American Crime Story, the anthology series created by entertainment juggernaut Ryan Murphy, is back. Having successfully captured the trial of OJ Simpson and the murder of Gianni Versace, Murphy’s next subject is the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. The starry cast features Clive Owen, disguising his English tones in an Arkansas drawl to play the president himself; Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton; ACS regular Sarah Paulson, almost unrecognisable as US Civil Servant Linda Tripp; and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky – the White House intern whose involvement with the president has since become legendary.
But what’s the real history behind the story? Below, we break it down.
In 1998, Bill Clinton became only the second president in US history to be impeached, after Andrew Johnson in 1868. The third, and only other, is Donald Trump who was impeached twice, in December 2019 and January 2021. A president can be eligible for impeachment if there is enough evidence they have committed “high crimes and misdemeanours”. Bill Clinton was accused of lying under oath and obstructing justice. Both charges related to incidents of sexual misconduct.
One was a 1994 lawsuit filed by US civil servant Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of sexual harassment while working with him when he was the governor of Arkansas. The case dragged on until 1998, with Clinton’s lawyers claiming he could not be tried as he was a sitting president. They attempted to stall the trial until after he had left office. The case eventually settled out of court, with Clinton awarding Jones $850,000 in November 1998. However, during the court proceedings of Paula Jones’ case, her lawyers subpoenaed several women suspected of having had affairs or sexual involvement with Clinton. One was Monica Lewinsky. Under oath, Clinton famously declared that he did not have sexual relations with “that woman”.
This statement would soon come back to haunt him. At the time, a separate investigation into Clinton’s administration was being led by lawyer Kenneth Starr. It had obtained evidence from a US civil servant, Linda Tripp, which proved Clinton had indeed had sexual relations with “that woman”, Monica Lewinsky. The report he produced (known as the Starr Report) laid out grounds for impeachment, pointing to the fact Clinton had therefore lied under oath and obstructed justice.
Bill Clinton was officially impeached in December 1998 and a senate trial began to decide whether he would be removed from office.
Who was Linda Tripp?
The evidence which sealed Clinton’s fate was obtained by Linda Tripp, a US civil servant who had worked at the White House under both the Bush and Clinton administration. She was subsequently moved to the offices of the Pentagon, along with a young fellow civil servant, Monica Lewinsky. Despite their 24-year age gap, they became close friends and Lewinsky confided in her about her relationship with the president. Tripp – who later claimed she was acting out of patriotism – secretly recorded their phone calls. It was Tripp who persuaded Lewinsky not to dry-clean the dress which had Clinton’s semen stains on it – something that became a vital part of the evidence against him.
Monica Lewinsky was unaware that her phone calls were being recorded, nor that Tripp was collating evidence to use against Clinton. Tripp handed over these recordings in exchange for immunity from prosecution, as her wiretap of Lewinsky’s calls was illegal. Tripp’s evidence rendered both Lewinsky and Clinton’s sworn testimony that they did not have a sexual relationship both a lie and an admission of perjury. When Lewinsky was later forced to testify before a grand jury, she was asked if she had any last words. The ones she chose were: “I hate Linda Tripp.”
Who is Monica Lewinsky?
In the summer of 1995, 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky took on an unpaid internship at the White House which eventually became a paid position. By April 1996, Lewinsky had been transferred to the Pentagon, reportedly because she was spending too much time with the president. This suspicion was, it transpires, merited.
Though she initially denied it – and perjured herself in the process – Lewinsky later confessed to an affair with Clinton, which consisted of nine sexual encounters over that summer. When the story broke in January 1998, Lewinsky was instantly thrust into the public spotlight and was forced to go into hiding, with her mother, for several weeks. In July of that year, Lewinsky admitted to the affair before a grand jury and, in August, Clinton would eventually confess to an “improper physical relationship”.
Clinton’s admission had come far too late as he had already – though he argued he had misunderstood the definition of “sexual relations” – both perjured himself and lied publicly to the American people in a televised address. These lies would form the grounds of his impeachment, which began in December 1998. By that time, Lewinsky could no longer work in politics; her name had become infamous, and she found herself in the centre of an unforgiving media storm.
The impeachment trials
Following the submission of articles of impeachment in January 1999, Clinton was subjected to a 21-day senate trial on whether he should be removed from office. Testimonies from witnesses, including Monica Lewinsky, were videotaped ahead of time. Clinton was eventually acquitted of charges as a two-thirds majority is required to remove a president from office; the perjury charge was supported by less than half, and the obstruction of justice came down to a 50/50 vote.
As Clinton was reaching the end of his second term as president when he was acquitted, he could not legally seek re-election. Due to the scandal surrounding his impeachment, he also did not actively campaign for his vice president, Al Gore’s campaign. Gore would go on to be narrowly defeated by George Bush Jr in the 2000 election. Gore later said he chose not to feature his predecessor, as people did not want to see any more of Bill Clinton after “the year of Monica”.
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