What Does Trump Know About Russia? How Bill Clinton's Testimony Ended in Impeachment

Clinton Addresses Nation
U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks to the nation following his acquittal by the U.S. Senate on impeachment charges. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline "Extracting A Confession" on August 31, 1998. In light of recent news involving President Donald Trump and his potential impeachment, however, unlikely, over possible collusion with Russia, Newsweek is republishing the story.

CLINTON HAD PUT IT OFF AS LONG AS POSSIBLE, but with the grand jury awaiting his testimony and the independent counsel requesting a sample of his DNA, the moment had come to confess to his wife. On the night of Thursday, Aug. 13, Clinton returned from Andrews Air Force Base, where he had wept over the coffins of 10 Americans killed in the embassy bombings, to the private residence in the White House. There, for the first time, according to knowledgeable sources, he told Hillary the truth about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The president spared her the details, but he said the involvement had been long-running, and it had been sexual. The First Lady felt wounded and betrayed, these sources say. She was also furious at his foolishness. The First Couple had weathered years of investigations -- the relentless probing and quizzing about the death of Vince Foster, old Arkansas land deals, Travelgate, Filegate and all the rest. Now, Hillary stormed at her husband, he had handed their nemesis, Ken Starr, a weapon that could ruin his presidency. It seems hard to imagine that Hillary was truly surprised by her husband's indiscretion, or that he had failed to tell her when the scandal first erupted last January. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, four out five Americans say that the First Lady must have known "for some time" about her husband's extramarital relationship with Lewinsky. The common assumption around Washington last week was that Hillary was posing as a victim so she wouldn't look like a liar. She had, after all, firmly denied the reports of her husband's extramarital affair on the "Today" show and blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But sources close to the Clintons insist that Hillary really had not known about Clinton's sexual relationship with Lewinsky, at least the full extent of it.

More rude shocks await. Mrs. Clinton, the U.S. Congress and, ultimately, the American people may learn the details of the sexual relationship between the president and the former intern -- more, perhaps, than anyone really wants to know. The 300-plus-page report now being written by the office of the independent counsel -- expected for delivery to Congress by late September -- will include graphic vignettes of sexual encounters in the president's small study off the Oval Office. (The principal staffer assigned to write the report, a nonpracticing lawyer named Stephen Bates, is the author of one earlier book -- a study of the press entitled "If No News, Send Rumors.") Starr is known to believe that the public will be deeply offended by some of the kinkier details. "When people read his report, they'll want to throw up," said a knowledgeable source.

Starr's interest in Clinton's sex life may strike voters and congressmen as excessive. The straitlaced son of a West Texas minister, Starr is slightly reminiscent of William Gladstone, the 19th-century British prime minister who roamed the streets of London at night, saving prostitutes from moral perdition. Perhaps more threatening to the president is Starr's investigation into possible obstruction of justice. Starr wants to know more about those gifts that the president admittedly gave Lewinsky. Did Clinton somehow suggest that Lewinsky return the gifts, rather than turn them over to lawyers who had subpoenaed them in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case? Clinton and Lewinsky told different stories, under oath, to the grand jury last week. Clinton claims he never told Lewinsky to lie about the affair once she was under subpoena in the Jones case. Lewinsky insists that Clinton did -- not in so many words, perhaps, but by clearly signaling that Lewinsky should hide any incriminating evidence. NEWSWEEK has learned that Starr's team believes that Clinton's testimony further entangled him in a web of lies. If other witnesses -- notably, the president's secretary, Betty Currie -- fail to support Clinton's side of the story, the president could find himself facing impeachment.

