Michael Isikoff was the first reporter to uncover one of the biggest scoops of the 1990s: that the Independent Counsel was investigating President Bill Clinton over his affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Through meticulous reporting with well-placed sources inside the White House and hours of conversations with Lewinsky confidante Linda Tripp, Isikoff had the story of a lifetime. Tripp even offered to hand him the case’s most infamous, and damning, bit of evidence.
When his editors at Newsweek hesitated, an upstart on the newly relevant but barely understood internet leaked news of the affair. The Drudge Report unleashed the story of sexual infidelity in the White House, which set a new standard for scoops on the web and launched the right-wing news blog to the prominence it still enjoys today. But the inside story of the investigation, with all the repercussions for the administration and the eventual impeachment of President Clinton, belonged to Isikoff.
His dogged reporting and subsequent book Uncovering Clinton caused a sensation far beyond the Beltway. Twenty years on, most Americans remember the resulting trial in the Senate—and its seemingly non-stop parade of salacious details about the affair—as the pinnacle of the hard-fought partisan battles and broader culture wars that helped define the decade. In light of new revelations involving powerful men and sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s worth revisiting this tale of sex, power, presidential recklessness and sheer mendacity. We sat down with Isikoff for an insider’s play-by-play of the scandal.
You were the first reporter to uncover that President Bill Clinton was conducting an affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Can you tell me about the circumstances in which you heard about the story, and how you went about confirming it?
Michael Isikoff: It’s kind of a long, tortured tale. I had covered and written about the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, and had always figured that it would only get traction if other women were to come forward and say they had similar experiences. And then I heard that there was such a woman in the White House, Kathleen Willey, who had claimed that she was also a victim of unsolicited sexual advances by the President in the White House. I found her, spent a considerable amount of time hearing her story, and then asked who she might have shared any of this with at the time, and she said there was this woman named Linda Tripp, who was then working at the Pentagon.
I tracked down Linda Tripp to hear what she had to say, and she indicated that I was barking up the wrong tree, and there was a even better story going on as we spoke, which obviously intrigued me quite a bit. I spent a considerable amount of time talking to Linda Tripp, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and eventually, she told me about the relationship that Clinton was having with Monica Lewinsky.
Was this an open secret at the White House, or were most of Clinton’s aides unaware that it was going on?
I don’t think anybody knew. There were a few people who had some suspicions. There was one aide in particular, Evelyn Lieberman, who worried about Lewinsky’s proximity to the President and actually arranged to have her removed from the White House, and that’s how she ended up in the Pentagon.
What convinced you that this was an important story to pursue—and more than just the tawdry tabloid fodder that critics later accused it of being?
One of the jobs the President was helping [Lewinsky] get was with the U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson. He set up a meeting where Richardson met with her at the Watergate Hotel for several hours. This was a federal job. So the President was getting his girlfriend a federal job, [someone] who he’s had a sexual relationship with at a time that he’s being asked questions in the [Paula Jones] lawsuit about his relationship with various women. There were things that were grounds for suspicion and we wanted to keep an eye on it. But it’s important to realize, we never knew whether we would have a story to publish or whether this would ultimately prove the relationship. There were lots of questions.
What changed all that were the astonishing events of January 13th, 1998, when I get tipped off that there’s this little event going on at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and that Ken Starr has wired Linda Tripp for her conversation with Monica Lewinsky. Ken Starr, the Independent Counsel, is investigating this? Using the powers of the FBI and the Independent Counsel’s office to conduct a sting on the President’s girlfriend? That’s the story. That’s what elevated it into a whole new plane.
What went through your head when you heard President Clinton say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?
At that point, I knew it was highly unlikely that he was telling the truth … Now, obviously, I was not there in the Oval Office when Monica Lewinsky was sexually servicing the President, but much of what Linda Tripp had told me had checked out, about visits to the White House. We were the only ones that had listened to the tape, and knew that at least Tripp’s basic account of what Monica was saying was verified by secret tapes she gave. At one point she had offered me the blue dress.
Wait, she offered you the blue dress?
Yes, out of the blue, she calls me up and says, “There’s this blue dress with the President’s semen on it. It’s in Monica’s closet, I was there last night. Do you think I should take it?” I said, “And do what with it?” And she says, “Give it to you.” And I said, “What am I supposed to do with it?” And she said, “You could have it tested.”
And I thought about that for a moment, and aside from the fact that I wasn’t about to take custody of stolen property, I gently made the point that I didn’t have access to the President’s DNA so I would be unable to conduct a test of the alleged semen on the alleged dress. And I pretty much forgot about it, and dismissed it, and thought she was somewhat nutty by making that offer.
