The Right Wing Web

Adapted from "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story." (c)1999 Michael Isikoff. To be published by Crown Publishers, a Division of Random House, Inc., in April 1999.

IN WASHINGTON, YOU NEVER KNOW WHO YOU'LL MEET IN a TV green room. In August 1997, as I waited to appear on CNBC to offer my analysis of the latest judicial decision in the Paula Jones case, I ran into someone who knew much more about the Jones litigation than I did. An acid-tongued blonde who writes a legal-affairs column for the right-wing weekly Human Events, Ann Coulter was one of President Clinton's most ardent enemies. She was also an experienced lawyer. As we chatted that night, she kept hinting that she had inside knowledge about Jones's legal strategy. When I remarked on this, she laughed. ""There are lots of us busy elves working away in Santa's workshop.''

Busy elves? Who were these lawyers? What were they doing? It would take me 18 months to piece together--and confirm--the important role they played in the Lewinsky affair. As I reported on the story in 1997 and into 1998, I got hints that some conservative lawyers were working behind the scenes. And NEWSWEEK did report the outlines of their activity as early as the first weeks of the scandal. As the months wore on, I used the lawyers to get more information; sometimes they tried to use me to spread the story. Looking back, some sources misled me; others later told me of their involvement on an off-the-record basis and lifted that restriction only at the conclusion of the Senate trial. Although the conspirators were conservative, they were not the ""vast'' group that Hillary Clinton suspected. Instead, they were a handful of determined enemies of the president who not only helped the Jones camp but also led a willing Linda Tripp to Kenneth Starr.

The story begins in Little Rock with a lawyer named Cliff Jackson. One of Clinton's most bitter foes, Jackson had been unearthing secrets of Clinton's for years. In 1994 the work paid off. He persuaded journalists Bill Rempel of the Los Angeles Times and David Brock of The American Spectator to investigate allegations that Clinton, while governor, had used state troopers to procure women. When Paula Jones recognized herself as one of the women in Brock's piece, she wanted to file suit against the president--to regain her good name, she said. Jackson was eager to help her find the best attorneys. Gerry Spence wasn't interested. Neither was Anita Hill. The National Organization for Women responded with a form letter and a kit on how to file a lawsuit.

So Jackson turned to an old friend and conservative colleague: Peter W. Smith, a prominent Chicago investment banker who was a major contributor to Newt Gingrich's political committee, GOPAC. No friend of Clinton's, Smith had helped bankroll Jackson's earlier efforts to derail the president. (He'd given Brock a $5,000 stipend to investigate Clinton's sexual escapades and contributed $25,000 to a fund to support the troopers who blew the whistle on Clinton.) When Jackson asked Smith to help Jones, he suggested they call Richard Porter, a former aide to Dan Quayle. Porter was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis, the blue-chip Chicago law firm that's home to Kenneth Starr. Porter couldn't take on the case--for one thing, he wasn't a litigator--but he didn't want to let Smith down. Falling back on old school ties, he turned to a fellow University of Chicago law alum, Jerome Marcus. A registered Democrat who had worked in Ronald Reagan's State Department, Marcus was a tough litigator with a Philadelphia firm. Like the others, Marcus didn't want to be publicly associated with the Jones case--his firm's founding partner was a prominent Democratic fund-raiser--but he was intrigued. ""I can't put my name on stuff, but I'll help,'' he told Porter. Working from his Philadelphia home, Marcus drafted the first civil complaint ever filed against a sitting president. But Jones needed lawyers who were willing to step up to the microphone. The ""elves'' found Gil Davis, a genial former federal prosecutor who ran a Virginia law firm. Teaming up with his associate, Joe Cammarata, Davis took on the case with gusto.

They soon hit a snag. No incumbent president had ever been sued for things he'd done before taking office. Was the case constitutional? It was up to the Supreme Court to decide. Readying their argument for the high court, Jones's lawyers were befriended by none other than Ken Starr, then in private practice. The former appellate judge believed the case had merit and counseled them to move forward. Starr and Davis spoke a half-dozen times for a total of four-and-a-half hours in June 1994, discussing ways the Jones attorneys could undercut the president's claims of immunity.