For a time this summer, it appeared that Clinton, through stonewalling and clever lawyering, might slip out of Starr's clumsy grasp. In retrospect, however -- given the legal machinery at Starr's disposal, Clinton's misbehavior and political reality -- the president's current predicament seems inevitable. A reconstruction of the maneuvering between Clinton and Starr and their minions over the last few weeks reads like a cross between the National Enquirer and "The Guns of August," a tale of secrets, blunders and evasions on the eve of war. The turning point, unreported at the time, came on July 17, when Starr quietly subpoenaed Clinton to testify before the grand jury. Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, had been gently rebuffing informal requests from Starr to voluntarily make the president available for questioning. Kendall had clung to a faint hope that Starr would conclude that he lacked the legal authority to compel the president's testimony. The subpoena showed that Starr was determined to provoke a constitutional crisis, if necessary. Normally, the lawyer for a criminal suspect would tell his client to invoke his constitutional right to remain silent. But Clinton seemed to understand that a president can't hide behind the Fifth Amendment. Polls show that the public wouldn't stand for it. By the same token, invoking executive privilege would look Nixonian (and probably lose in the courts). On Thursday, July 23, Kendall told Starr that Clinton would testify "voluntarily" if Starr agreed to withdraw the subpoena.

No one told the White House staff, however. The political aides have been effectively frozen out of the legal councils for months. On Friday morning, Clinton's aides read an item in The Wall Street Journal stating that they were "bracing" for a subpoena. At a morning meeting in the office of White House counsel Chuck Ruff, the aides asked if the item was true. "I don't have anything for you on that," said Ruff. The politicos erupted. "If you're going to defy this thing, you better be aware of the political consequences," warned deputy chief of staff John Podesta. The aides had no idea that the subpoena was a week old and that Kendall had already agreed to comply.

Kendall, it seems, was also in the dark -- about a deal that Starr was about to strike with Monica Lewinsky. At a secret meeting in New York on Monday, July 27, Lewinsky agreed to tell all to the grand jury in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Two days later Kendall announced that the president had "volunteered" to testify. Only two hours after that, ABC News delivered a bombshell: Lewinsky had turned over to Starr a navy blue cocktail dress with a telltale stain. The dress was sent to the FBI lab for testing, but Clinton, in all likelihood, could guess at the results.

The dress limited the president's leeway, if he were so inclined, to fudge or dissemble before the grand jury. With physical evidence, sex would no longer be a matter of he said, she said. Clinton would have to admit to at least one intimate encounter. That raised the awkward question of how to reconcile his testimony with his earlier statements, both public and under oath. In January, during his deposition in the Paula Jones case, he had denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Now, working with Kendall, the president was able to come up with a classically Clintonian dodge. As defined by the judge in the Paula Jones case, sexual relations included touching her genitals with intent to arouse. As interpreted by Clinton, however, sexual relations meant intercourse, not oral sex or masturbation. Thus, in Clinton legalspeak, he had not perjured himself in the Jones case.

Some lawyers might buy that argument. But would the American people? It was becoming increasingly clear that Clinton would have to tell them something. Back in January, on the morning that the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton called his former political adviser Dick Morris, or so Morris claims. Morris had quit in disgrace when his own affair with a call girl had been exposed during the 1996 Democratic convention. "You poor s.o.b., I know what you're going through," Morris says he told Clinton. Clinton supposedly confessed to Morris that "something had happened" with Lewinsky. Morris says that he advised Clinton to make a plea for forgiveness to the American people. "Do you think it will work?" asked Clinton. Morris says that he agreed to take a quickie poll. That night he called Clinton: the results showed that while Americans would tolerate adultery, they would demand Clinton's impeachment if he had lied under oath or told Lewinsky to lie. Clinton, according to Morris, decided to take a pass on the plea for forgiveness.

But that was in January. Sometime during the week of Aug. 10 -- the White House won't say exactly when -- Starr requested that Clinton provide a fresh sample of his DNA. That almost certainly meant that the FBI had detected semen on the dress, and that Starr was looking for a match. For Clinton, the time had come to start explaining.

