On December 19, 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice — after he was caught lying about an affair with his intern Monica Lewinsky.
Only three U.S. presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. But Bill Clinton’s impeachment was an especially dramatic ordeal.
For some, Clinton was controversial even before he took office. During his 1992 presidential campaign, he faced accusations of draft dodging and cheating on his wife. Still, Clinton swept to victory — and then got re-elected to a second term. His charm always seemed to overshadow his scandals.
But everything changed in 1998. That year, it was revealed that Clinton had had an affair with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Over the course of the next several months, shocking details of their sexual relationship filled tabloids, newsrooms, and congressional hearings. Americans couldn’t look away, and it seemed like Clinton might lose his job.
What happened next would change the country — and upend the life of a young woman — forever. Here’s everything you need to know about Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the infamous scandal that sparked it.
Who Is Bill Clinton?
An American politician, Bill Clinton served as the 42nd president of the United States. Born in Hope, Arkansas on August 19, 1946, Clinton studied at Yale Law School and eventually became the governor of Arkansas.
Clinton ran for president in 1992, even though it seemed unlikely that he’d win. He was a Democrat, and the Republicans had held the White House since 1981. On top of that, the popularity of the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, had soared after the U.S. victory in the first Gulf War.
But Clinton was unlike any candidate that Americans had seen in recent years. He tried to come across as warm, charming, and cool. In June 1992, he famously went on The Arsenio Hall Show and played the saxophone.
However, the American public also got to know Clinton’s dark side. His presidential campaign was hounded by accusations that he’d dodged the draft during the Vietnam War and that he’d had an extramarital affair with an Arkansas state government worker named Gennifer Flowers.
Though Clinton soared to victory over Bush, more scandals followed him to the White House. Shortly after he took office, an independent counsel began to investigate a land deal Clinton had made known as “Whitewater.”
What Was The Whitewater Scandal?
Shortly into Clinton’s first term, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to investigate allegations that Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, had broken the law back in Arkansas.
In 1978, the Clintons had invested in bad land, initially intending to sell lots for vacation homes. While investing in bad land isn’t a crime itself, the Clintons had worked closely with real estate entrepreneur Jim McDougal during the process — which caused some to view the couple with suspicion.
Since McDougal was later found to have defrauded a small savings and loan association and a small-business investment firm — after the initial Whitewater deal — some accused the Clintons of making shady real estate deals. And some even believed they were McDougal’s co-conspirators.
The “Whitewater” investigation continued throughout Clinton’s presidency and was eventually taken over by Ken Starr.
Who Is Ken Starr?
An American lawyer who argued dozens of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Ken Starr is best known for his role as the independent counsel who oversaw the investigation that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Starr first inherited the Whitewater investigation in 1994. Under Starr, the search for wrongdoing expanded greatly. He investigated every detail of Whitewater, including the suicide of former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who had killed himself in the midst of the scandal.
In the end, none of the multiple investigations found that the Clintons had done anything criminal in regard to Whitewater. However, Starr’s ongoing search for wrongdoing eventually led him to a young woman named Monica Lewinsky, whom Starr learned had had an affair with the president.
Who Is Monica Lewinsky?
In June 1995, a young woman named Monica Lewinsky took a position as an unpaid intern in the Clinton White House. Later that same year in November, Clinton began an affair with Lewinsky, who was then 22 years old.
Lewinsky would later describe their early interactions as “intense flirting.” The two soon began working in close quarters, especially after a federal government shutdown that had happened due to an impasse over the budget. Before long, Clinton was inviting Lewinsky to his private study.
“We talked briefly and sort of acknowledged that there had been a chemistry that was there before and that we were both attracted to each other and then he asked me if he could kiss me,” Lewinsky later testified. Their affair began on November 15, 1995, and lasted over the course of about 18 months.
Though the pair attempted to keep their trysts discreet, other White House staffers noticed Lewinsky’s visits to Clinton’s office. By April 1996, a deputy chief of staff had transferred Lewinsky to a different job at the Pentagon.
It proved to be a fateful transfer. At the Pentagon, Lewinsky struck up a friendship with a coworker named Linda Tripp. Lewinsky grew to trust Tripp and eventually told her what had happened with Clinton.
