Lewinsky scandal

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Lewinsky scandal

Lewinsky scandal (ləwĬn´skē), sensation that enveloped the presidency of Bill Clinton in 1998–99, leading to his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and acquittal by the Senate.

Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state worker who claimed that Bill Clinton had accosted her sexually in 1991 when he was governor of Arkansas, had brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against the president. Seeking to show a pattern of behavior on Clinton's part, Jones's lawyers questioned several women believed to have had a liaison with him. On Jan. 17, 1998, Clinton himself was questioned, becoming the first sitting president to testify as a civil defendant.

In his testimony, Clinton denied having had an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, an unpaid intern and later a paid staffer at the White House, in 1995–96. Lewinsky had earlier, in a deposition in the same case, also denied having such a relationship. Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel in the Whitewater case, had previously received tape recordings made by Linda R. Tripp (a former coworker of Lewinsky's) of telephone conversations in which Lewinsky described her involvement with the president. Asserting that there was a "pattern of deception," Starr obtained from Attorney General Janet Reno permission to investigate the matter.

The president publicly denied having had a relationship with Lewinsky and charges of covering it up. His adviser Vernon Jordan denied having counseled Lewinsky to lie in the Jones case, or having arranged a job for her outside Washington, to help cover up the affair. Hillary Clinton claimed that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was trying to destroy her husband, while Republicans and conservatives portrayed him as immoral and a liar.

In March, Jordan and others testified before Starr's grand jury, and lawyers for Paula Jones released papers revealing, among other things, that Clinton, in his January deposition, had admitted to a sexual relationship in the 1980s with Arkansas entertainer Gennifer Flowers, a charge he had long denied. In April, however, Arkansas federal judge Susan Webber Wright dismissed the Jones suit, ruling that Jones's story, if true, showed that she had been exposed to "boorish" behavior but not sexual harrassment; Jones appealed.

In July, Starr granted Lewinsky immunity from perjury charges, and Clinton agreed to testify before the grand jury. He did so on Aug. 17, then went on television to admit the affair with Lewinsky and ask for forgiveness. In September, Starr sent a 445-page report to the House of Representatives, recommending four possible grounds for impeachment: perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and abuse of authority (in claiming executive privilege and other actions). The report, detailed not only in its reporting of claimed misdeeds but also its description of sexual acts, was condemned by many as prurient.

The House Judiciary Committee considered the report in October and November. In mid-November it sent Clinton 81 formal inquiries; his answers, seen as legalistic and combative, were thought to hurt his case. On Dec. 12, in party-line votes, the committee approved four impeachment counts, rejecting a resolution of censure drafted by Democrats as an alternative.

House Republicans had unexpectedly lost seats in the Nov. elections, and it was widely held that the impeachment proceeding was one reason, since polls showed the public did not favor impeachment. It was also said that there was no chance the Senate would convict on any charge. The White House hoped that these facts and its own campaign against impeachment would prevent it, but on Dec. 19 Clinton became the second president (after Andrew Johnson) to be impeached, on two charges: perjury—in his Aug., 1998, testimony—and obstruction of justice. The vote, again, was largely along party lines.

In Jan., 1999, the trial began in the Senate. On Jan. 12, Clinton settled the Paula Jones suit, disposing of any threat her case might hold for him. On Feb. 12, after a trial in which testimony relating to the charges was limited, the Senate rejected both counts of impeachment. The perjury charge lost, 55–45, with 10 Republicans joining all 45 Democrats in voting against it; the obstruction charge drew a 50–50 vote. Subsequently, on Apr. 12, Judge Wright, who had dismissed the Jones case, found the president in contempt for lying in his Jan., 1998, testimony, when he denied the Lewinsky affair. In July, Judge Wright ordered the president to pay nearly $90,000 to Ms. Jones's lawyers. During that same month a Maryland grand jury indicted Linda Tripp for illegally taping phone calls (Tripp had been granted immunity from federal prosecution but not from state charges), but the charges were later dropped when crucial evidence was ruled inadmissable. On Jan. 19, 2001, the day before he left office, President Clinton agreed to admit to giving false testimony in the Jones case and to accept a five-year suspension of his law license and a $25,000 fine in return for an agreement by the independent counsel, Robert W. Ray (Starr's successor), to end the investigation and not prosecute him.

See M. Isikoff, Uncovering Clinton (1999); A. Morton, Monica's Story (1999); R. A. Posner, An Affair of State (1999); J. Toobin, A Vast Conspiracy (2000); P. Baker, The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton (2000); K. Gormley, The Death of American Virtue (2010).

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