On Friday, Aug. 14, the morning after Clinton's uncomfortable confession to Hillary, a story appeared in The New York Times headlined CLINTON WEIGHS ADMITTING HE HAD SEXUAL CONTACTS. The article, which quoted a member of the president's "inner circle," floated the idea that the president, by some tortured definition, could acknowledge a "specific type of sexual behavior" with Lewinsky without contradicting his own deposition in the Paula Jones case or his public denials. White House aides bet that a member of the president's legal team had leaked the story to (a) lock in the boss, (b) warn Hillary and (c) prepare the nation for a limited mea culpa.

But no one really knew. Contrary to the reports floated last week, over the weekend Clinton did not apologize to his own staff for misleading them on the Lewinsky matter. He was preoccupied with the upcoming missile attack against terrorist targets and prepping for his own testimony on Monday. Aides noticed that Hillary was shut up in the residence, alone.

Sunday was for brave faces. A Bible-toting Clinton held Hillary's hand on the way to church; the Rev. Jesse Jackson was summoned to the White House residence that evening for some private spiritual counseling with Hillary and Chelsea. The First Family might as well have taken out an ad. Jackson, a former political rival of Clinton's, told of joining hands with the Clintons, reciting the 51st Psalm, David's prayer for mercy from God after he had been seduced by Bathsheba. ("Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.")

Clinton spent more time that night writing, in longhand on a legal pad, his own plea to the American people. He was apparently feeling more petulant and defiant than contrite. The draft included an angry attack on Starr and left out any direct apology. On Monday, Clinton adviser Mickey Kantor gave the speech, now typed, to Paul Begala, one of the president's spinmeisters. Begala was taken aback by the tone. He set to work on Clinton's draft, excising much of the attack on Starr. Another White House aide insisted that the words "I'm sorry" needed to be in the speech. At one point, a staffer drafted an apology to Lewinsky and her family, but the language was never shown to Clinton, partly for fear of offending Hillary. The mood among the aides was decidedly cranky. At the morning staff meeting, White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles pleaded for understanding for the president. Someone in the White House communications shop prepared talking points. "Do you forgive him for misleading you and the country?" read one question. Answer: "It's been said that, 'He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.' Of course I do." A few aides who received the talking points threw them in the trash after they heard the speech.

At about 1 p.m., Clinton began his testimony, fed to the grand jury via video camera, from the Map Room in the White House. He began by telling the jurors that he recalled a half dozen or so sexual encounters with Lewinsky, beginning in late 1995 or early 1996, and ending by 1997. Starr's legal team methodically bore in on the details. Clinton balked, citing an invasion of privacy. There were questions about the gifts. Lewinsky had testified that Clinton told her that if she didn't have the gifts, then she would not have to turn them over to Paula Jones's lawyers. Clinton had a different recollection: he testified that he told Lewinsky that if she had the gifts, she would have to turn them over. Reports differ over Clinton's mood during the course of his four-hour testimony, which was interrupted five times for breaks. Some sources say he blew up over the prosecutor's graphic questions. But others insist that he kept his temper.

He was without question in an angry state when he emerged from the testimony at about 6:30 p.m. After taking a quick shower, he reinserted his attack on Starr in the draft of his speech. Aides pleaded with Clinton not to. Red-faced, he insisted, "No, I want to say this. This needs to be said." Hillary, who had been working with him on his testimony for the past two days, agreed. Contrary to press reports, however, she had not been an active member of the president's legal team in its secret deliberations over the summer, according to White House insiders. Her role on Monday night was essentially passive. "It's your speech," she said.

The speech had been scheduled for 9 p.m., then pushed back to 10 in part so fewer children would be watching. Clinton's old Arkansas friend Hollywood producer Harry Thomason set the stage in the Map Room, where FDR planned strategy for World War II and Clinton hours earlier had testified about his sex life. Together with media consultant Robert Squier, Thomason wanted a fireside-chat look: a vase of flowers, no flags. Absent was any picture of Hillary.

A few staffers watched Clinton's speech in the White House solarium. Some hoped for the best -- that the public would want to forgive and move on -- others were more gloomy. Most left without waiting for the pundits to carp. One who did stay behind later remarked, "It ain't ever over." Several members of Starr's team watched in the bar of Sam & Harry's, a Washington steak-house, where they had gone to unwind. Careful to avoid drawing attention, they first quietly chuckled over Clinton's legalistic equivocations. Then some appeared to grow quietly angry about his defiance.

