Clinton Acquitted: The Trial, Lie that ignited a national scandal

The beginning

17 January 1998

WHEN THE Internet gossip-peddler, Matt Drudge, told the world on his website about a presidential affair with a White House trainee, he was only relating what more cautious editors at Newsweek had decided to hold back on for more proof.

Four days later, though, the story exploded. The Washington Post ran a more detailed story across its front page and brought the name Monica to thepublic for the very first time.

Within hours, Washington was in turmoil. The President gave an uncharacteristically half-hearted denial. Incredible the story might be, but it was all too plausible. Bill Clinton, elected despite, by his own admission, causing "pain" in his marriage, was given only days to survive.

But on 26 January Mr Clinton emerged fighting. He declared: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky." It was an all or nothing gambit: if false, it was political suicide - or so we all thought. The next day, his wife, Hillary, inveighed against "a vast right-wing conspiracy" designed to drive her husband from office. Then the White House went quiet, too quiet.

The investigation

Enter the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr. On 16 January, unbeknown to the American public, Mr Starr had had the still embryonic Lewinsky affair added to his portfolio on the pretext that it resembled the President's other alleged wrongdoings. His concern, he insisted, was with Monica's job offer from Revlon. Mr Clinton was defending himself in a sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones of Arkansas and, because Monica had been named as a witness in that case, Monica's job could be seen as an unlawful inducement to lie under oath: in short, presidential witness tampering.

Mr Starr then set up a grand jury and summoned witnesses to determine whether the President had a case to answer. Mr Clinton looked scared; the prosecutor, determined.

The leaks

Between January and August, leaks dripped from the supposedly secret grand jury proceedings. There were tapes. Monica had confided her most intimate thoughts to her friend and colleague, Linda Tripp, who had secretly recorded them and passed them to Mr Starr. There were letters and e-mails. Monica had also recounted her affair with the President to friends around the world, to her therapists and to her diary. There were visits. Monica visited the White House more than 30 times after she left its employ, and was frequently signed in by his secretary. There was a cigar used as a sex aid. There was a jealous fit. Monica had made a scene when she was refused entry to the White House and learnt that another woman, Eleanor Mondale, daughter of the former Vice-President, was with the President. There were phone calls. More than 50 of them. There were gifts, including books and ties from her, a hatpin and a stone bear from him - most of which ended up hidden in a box under Betty Currie's bed. And there was a blue dress from the GAP, that dress, stained with the President's semen.

Monica meets the law

On December 17 1998, Mr Clinton called Monica in the early hours to warn her that she was on the witness list for the Paula Jones case. He hinted that she might avoid appearing by offering a sworn statement instead. She decided at once, she testified later, to deny the relationship. The resulting affidavit gave Mr Starr his opening. He threatened prosecution, unless she told the truth. She bargained for immunity. After six months and two changes of lawyers, she agreed not only to talk, but to surrendered the dress.

The turning point

The day after Monica received her immunity, Mr Clinton agreed to testify "voluntarily" to Mr Starr's grand jury. On 3 August, he gave a blood sample to be matched against that dress. And three days later, Monica Samille Lewinsky arrived at the Washington District Courthouse to tell the truth.

Monica testified to a sexual relationship with the President of the United States.

On 17 August, Bill Clinton became the first sitting President to testify to a grand jury in his own defence. By special arrangement, he gave his side of the story on closed circuit television from the White House map room. That eveningthe President told the nation that he lied. "Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms Lewinsky," he said, looking more petulant than contrite, "that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse of judgement on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible." But the indulgence he craved was reduced by his lambasting Mr Starr for his troubles.

In the early afternoon of 21 August, reporters were told to stand by for a presidential announcement. The press corps froze: was this the end? Resignation was on everyone's lips - but not the President's. The national flag behind him, the Chief of the Joint Staffs alongside, he announced US raids on Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the US embassy bombings two weeks before.

Inevitably, the attacks raised questions about Mr Clinton's motives. Could the President's authority hold? With criticism mounting, staff and allies began to defect. Switching tactics, the President apologised, "to my family, also my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people".

The Starr report and after

On 9 September the Starr report was delivered to Congress. With 20 pages of narrative, 100 pages of notes and appendix, and thousands of pages of evidence to come, the report set out 11 counts on which William Jefferson Clinton could be liable to impeachment. Within 48 hours, the contents were lawfully released on the Internet.

America professed to be shocked and disgusted by the President's defilement of the office and the quasi-pornography of Mr Starr.

Monica, though, had become human. Their on-again off-again relationship lasted almost two years. Monica dreamt that he would be free once he left office, but her immediate ambition was more modest: she wanted "proper" sex. But he refused to go further, and on 29 March 1997, a year after she had been exiled to the Pentagon, her diary recorded their last "intimate contact". Six months later, she set about looking for work in New York.

On 21 September, the President's map room testimony was released for broadcast. Again, the air swirled with resignation talk. And again, Mr Clinton defied the odds. His poll ratings rose.

Impeachment and trial

On 5 October, the House of Representatives judiciary committee initiated impeachment proceedings against a President for only the third time.

On 3 November, in mid-term Congressional elections that had been billed a "referendum" on the President, the Democrats made unexpected gains. And 10 days later, Mr Clinton settled the Paula Jones case for $850,000 and no apology. The White House relaxed. The end, we all believed, was in sight and that end would be censure. No impeachment and no trial.

On 19 November, however, the House opened its hearings, and the first witness, Kenneth Starr, left to a standing ovation. Two weeks later, White House lawyers went to Capitol Hill to defend the President. On 11 to 12 December, the judiciary committee approved four articles of impeachment. Censure was voted down.

On 16 December, the day before the full House debate, the US launched new air raids on Iraq. Republicans called "foul", Democrats pleaded "national security", and the debate was delayed - but only by a day. After two days of tumult, the House voted along party lines for two of the four articles - perjury and obstruction of justice - and Bill Clinton overtook Richard Nixon to become the first President since Andrew Johnson in 1868 to face trial in the Senate.

The Senate trial opened formally on 7 January. But the cross-party consensus the Senate had hoped for remained elusive. Monica Lewinsky was summoned back to Washington. And while the House prosecutors could not pierce her loyalty to Bill Clinton, their efforts gave Americans their first full acquaintance with her. She was sensible, bright and by now almost as legally adept as her lawyers. Curiosity sated, the Senate called it a day, and slunk behind closed doors to decide not whether, but by how much, they would vote to acquit.

Afterwards: The doubts

Few, including even the harshest of the President's critics, envisaged that the impeachment process would run its course, but the depth of the party divide made compromise impossible.

Even now, though, much remains unclear.

The line between the public and private behaviour of presidents is still blurred. At each level of impeachment, another segment of the population deserted the political elite, and attached itself to Bill Clinton instead.

But the story of Bill and Monica leaves nagging doubts. Did Monica tell the whole truth, or just as much as would not bring down the President? Was flirting the known White House route to jobs for the girls? And why, why, why did Bill Clinton, a lawyer, fall for Monica, the trainee, when he knew the Paula Jones lawsuit was pending? Without Paula, he could have kept Monica secret; without Monica, he could have defended himself against Paula. But he could not do both.

But then we never thought he could survive, and he did.

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