Starr's help ended there. In August 1994 he was named independent counsel and cut off contact with Davis. By then, however, the elves had enlisted the help of another conservative lawyer--a brilliant young litigator named George Conway. A graduate of Harvard and Yale, Conway, then in his mid-30s, was already pulling down a million dollars a year at one of New York's prestigious firms. A consummate gossip with an impish laugh, Conway loved to swap stories about Clinton's foibles. When Conway attacked Clinton's immunity argument in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, Cammarata and Davis knew they'd found a kindred spirit. He agreed to do his part, but only if he, too, remained behind the scenes. Why the secrecy? One of his law firm's heaviest hitters was Bernard Nussbaum, Clinton's first White House counsel.

Among Conway's and Marcus's tasks: setting up a grueling ""moot court'' session to prepare Davis for the Supreme Court argument. Reaching out to Conway's brothers in the Federalist Society, a band of conservative lawyers, they enlisted the help of Robert Bork and Theodore Olsen, a former Reagan Justice Department official and Ken Starr's close friend. The session was designed to re-create the often intimidating atmosphere of a Supreme Court argument. At the appointed hour, however, Davis was nowhere to be found. When he finally showed up, his briefcase bulging, he suggested he'd rather skip the grilling and just discuss the case. Conway felt ill. He wondered how much Davis had prepared for the case. Standing before the justices a week later, Davis stumbled. At times, he tripped over the very points Olsen had warned him about. But Davis got by: months later, the high court ruled 9-0 that the case against Clinton could proceed.

Worried about a possible trial, the president's lawyers made an offer in August 1997: $700,000 to make the whole thing go away. Paula and her husband, Steve, wouldn't have any of it. From the beginning she said she wanted an apology and she wasn't going to budge now. Her lawyers stuck with her. But that all changed when Judge Susan Webber Wright tossed out part of the case, making it less likely Clinton's insurance companies would ever have to pay up. Davis and Cammarata begged her to settle. Still Paula held out. The lawyers threw up their hands. If Jones was going to continue to fight, she'd have to do it with another set of lawyers.

It didn't take long to find a new team. In September 1997, John Whitehead spotted a Washington Post article reporting Davis and Cammarata had quit the case. Whitehead led the Rutherford Institute, which helps Christian conservatives mount legal cases. He thought the Jones lawsuit would bring some welcome publicity. He knew just the firm to handle the case. Rader, Campbell, Fisher & Pyke reflected the Christian principles Rutherford touted. Like Whitehead, the Dallas lawyers hoped the Jones case would bring their firm into the big time.

They quickly were overwhelmed. Clinton's lawyers blitzed the court with motions demanding limits on the evidence of Clinton's involvement with other women that could be introduced at trial. In late October, Wright ordered Don Campbell and his partners to respond within 24 hours. The Dallas lawyers desperately needed help. They turned to the elves. ""Don't worry,'' Conway promised. ""We've been waiting three years to write this motion.'' Conway and Marcus pulled an all-nighter. Frantically e-mailing between New York and Philadelphia, they pieced together a 31-page legal brief that ripped apart the president's arguments point by point. Judge Wright, they argued forcefully, had to let them dig up the president's sexual past. The Dallas lawyers were thrilled by the brief and filed it under their own names that morning. Wright later allowed the Jones lawyers to proceed.

An even bigger break would soon come. In New York, literary agent Lucianne Goldberg was looking to air her friend Linda Tripp's claims that Clinton was having an affair with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. I had known of Tripp's allegations for months, but I didn't have sufficient reporting to suggest NEWSWEEK should print a story. Impatient with me, Goldberg and the elves resolved to take their claims directly to the Jones camp. She called on one of her wide circle of conservative friends, the right-wing book publisher Al Regnery. Could he put her in touch with Jones's lawyers? Regnery gave her the phone number of Peter Smith, the secretive Chicago investment banker Cliff Jackson had called three years earlier. On Nov. 18, 1997, Smith listened to what Goldberg had to say, then called her back with a young man on the line: Richard Porter, the ex-aide to Vice President Quayle. Porter assured the literary agent that he would take care of it. Goldberg noted the call in a spiral notebook in which she kept track of her conversations with Tripp, alongside recipes for short ribs. Next to that day's entry, she wrote cryptically, ""note: Ken Starr's partner re: Linda. She will be subpoenaed.'' Were Goldberg and Tripp already thinking of taking the story to Starr? Goldberg would later insist that the reference to Starr was merely a way to identify Porter's firm. That afternoon Conway was sitting in his New York office when an e-mail from Porter popped up on his computer screen. ""There's a woman named Lewisky [sic]. She indulges a certain Lothario in the Casa Blanca for oral sex in the pantry.'' Porter's message went on to mention a ""Betty Curry [sic]'' as being the woman's conduit, the existence of ""romantic tapes'' and a ""certain reporter at NEWSWEEK'' who knows all about it. Conway immediately called Porter. He had to be kidding. Porter assured him this was no joke. Conway faxed the e-mail to Jones's lawyer Don Campbell.