White House aides wanted to believe that the bad reviews of Clinton's speech were mere Beltway blather, and the president's approval rating would stay high. But they were disheartened by the strongly negative reaction from Democrats on Capitol Hill, whose support will be critical if Clinton faces impeachment. Lawmakers like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein felt personally betrayed by Clinton. White House spinners began to grope for countermeasures. On Wednesday, some clever Clinton ally leaked that Starr had questioned the president about the tie he had worn at a Rose Garden ceremony on Aug. 6, the day Monica Lewinsky had first testified before the grand jury. The gold-and-royal-blue cravat was one of a half dozen that Lewinsky says she had given Clinton as gifts. Was the president sending Lewinsky some kind of sign, a coded plea for loyalty? During his testimony, Clinton had laughed off this suggestion as preposterous. The timing alone was impossible: Lewinsky would have entered the grand-jury room before Clinton appeared in front of cameras in his (or her) tie. But as the story played the next day in The New York Times, the idea of a secret signal between the former lovers didn't seem quite so far-fetched.

Clinton was greeted by an enthusiastic throng of well-wishers at the Martha's Vineyard airport Tuesday afternoon. But the rope line was stacked with draftees. Several members of the island glitterati, like socialite-liberal activist Rose Styron, wife of novelist William Styron, had been asked to turn out by Mrs. Clinton's White House office. The Clintons passed up the usual social scene to have a quiet 52nd-birthday dinner with Clinton's golfing buddy, Verson Jordan. (Clinton testified that he misled Jordan, too, about his affair with Lewinsky -- good news for Jordan, who was being investigated for trying to buy Lewinsky's silence last December by finding her a job in the private sector.) The mood at Clinton's island vacation house was described by one insider as "tense."

Back in Washington, Monica Lewinsky was hurt that Clinton had not apologized to her or her family. She was also irked by Clinton's intimation that their sexual relationship had been all one-way -- that she had, in effect, been servicing the president. On Thursday, she appeared again before the grand jury to answer questions about inconsistencies between her testimony and Clinton's. She has testified that Clinton had fondled her breasts and genitals. She was also asked about the gifts. Clinton had testified that at his last meeting with Lewinsky on Dec. 28, he had not told Lewinsky to lie or return any of his tokens of affection. Indeed, last week the White House leaked that Clinton had given her more gifts: an Alaskan stone carving, a throw rug, a decorative pin and a few jokey items, like sunglasses. If Clinton had been so concerned about concealing gifts, his spinners argued, why was he giving her even more? But, NEWSWEEK has learned, Lewinsky testified that the very next day, Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, had appeared at her Watergate apartment to retrieve the gifts. Lewinsky was clear that she had not summoned Currie. Was Currie there on Clinton's orders? Absolutely not, testified Clinton. But according to knowledgeable sources, Currie told investigators last winter that Clinton had instructed her that "Monica may have something to give you." The precise wording of Currie's testimony is crucial. She is a key witness, in part because she is the one player in this drama known for her truthfulness.

There is little doubt now that Starr will send a scathing report to Congress. Starr's own thinking has gradually hardened over the past few months. As a young law clerk to a federal judge during Watergate, Starr argued to his colleagues that, under the separation of powers in the Constitution, a sitting president could not be indicted by a prosecutor or tried in the courts. Only Congress could bring impeachment proceedings. But lately, NEWSWEEK has learned, Starr was persuaded by a conservative law professor, Ronald Rotunda, that a president can be tried on criminal charges (though not imprisoned) while in office. Starr is not likely to ask the grand jury to indict Clinton. But Rotunda's arguments may have convinced the independent counsel last July that he could constitutionally subpoena the president. That was a critical development in Starr's investigation. Where it ultimately leads cannot be known. But any quick and happy ending now seems impossible for Bill Clinton.

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