The Day Washington Caved In on Lewinsky
She alternately giggled, sobbed, drank Starbucks coffee, ate a leisurely dinner and, ultimately, asked for her mother.
Over the course of nearly 10 hours on Jan. 16, Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern and erstwhile friend of President Clinton, got the sales pitch of her 24-year-old lifetime:
Accept within hours a sweeping offer of immunity from prosecution, extended by an assistant to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, or face the risk of being charged with perjury and inducing perjury.
Within a week, Lewinsky’s life was transformed forever. She is now a household name, the latest in a long line of alleged paramours of the 51-year-old president, a girl with a Beverly Hills background who some believe possesses information that could sink Clinton’s presidency.
But on Friday, Jan. 16, Lewinsky was not yet a public person. And it was largely for that reason, Starr’s assistants told her, that they were positioned to offer the best opportunity she would have to segue into what soon enough would become a very public life.
This account of that fateful day and what unfolded later is based on interviews with people familiar with Starr’s investigation, including Lewinsky’s attorney, William Ginsburg.
By the time Starr’s staff had decided to approach Lewinsky, investigators had reviewed hours of taped conversations between her and a friend, Linda Tripp.
Lewinsky and Tripp had worked together at the White House and the Pentagon. In their talks, Lewinsky said that she had maintained a sexual relationship with Clinton and that both the president and his trusted advisor, Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr., had encouraged her to lie about it in connection with a civil lawsuit being pressed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones.
Lewinsky also said during the taped conversations that Clinton had left messages on her home telephone answering machine and given her certain items. In the event Tripp also was questioned under oath about Clinton’s intimate affairs, Lewinsky had given her “talking points,” encouraging Tripp to deny any knowledge of a sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky.
Unknown to Lewinsky, Tripp had taped their conversations--and shared the recordings with the staff of the independent counsel. On Jan. 16, Starr quietly won formal approval to expand his Whitewater investigation to the circumstances brought to his attention by Tripp.
And on that same day, investigators working under Starr arranged for Tripp to invite Lewinsky to join her for lunch at the spacious Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington. Soon after the two women met, FBI agents approached, identified themselves and asked the pair to come upstairs to the 10th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City. There, investigators had secured adjoining $139 rooms.
“She went over there and she was immediately surrounded,” said Ginsburg.
(Starr took sharp exception on Friday to Ginsburg’s depictions in broadcast interviews of how his staff used “intimidation” in handling Lewinsky that day.
(“She was repeatedly informed that she was free to leave,” Starr said in a prepared statement. " . . . Recent media statements by one of her attorneys alleging that she was mistreated are wholly erroneous.”)
Upstairs at the Ritz-Carlton, Lewinsky was introduced to deputy independent counsel Michael W. Emmick, a prosecutor who joined Starr’s team last summer after serving in a senior role in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
With at least two FBI agents also in the room, Emmick described the evidence in hand and allowed Lewinsky to review transcripts of some of the taped conversations. Lewinsky also was shown photographs of a previous meeting she had with Tripp in which Tripp was equipped by Starr’s investigators with a device that recorded the conversation.
“She [was] occasionally crying, brooding, angry--angry at being betrayed by her friend [Tripp], and sometimes not talking,” said a person familiar with the events.
In addition to being at liberty to leave, Lewinsky was provided with bottled water from the room’s mini-bar and with facial tissues and towels. At one point, an FBI agent was sent downstairs to get some coffee.
After about two hours, Emmick flatly asked Lewinsky, shortly after 3 p.m., for her cooperation in the investigation. Time was of the essence. Lewinsky could accept the sweeping immunity offer, but Starr’s staff wanted an answer swiftly.
Emmick asked Lewinsky to agree to record a phone conversation between her and Betty Currie, the president’s personal secretary. Currie was the White House aide who cleared Lewinsky to enter the executive mansion numerous times, including at night, after Lewinsky had left her internship.
Starr’s office was aware that a reporter for Newsweek magazine had Lewinsky’s name, and investigators feared that once her name appeared in print, there would be no value to recording any conversation she might conduct with Currie or any other witness associated with the White House.
Currie’s role with Lewinsky is a matter of intense investigative interest. In addition to clearing Lewinsky’s visits to the White House, as recently as December, Currie is believed to have helped put Lewinsky in contact with Jordan, Clinton’s advisor.
At no point, the sources said, was Lewinsky asked to gather information for investigators specifically regarding Clinton, Jordan or any other individual.
But before she could make a decision whether to cooperate, Lewinsky said, she had to speak with her mother, Marcia Lewis, who was in New York. She left the room to make the call, apparently fearing that the phones in the hotel room were bugged.
Emmick then spoke by phone with Lewis, who told him that she was inclined to think that her daughter should accept the proposed deal. But, she said, she needed to meet in person.
It was agreed that Lewinsky’s mother would come to Washington immediately. However, Lewis would not fly; she made hasty arrangements to catch a train, which might get her to Washington by roughly 7:30 p.m.
At that point, Lewinsky mostly stayed in the room with Emmick and the agents, watching television and chatting. About 5:30 p.m., she, Emmick and one of the agents went for a walk around the mall. They stopped at a shop and looked at pots and pans and household knickknacks.
Lewinsky, wearing tights and a blue pullover jacket, left the pair to go to a bathroom--at a department store in the mall. When she rejoined them, they strolled to her choice of restaurant, Mozzarella’s American Cafe, on the mall’s second floor.
The conversation appeared to be relaxed. Lewinsky wanted to, and did, pay for her own meal.
Lewinsky’s mother, meanwhile, experienced delays in getting to Washington. When she finally arrived after 10 p.m., Emmick spoke privately with her for about 20 minutes and recapped the evidence.
Mother and daughter then met privately. Lewis then told Emmick that before she could endorse the proposed deal, she had to consult with her ex-husband, Bernard Lewinsky, an oncologist in Los Angeles.
Dr. Lewinsky, upon hearing the imbroglio encompassing his daughter, was “shocked, in disbelief,” according to one of the sources.
“What the heck is going on?” Dr. Lewinsky asked. “Shouldn’t we get an attorney involved?”
Emmick sought to impress upon father, mother and daughter that the offer of immunity would not be on the table for long. But yes, Emmick would certainly speak with Ginsburg, a civil practice trial lawyer and longtime friend of Dr. Lewinsky’s.
About 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, Ginsburg phoned the room at the Ritz-Carlton. “I need to listen to the tapes before I can advise my client,” Ginsburg said, adding that he needed to fly to Washington. There would be no deal that night.
It was not until 24 hours later, shortly before midnight on Jan. 17, that Ginsburg resumed contact with Emmick. They agreed to stay in touch. However, what Starr’s staff feared regarding Lewinsky happened within hours: an Internet news service, the Drudge Report, stated that Newsweek editors had killed a story involving “a young woman, 23, sexually involved with the love of her life--the President of the United States, since she was a 21-year-old intern at the White House.”
The next night, Drudge named Lewinsky--and said that she had denied involvement with Clinton in a sworn affidavit. At that point, Lewinsky’s chance for the immunity deal evaporated, sources said, a development that did nothing to soothe relations between her lawyers and Starr.
Ginsburg had met on Sunday and Monday with the prosecutors, accompanied once by Lewinsky. When he departed the independent counsel’s office that night, Ginsburg was upset. His parting words: “F--- you.”
Times staff writer Alan C. Miller contributed to this story.