October 20, 1998

The Clinton/Lewinsky Story

Betty Currie

Betty Currie

Shortly after the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton's personal secretary Betty Currie was named as a potentially important link in Kenneth Starr's case–a key White House contact for Lewinsky. A round of personality profiles appeared that tried to put a face on the woman–they ranged from that of a motherly friend to Lewinsky, to adept keeper of presidential secrets.

The next set of stories, however, placed Currie in the eye of the media's coverage. The Feb. 6 New York Times reported that Currie told investigators she had retrieved from Lewinsky gifts the president had given the intern and that Clinton had led Currie through a series of questions about the accuracy of his own testimony. The Times piece was accurate and careful about details, but did place the response of Currie's lawyer, who said Currie knew of no ethical or legal violations, in the 17th paragraph.

Subsequent press accounts were less careful than the New York Times. The Times' painstaking but suggestive wording of Clinton having "led" Currie through questioning had become "coaching" Currie in venues such as NBC News's Today Show and Time magazine.

The following day, Currie's lawyer gave a more detailed statement regarding the story, saying the account had been mischaracterized by a prosecutor's office leak. News organizations, included the denial, but again tended to play up the angle, reflecting the prosecutors' belief, that Currie was working with the president to keep Lewinsky silent and that her testimony meant big trouble for the president.

When Starr's report was released, it admitted that Clinton's discussions with Currie could have had other purposes — that he could have been "trying to refresh his memory" as Currie testified — but said it was much more likely that he was in fact coaching his secretary. In effect, this suspicion became the press' too.

On the question of the gifts, press accounts generally pointed out that it was not clear who ordered the gifts be returned, but they also implied that there was probably a less-than-innocent explanation.

In the Starr report, too, there is conflicting testimony over who called whom for the pickup of the gifts to take place, Lewinsky or Currie, or whether Clinton had instigated the exchange. Lewinsky says Currie called her. Currie says the opposite. The report concludes Lewinsky is more reliable.

Overall, the press performance here is mixed. The initial reporting based on anonymous sourcing was accurate in major details. This was not a case, as the White House alleged, of false leaks or disinformation. The press coverage, even the most speculative, seemed to capture the significance, legally and politically, of the allegation. But some journalists declared that the account, if true, was proof of obstruction of justice, which may at least have been premature given the paucity of facts beyond the New York Times story. In general, however, the independent counsel's perspective tended to be the prevailing tone of the media coverage. Currie's side of the story, offered through her attorney, was downplayed.

A Chronology of Stories on Betty Currie's Involvement:

  1. On 1/22 the Los Angeles Times reported that Lewinsky visited the White House "numerous times in the months after her internship ended, knowledgeable sources said." "They said on each occasion," Lewinsky "was authorized to enter" by Currie.

