded judge on the Clinton case, Norma Holloway Johnson, signaled that she would reject any such argument. In return for the president's "volunteering" to appear before the grand jury on August 17, Johnson ruled that the president could testify via camera from the White House. Jurors will be able to submit questions through the prosecutor, who will be in the room with the president. Unlike most grand-jury witnesses, Clinton will be allowed to have his lawyers by his side.

Starr may have some problems with his own case, including sparring between his two main witnesses, Lewinsky and Tripp. They disagree on a number of points. For instance, Lewinsky says that Tripp urged her to keep the stained dress, while Tripp says it was Lewinsky's idea. Tripp insists that she repeatedly urged Lewinsky to break off her relationship with the president. The two former friends also tell different stories about the so-called talking points. Last January 14, just before the scandal broke, Lewinsky handed Linda Tripp a three-page document advising her on how to testify in the Paula Jones case about an alleged sexual encounter between the president and Kathleen Willey, a White House volunteer, in November 1993. Willey had described the encounter to Tripp, but now, the talking points suggested to Tripp, "you do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened." Back in January, Starr's deputies thought the talking points could be the "smoking gun" in an obstruction-of-justice investigation, and strongly suspected that Lewinsky knew more than she was willing to reveal in her lawyer's initial negotiations with the special prosecutor. Convinced that Lewinsky could not have written the talking points, Starr's men believed that she must have had help from the White House, possibly from Clinton or Bruce Lindsey, his close personal adviser.

But last week Lewinsky told investigators that she did write the talking points herself—and that her only help came from Linda Tripp. Tripp has acknowledged talking to Lewinsky about what to say when testifying about the Willey incident, but she hotly denied any role in writing the talking points. She has told conservative columnists that she received veiled threats from Lindsey to modify her version of events about the Willey incident as she first described it to Newsweek in August 1997. According to Tripp, when Lewinsky handed Tripp the talking points, she warned. "The president expects you to be a team player. He feels you screwed him in the Newsweek article." Lewinsky told Tripp that she and her children would be "in danger" if she failed to change her story, according to Tripp. It is not known if Starr's investigators have turned up any evidence that these alleged threats were real. Lindsey denies making any threats.

Starr's team had also been eager to investigate whether Clinton tried to buy Lewinsky's silence by helping her get a job. Presidential pal Vernon Jordan has acknowledged arranging for her to see several potential employers, including Revlon. But this part of Starr's probe appears to have flagged, possibly for want of solid evidence about Clinton's role or motives.

The White House does not want to openly antagonize Lewinsky before she testifies. Last week presidential spokesman Michael McCurry rather unconvincingly stated that the president was pleased that "things are working out" for Lewinsky. But behind the scenes, Clinton's lawyers are collecting dossiers on the former intern turned witness for the prosecution. Through leaks to the press, they will likely depict her as a flighty young woman who has told so many stories about her relationship with Clinton that none can be believed. David Kendall, the president's private lawyer, has been reaching out to lawyers for other witnesses to learn more about Lewinsky. "There is a mountain of evidence that undermines [Lewinsky's] credibility," says one lawyer who is familiar with Lewinsky's version of events. According to this source, some of Lewinsky's secretly recorded statements to Tripp, as well as some of her later recollections, can be documented as untrue. "She puts him in places where he can't be and has him doing things that couldn't have been done," says this lawyer.

Kendall's firm, Williams & Connolly, is known for its scorched-earth defense of corporate executives and public officials accused of crimes. A standard tactic is to accuse the prosecutor of misconduct. Kendall has already persuaded Judge Johnson to question Starr about illegal leaking of grand-jury secrets by the independent counsel's team, and Kendall is sure to develop other lines of attack. In a normal criminal case, these defense countermoves sometimes succeed in getting the whole case thrown out.

Clinton's problem is that he is not just any target. The Constitution does give the president a measure of protection. Under the separation of powers, the chief executive probably cannot be tried and convicted by the judicial branch while serving in office. Starr's team, Newsweek has learned, has discussed indicting the president for obstruction while he is still in office, but holding off on the trial until he is a private citizen. More likely, however, Starr will send any evidence of criminal wrongdoing to the House of Representatives, where, under the Constitution, the president can be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Impeachment hearings are inevitably political as well as legal. Is lying under oath about sex a "high crime"? Is obstruction of justice? For the moment, Congress appears to be loath to decide. But Starr will eventually submit his report, as he is required to do under the special-prosecutor act. And at some point, though probably not until after the November elections, the House is likely to begin hearings. At that time, Lewinsky could be called as a witness, and the public will finally be able to hear her story. The question now is whether the president wants to explain himself first.