It turned out, that was the most crucial piece of evidence that finally forced the President to disown the lie he told when he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Had it not been for that blue dress, he probably never would have wavered from that statement.
It only occurred to me much later that had I taken Linda Tripp up on her offer, and taken custody of this blue dress, the President most likely would never have been impeached because if Newsweek had the blue dress, we wouldn’t have turned it over to Ken Starr. That would have been a First Amendment issue. We don’t give our notes over to government subpoenas; it would have at least been a prolonged legal battle as to whether or not Ken Starr ever would have gotten access to the blue dress. But of course, none of that was going through my mind at the time Linda Tripp made this seemingly silly offer.
Do you think Monica Lewinsky—who today might be seen as a young woman experiencing egregious workplace harassment—was treated unfairly by the press and the public? People at the time often seemed more interested in rating her looks and discussing her sexual history than in discussing the president’s predation.
I don’t think she was treated well. There were clearly efforts to discredit her, to portray her as a “loony.” I think that’s the phrase Hillary Clinton used to suggest that somehow Bill Clinton was the victim of a conniving woman. Everything that could be thrown at her was, and that’s highly unfortunate. At the end of the day, she was a 22-year-old intern when this began. She wasn’t underage, but it was the kind of workplace behavior that I don’t think any executive in the public or private sector would get away with in today’s climate.
But I think it’s also important to look at the context. Let’s go back to the Paula Jones lawsuit, which is where this starts. What was Paula Jones’ core allegation? That while she was on the job, she was summoned by an Arkansas state trooper and brought up to a hotel room, where the then-governor proceeds to make unsolicited sexual advances, drops his pants, exposes himself and asks for oral sex. Now who does that sound like in today’s environment?
Exactly. In that context then, you have to look at what flows from it. The later Kathleen Willey allegations, and the Monica Lewinsky thing. We start to see a pattern of—at the very least—reckless conduct by the President of the United States.
What drew you to these stories, at a time when many Americans still thought the personal lives of their presidents should be a private affair? (And in fact, one of Clinton’s most effective media strategies sought to draw a distinction between his personal misdeeds and his performance as president.)
You’re casting it in the way that it was cast at the time, but I don’t think that’s the way it would be cast today. Are Harvey Weinstein’s private affairs out of bounds? The media executives and talent who have been fired, was that just their private affairs or did that say something about conduct in the workplace, conduct towards women? Then you add the legal process on top of that, so this made it news in and of itself. If you’ve got a lawsuit against the President, and he’s required to testify, that is going to be news whether you like the substance of what the lawsuit’s about or not.
Your editors at Newsweek famously held your deeply reported story on the Lewinsky scandal right before it was set to print. So the news of the affair was actually broken by a post on Drudge, then a fairly insignificant blog. Do you know who tipped off Drudge to your story?
That’s only partially true, because if you go back and look at the Drudge item, it says there were screaming fights at Newsweek about one of the stories, about the President’s relationship with a young intern identified as Monica Lewinsky. It said nothing about the Ken Starr investigation, which was the most important part of the story—that this was now the subject of a federal investigation by the Independent Counsel. That was the story that I and many of my colleagues were so insistent should be published because we knew that on its face, that was enormous news, and we were right.
I had sources who had helped me on the story. They were expecting the story to run in Newsweek that weekend. I told them at some point on Saturday that the story wasn’t going to run, which is not an uncommon thing when the sources have helped you on a story and they’re expecting it … One of those sources tipped off Drudge. They wanted the story out.
What was your editor’s rationale for deciding to hold the story?
They were queasy. They were nervous. It involved the President and an alleged sexual relationship, and that, in and of itself, makes editors very nervous. What if Monica Lewinsky was a flake? What if she was making the whole thing up and Newsweek went with a big story on this, and then she was exposed as some loony bird? I think that’s what their great fear was, and they were afraid of sticking their neck out and publishing what they knew would be a big, controversial story. It’s not my attitude, but it was the attitude of the editors at the time.
Now, what happened afterwards is the Drudge item went up that Saturday night. The Washington Post inevitably follows up, learns about the investigation. Then on Tuesday, Newsweek put together a 10,000-word story because we knew more than anybody else. I was the only reporter that had talked to Linda Tripp. We were the only ones that had listened to the tape. We were the only ones that knew about the blue dress. We were the only ones that knew the key details about what this was all about.
What effect do you think the still-new medium of the internet had on how this story was consumed and discussed by the public in 1998?
From the historical perspective, it was sort of a moment in time when the internet became a significant factor for the reporting of news.