  2. On 1/22 Newsweek on America On Line reported that Lewinsky first went to see Jordan at the "instruction" of Currie. And Lewinsky sent packages to the White House using a messenger service. "The contact number on the packages is … the phone number of Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie."
  3. On 1/23 The Washington Post described Currie as the "genteel gatekeeper" who is "unfailingly gracious." " 'This is not Rose Mary Woods,' "one source said in the piece, "referring to President Richard M. Nixon's secretary who is believed to have erased a key 18 1/2 minutes of the Watergate tapes. 'Betty is not someone who would ever do anything unethical, immoral or untoward. She has made it to where she is because of hard work and because she is just an impeccable woman and not a political hack.' "
  4. On 1/23 an Associated Press report carried in the Chicago Tribune said her loyalty to Clinton "is undeniable, as is his loyalty to her."
  5. On 1/26 several newspapers ran stories on Currie's character. The New York Daily News said aides insist she's not the type to "engage in unseemly wheeling and dealing." The LA Times reported that part of her job as Clinton's personal secretary involves "zealously protecting presidential secrets."
  6. On 1/28 the Wall Street Journal reported that Currie "is emerging as a key witness" for Starr because "she appears to have been an important contact" for Lewinsky.
  7. The 2/6 New York Times reported that Currie told investigators that Clinton "called her into his office last month and led her through an account of his relationship" with Lewinsky that "differs in one critical aspect from her own recollections, said lawyers familiar with her account." The report also said, "Currie has also retrieved and turned over to investigators several gifts… that the president had given Ms. Lewinsky, the lawyers said." Though the account does say "it is not clear who, if anyone, instructed Mrs. Currie to retrieve the gifts" Currie's lawyer's response is stuck deep in the story at the 17th graph.
  8. On 2/5, Nightline devoted an entire broadcast to the Times report repeatedly saying they would not be reporting the story if they had not confirmed "essential details" of it with a source themselves. "The essence of this story marks the first time that someone within the president's inner circle is alleging both that Mr. Clinton tried to suggest a particular version of his meetings with Monica Lewinsky and that his version was contrary to what his staffer knew to be true." Nightline's report refers to a "White House" response, but discounted it as "keeping with the White House strategy to avoid the substance of all these charges."
  9. On 2/5 MSNBC, reacting to an early edition of the 2/6 New York Times, confirmed the story citing "two source close to the investigation." Appearing on MSNBC Ex.-Deputy Assistant AG Bruce Fein comments on the report saying "impeachable offenses don't have to be technical crimes … These are very serious allegations."
  10. On 2/6, the Today show reported that, "[I]n a potentially damaging admission, sources say that Currie has been described being coached by President Clinton as to how she might explain his relationship with Monica Lewinsky."
  11. On the morning of 2/6, CNN reports Currie's attorney Lawrence Wechsler issued: "I am shocked and dismayed by the numerous leaks regarding Mrs. Currie's grand jury testimony. I want to be absolutely clear: To the extent there is any implication or the slightest suggestion that Mrs. Currie believed that the president or anyone else tried to influence her recollection, that is absolutely false and a mischaracterization of the facts."
  12. On 2/6 on its All Politics website CNN reported that Currie told Starr's office "she knows of several occasions in which (Clinton and Lewinsky) met alone."
  13. On 2/7 NPR's Nina Totenberg, speaking on Inside Washington: "The thing in the story that I think is going to provide the most difficulty for the president is the account that says Betty Currie retrieved from Monica Lewinsky presents that the president had given to her. Now Betty Currie, through her attorney, has said the New York Times has mischaracterized her testimony. But you can't mischaracterize presents. And if the Independent Counsel can show that those presents were retrieved on orders from Mr. Clinton, I think that's obstruction of justice."
  14. In its 2/16 issue Newsweek reported that Currie "was not just a front-row spectator, but caught up as a player in a high-stakes game." "[D]epending on what she knows and what she is willing to say, she could change the course of Starr's investigation and, possibly, Clinton's presidency." Her role takes the investigation to "new and — for Clinton — dangerous ground." In a different Newsweek story in the same issue: "Two key questions come straight from a detective novel: were gifts returned" to the White House? "If so whose idea was it to return them? As a matter of law, if not politics, the president's fate could partly rest on what she knows and what she will eventually say in court."
  15. In its 2/16 issue, Time wrote that Currie has " a kind of credibility no one else in this mess could muster. She is a Clinton loyalist, a reluctant witness squeezed between her devotion to her boss and her obligation to the facts. She was Ken Starr's dream come true."
  16. In its 4/6 issue Time reported that, according to an "attorney familiar with the case", "that even without Lewinsky's direct testimony … Congress will have strong circumstantial evidence that suggests Clinton oversaw Lewinsky's job search and tried to coach the testimony of a potential witness," Betty Currie.

Starr Report and Supporting Documents

On Clinton "coaching" Currie's testimony:
The report says Clinton was never able to "devise an innocent explanation" for why he called Currie into his office for the discussion of past events, discounting his explanation that he was trying to "refresh his memory." It adds that "if the most reasonable inference from the president's conduct is drawn–that he was attempting to enlist a witness to back up his false testimony from the day before–his behavior with Ms. Currie makes complete sense."

On Currie collecting the gifts Clinton had given Lewinsky:
The report says there is conflicting testimony on the gifts. Lewinsky testified that a few hours after she had spoken with the President about the gifts on Dec. 28, 1997, she received a call from Currie saying "'I understand you have something to give me.' Or, 'The President said you have something to give me'–[Something] [a]long those lines."

The report also says that Currie testified that Lewinsky, not Currie, placed the call and raised the subject of transferring the gifts. Currie has testified that Lewinsky said that she (Lewinsky) was uncomfortable holding the gifts because people were asking questions them. Currie, however, admitted her recollection of events may not have been clear.

The report concludes that Lewinsky's testimony is more reliable than Currie's, but adds that even if Lewinsky "is mistaken" and Currie chronology is correct, "the evidence still leads to the conclusion that the President orchestrated this transfer."