As a result of the Goldberg to Regnery to Smith to Porter to Conway to Campbell phone chain, Tripp found herself talking directly to the Jones lawyers. On Nov. 21, 1997, David Pyke called her at home. Tripp told him that if she was subpoenaed and asked the right questions, ""I will not lie,'' but ""I need to look hostile.'' Perhaps, he suggested, a subpoena could just ""drop on your doorstep out of the blue.'' The legal machinery was now in motion to make Tripp--and Lewinsky--witnesses in the case of Jones v. Clinton.

A month later, Tripp and Lewinsky got their subpoenas. Goldberg's notebook records a phone call from Tripp on Dec. 23, 1997. ""Linda told "pretty girl' she would not lie'' under oath. Goldberg also noted that she discussed the latest developments with Porter and Marcus. She told them about the Tripp tapes and that Monica had told Linda that ""Vernon Jordan told her to lie.'' Goldberg's claim may have been an exaggeration. Still, the allegation that Jordan was coaching Monica and that Lewinsky was pressuring Tripp to lie stunned Porter and Marcus. ""Holy s---,'' Marcus recalled thinking. This was possibly subornation of perjury. Maybe obstruction of justice. And it was on tape.

Protecting the tapes took on new urgency. There was talk of getting the tapes into the hands of a third party, someone who would make sure they weren't destroyed. Perhaps a publisher who could put them under the cloak of the First Amendment.

By October 1997, I had only a sketchy picture of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the lawyers, but I was told about the tapes by Goldberg and others. They offered to play them for me, but I begged off. I did not want to be a part of whatever they were up to. I wasn't happy when I heard about the suggestion that they could use the tapes as the basis for a tell-all book. Stunned at this idea, I called Goldberg and told her that such a move was insane. Maybe I crossed the line by saying so, but it seemed to me that if Tripp went for a book deal she would undermine her own credibility. And though I didn't admit it, I was thinking something else as well: You're going to muck up my story too. The book idea never went anywhere, but Marcus spent the Christmas holiday wrestling over what to do with the tapes: ""All I kept thinking was . . . who do you call?''

It is not clear who first came up with the answer: take the tapes to Starr. It might have been Marcus or Goldberg, who had continued to chat with the elves over the holidays. Tripp herself, who was frequently on the phone with Goldberg, said last week in an interview, ""It never occurred to me to go to Ken Starr.'' To all of them, though, it made perfect sense that the tapes should go to the man who had spent three-and-a-half years trying to uncover Clinton's secrets. But would Starr want them? Marcus knew just how to find out. On Jan. 8, 1998, in Philadelphia, he met with an old pal, another University of Chicago alum, Paul Rosenzweig, who worked for Starr investigating Travelgate. Before dinner at Deux Cheminees, Marcus told Rosenzweig of the Tripp tapes. ""I haven't listened to this stuff,'' Marcus remembers saying. ""I don't know if it's real or not. But do you think this is something your office would be interested in?'' Rosenzweig was always careful when discussing his work. ""I don't know,'' he said, ""I'll find out.'' Later, Conway and Porter joined the group at the tony French restaurant. The elves avoided any further direct mention of Lewinsky, but throughout the evening one or the other would wonder aloud, ""Aren't these people [Clinton and his crowd] unbelievable?''

The next day, Rosenzweig told Jackie Bennett, Starr's righthand man, of his dinner. A hard-nosed prosecutor, Bennett warned that they were not going to chase rumors and hearsay. If this woman had some information, she had to give it to them directly. ""It needs to come in the front door,'' Bennett told Rosenzweig. Briefed three days later, Starr agreed. Rosenzweig relayed Starr's decision back to Marcus, who sent word to Linda. By 9 p.m. she was on the phone spilling to Bennett.

To this day, it is unclear whether Starr and his deputies understood how closely Marcus was tied to the Jones camp. Four days later, when the independent counsel's office asked for permission to expand its investigation to include the Lewinsky affair, Bennett voluntarily declared the office's independence. ""No contacts w Paula Jones attorneys by C office,'' read one deputy's notes of the meeting. Bennett recently said that he thought the elves were helping Tripp, not Jones. In fact, the ""elves'' were doing both. And they could hardly believe that their years of effort had paid off on such a grand scale.

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