Season 3 of American Crime Story is taking on the Bill Clinton impeachment trial — but what is the true story of the infamous political scandal? Clinton’s impeachment rocked the United States from 1998-1999, with him becoming only the second U.S. President to ever be impeached after Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868. With strong opinions on the impeachment on both sides and a slew of misinformation, the truth at the base of this scandal has become muddied over the last 23 years.
American Crime Story: Impeachment is another of AHS’ spinoff shows with American Horror Stories. Produced by some familiar names from the horror anthology, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, American Crime Story takes a closer look at some of the biggest scandals in modern U.S. history as a standalone miniseries each season. The first season, American Crime Story: The People V. O.J Simpson, focused on the O.J Simpson case, one of the most infamous murder trials ever in the U.S. The second season, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, told the story of the assassination of Gianni Versace, one of the fashion industry’s most legendary designers. The Clinton impeachment trial is a logical next step.
Before the impeachment trials, Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) had a typical political career for a presidential hopeful. He studied at Georgetown University, University College, Oxford, and Yale Law School, where he earned his Juris Doctor degree and met his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton (Edie Falco). After law school, Clinton earned a seat as state attorney general in Arkansas, where he would go on to be governor for two nonconsecutive terms (1979-1981 and 1983-1992). He was elected as the President of the United States in 1992, taking the position back for the Democratic Party from Republican incumbent, George H.W Bush. Despite the scandal, he served two terms as president, until he was succeeded by Republican George W. Bush in 2001. Here’s the rest of the story behind the scandal.
Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky
Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) worked as an Arkansas state clerk while Bill Clinton was serving as governor. Jones claimed that, while the two were attending the 1991 Annual Governor’s Quality Conference at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, an Arkansas State Police Trooper told her she was required to report to Governor Clinton’s hotel room. Once there, Jones says Clinton propositioned her for sex and exposed himself to her. It took Jones until 1994 to finally tell her story, and on May 6, 1994, Jones filed a lawsuit against Clinton for sexual harassment requesting $750,000 in damages. Clinton tried to argue that he should be immune from civil lawsuits during his presidency but was ultimately denied this defense, allowing the Jones suit to continue. It is this lawsuit that would cause the chain of events that led to President Clinton’s impeachment.
A year later, a young Monica Lewinsky (who is also serving as an Impeachment producer), began working at the White House Office of Legislative Affairs as an intern. Only two days into her job at the White House, an affair began between Lewinsky and President Clinton. Though Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) left the White House for the Pentagon in 1996, the affair continued until May 1997. A close confidante of Lewinsky’s, Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), began to record their conversations after Lewinsky mentioned her affair to Tripp. Tripp also claimed to have witnessed Kathleen Wiley, a White House volunteer aide, leaving the Oval Office looking disheveled and with smeared lipstick. After Tripp turned over her tapes, Lewinsky was pulled as a witness in the Paula Jones trial. At Clinton’s urging, Lewsinky denied the allegations; in a 1998 deposition, Clinton also denied it, famously saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.“
The Starr Report And Formal House Inquiry
During the Jones and Lewinsky incidents, Clinton was already being investigated for his part in the Whitewater Controversy, which surrounded real estate investments during his time as the Arkansas governor. The investigation was spearheaded by Independent Counsel Ken Starr for the House Judiciary Committee. By 1998, Starr released a U.S federal government report titled the Starr Report, which detailed his findings on President Clinton. The Starr Report listed 11 possible reasons for Clinton’s impeachment, including perjury, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice, as well as outlining the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Spending a total of $70 million and taking four years, Starr left no rock unturned during his investigations; using the Tripp recordings, testimony from the Jones case, Clinton’s deposition, and DNA evidence from one of Monica Lewinsky’s dresses to compile a 453-page report. When the document was released online it was read by 20 million people at least once, making the report one of the most accessed on the internet. The Starr Report was initially met with skepticism and disapproval, as many felt Starr had overstepped the permissions of his investigation and failed to provide solid evidence for his claims. Starr even made a partial retraction on his stance on impeachment in 2020 while testifying as a defense lawyer during then-president Donald Trump’s first impeachment, claiming he was wrong in attempting to impeach Clinton on the basis of abuse of power.
The Impeachment Trials
The United States House of Representatives voted to open a broad impeachment inquiry on President Clinton on October 8, 1998, with a vote of 258-176. Because Starr had just finished an extensive investigation, the House Judiciary Committee decided to forego any more serious investigations and hearings ahead of the impeachment. Though Clinton was urged by many to resign ahead of impeachment, he refused, while then-First Lady Hillary Clinton stood beside him and his supporters called out the hypocrisy of those attempting to impeach him for adultery during a time when multiple Republican Congress members had their own adulteries uncovered.
On December 11, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee brought Clinton forward on articles of impeachment; grand jury perjury, obstruction of justice, and perjury regarding the Paula Jones case. On December 12, they voted to add abuse of power to bring the total to four articles of impeachment. On December 19, after a delay caused by bombings in Iraq, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for grand jury perjury and obstruction of justice, with the other two articles being rejected. The Senate trial began on January 7, 1999, and the weeks that followed would be filled with presentations of the facts, debates on Clinton’s capability to lead the country, and hours of video witness testimony — 30 video testimonies came from Monica Lewinsky alone. Deliberations stretched until February 12, when the Senate announced they’d voted to acquit President Clinton on both charges, allowing him to stay in office.
The Aftermath Of Impeachment
Though he was acquitted in the Senate, it doesn’t mean Bill Clinton avoided repercussions for his actions. For failing to testify truthfully in the Paula Jones trial, Clinton was cited for civil contempt of court. The day before he left office, Clinton agreed to pay a $25,000 fine and surrender his Arkansas law license to put an end to the investigation. Clinton and Jones settled the sexual harassment case out of court after the case was dismissed, with Clinton awarding Jones $850,000 for damages caused. Though his approval ratings actually increased during the Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment, the nation’s confidence in his honesty and moral character decreased; enough to still partially reflect negatively on Hillary Clinton during her own presidential campaigns.
Clinton might have escaped criminal impeachment charges, but his name would forever be tied to the incident; even 20 years later, debates over Clinton’s actions continue to grace primetime news. He has been the butt of many jokes in movies and late-night comedy specials, parodied by Saturday Night Live, and joined the growing list of presidents featured on The Simpsons. Monica Lewinsky’s name is also irreversibly tied to the scandal. Despite attempting to make the best of her notoriety through book deals and TV appearances, Lewinsky found she couldn’t live a normal life in America. She moved to the UK in 2005, staying out of the public eye for almost 10 years and during that time earning a Master of Science degree. After reemerging in 2014, Lewinsky has dedicated herself to activism, focusing on issues surrounding cyberbullying and public shaming. Still, American Crime Story: Impeachment brought up memories; Lewinsky shared that she required a therapist to ease her through her first viewing of the 10-episode series.
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