At that time, Newsweek had a dedicated AOL website that I had never looked at. Nobody I knew had ever looked at it. It was only used to post the magazine after it came out every week. We had never published a story on the website. And we decided to do that for the first time. Then, because we didn’t think anybody would know where to find it or how to look for it, we ended up faxing a copy to news organizations all over town. So that gives you an idea of how different things were back in those days.
Today it seems like Clinton was deliberately careless. He gave Lewinsky gifts, he left messages, there were the Oval Office assignations. Was he relying on a system of secrecy that had protected previous presidents and just happened to commit his indiscretions during a time of great change in the media, technology and politics, or do you think this would have been a big deal in the 1970s or ’80s, too?
When presidents have affairs, people take notice. Usually they don’t learn about them until after the fact, but Clinton’s situation was unique because he was being investigated by the Independent Counsel, and he was being sued for sexual harassment. In fact, the relationship with Lewinsky begins after the lawsuit is filed. So while he’s being sued, he begins a relationship with a young intern.
The President’s defenders always cast this as a consensual, private affair. You go back and look at Lewinsky’s testimony, and she said even after the first four or five times that she had sexually pleasured the President in the Oval Office, she wasn’t sure he knew her name. That’s pretty telling about what’s going on there, what kind of relationship this is.
If it happened today, there would be a trail of text messages. There’d be even more damning evidence that didn’t exist at the time. There were no text messages back in 1998. But I think the problem for Clinton was the lawsuit. That’s what made it different.
John F. Kennedy wasn’t being sued at the time that he was having an affair with the mobster Sam Giancana’s girlfriend, during the period that the mobster was helping the CIA try to assassinate Fidel Castro. That’s what I always point to when people say, “private affairs don’t matter.” Well, it kind of depends on the circumstances, doesn’t it? It mattered in Kennedy’s case that he was fooling around with a Chicago mobster’s girlfriend. JFK was in a clearly compromising position, where a mobster who was being targeted by the Justice Department had embarrassing blackmail material on the President. It’s hard to top that for reckless conduct. This all came out in the Church Committee in the 1970s.
Were you surprised that Bill Clinton’s 1990s sex scandals became such a talking point in the 2016 election cycle?
A little bit, but it was natural once Trump’s conduct with women came under scrutiny, that his allies and defenders and his campaign would try to turn the tables on the Clintons. The argument there was that Hillary Clinton had been an enabler and had participated in the smearing of the women who had stepped forward to accuse her husband of this conduct. And there was some truth to that.
She was the one that called it a “vast conspiracy,” she was the one who back in 1992 was part of the process of hiring the private investigator, Jack Palladino, to pick up dirt on women who might come forward and talk about affairs with her husband. So she was one of her husband’s most stalwart defenders and participated in the campaign to discredit anybody who would make accusations against him. Now, that’s not the same as being the person who committed the misconduct in the first place.
Would you have ever expected that a payoff to a porn star to keep quiet about an affair—the Stormy Daniels story—would be such a relatively small story for a president?
I think it’s only relative compared to everything else about Donald Trump that has raised so many concerns and horrified so many people. I think it probably would be getting more attention if this was another president, but given Trump, there’s so much else, right?
Do you think having Clinton’s dealings with Monica Lewinsky dissected in such excruciating detail during the impeachment proceedings had a lasting effect on how Americans viewed the office of the President?
I don’t know. The impeachment was a tremendous political miscalculation by Clinton’s enemies, and it’s what saved him. Impeachment is a political process. It was clear that while the country had many qualms about Clinton’s conduct, it did not believe it rose to the level of impeachment. Yet the Republicans in the House pursued it anyway, and that created a backlash that redounded to Clinton’s benefit. You can say Clinton was in some senses entrapped by his political enemies, but at the end of the day, he was saved by the excesses of his political enemies.
Twenty years on, how do you view the Monica Lewinsky scandal and your role in it in hindsight?
I was in the middle of it. I never expected it to play out in the way it did. There’s a scene in my book, Uncovering Clinton, where we’re arguing that Saturday with the editors about running the story. At this point, we know not only that Starr’s done this sting, but he’s actually gone to the Justice Department and gotten a formal expansion of his mandate to conduct this investigation. It was officially blessed by the Justice Department.
We were arguing, my colleague, Daniel Klaidman and I, that we had to publish this. This was enormously consequential news. One of the editors said, “Can we really go with the story, when it could lead to the impeachment of the President, until we’ve done X, Y and Z?” Klaidman and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Impeachment, what is he talking about? This is just a story. The idea of impeachment had not crossed my mind or my colleague’s mind at the time. We weren’t thinking in those terms. That was not anything that was on our mind.