But Tripp had her own agenda. After Lewinsky confessed her secrets, Tripp reached out to Ken Starr. Lewinsky’s life would never be the same again.
Who Was Linda Tripp?
Linda Tripp was a civil servant who disliked President Clinton. She had admired her first boss, George H.W. Bush, but suspected that Clinton was mistreating women. In fact, Tripp was even trying to write a book about Clinton’s scandalous behavior and extramarital affairs.
Then, in 1996, Tripp met Lewinsky. The two became close friends, and Lewinsky eventually confided in Tripp that she’d had an affair with the president. Confident that she’d struck gold, Tripp began recording her conversations with Lewinsky for literary agent Lucianne Goldberg and even encouraged Lewinsky to save a blue dress stained with Clinton’s semen.
Months later, impeachment investigators would obtain that very same blue dress. The soiled piece of clothing would eventually become one of the most infamous pieces of evidence of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
By January 1998, Tripp had reached out to Ken Starr. Around the same time, word of Tripp’s recordings had made their way to the legal team of Paula Jones — a woman suing the president for alleged sexual misconduct.
Who Is Paula Jones?
Along with rumors of extramarital affairs, claims of sexual impropriety had also followed Bill Clinton to the White House.
One of Clinton’s accusers was Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state clerk. In 1994, she alleged that Clinton had sexually harassed her while he was the governor of Arkansas and had even exposed himself to her in 1991.
Some doubted Jones’s claims. Her own sister later said that Jones was suing Clinton for “money” because she had told “a stupid lie.”
Nevertheless, Jones stuck to her story. And once her legal team got wind of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, they immediately pounced.
First, they subpoenaed Lewinsky — but Lewinsky denied having an affair with the president. Next, Clinton was deposed by Jones’ legal team. Under oath, the president also denied the affair with his former intern.
But the dam had burst. Shortly after Clinton’s testimony, a conservative online news aggregator called Drudge Report published claims about Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky. Before long, larger outlets followed suit.
On January 26, 1998, Bill Clinton famously addressed the accusations during a press conference: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Just days later, his approval rating rose to 71 percent, which was 10 points higher than before the allegations came to light.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton claimed that the allegations were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to destroy her husband’s presidency. When asked why she was so calm, Hillary said, “I guess I’ve just been through it so many times. Bill and I have been accused of almost everything, including murder, by some of the same people who are behind these allegations.”
But the first rumbles of the Clinton impeachment had begun.
What Was The “Starr Report”?
Throughout 1998, Ken Starr continued to investigate the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Specifically, he wanted to determine if Clinton had “bought” Lewinsky’s silence with a promise of future employment.
Meanwhile, Clinton soon realized that he was running on borrowed time and that the truth about his affair would eventually come out.
On August 17, 1998, Clinton testified before a grand jury, admitting that he indeed had an “inappropriate” relationship with his former intern. However, he also insisted that his comments about not having “sexual relations” or a “sexual relationship” with Lewinsky were legally accurate since the pair did not have sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, Lewinsky also admitted to the affair.
But the American public didn’t hear everything they’d said until the explosive release of the Starr Report on September 11, 1998. Suddenly, the country had a front-row seat to some of the president’s most private moments.
Lewinsky’s testimony described her semen-stained dress, how she’d performed oral sex on the president, and even one occasion when Clinton had penetrated her with a cigar before putting it in his mouth.
As embarrassing details of her sex life were plastered across the news, Lewinsky was often portrayed in an unflattering light. For her part, she expressed regret for the affair and admitted that she had made a mistake.
However, years later, she also noted that she was shamed in many ways that Clinton was not: “I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, ‘that woman.’ I was known by many, but actually known by few. I get it. It was easy to forget ‘that woman’ was dimensional and had a soul.”
But of course, just because Clinton wasn’t called the same names as Lewinsky did not mean that he was completely out of the woods — at least not yet. After Ken Starr released his damning report, he announced that the president could potentially be impeached for his actions. What’s more, the report included 11 possible grounds for impeachment.
Why Was Bill Clinton Impeached?
Many factors triggered Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but perhaps the most infamous one was Ken Starr’s assertion that the president had lied under oath to a grand jury about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives decided to impeach Bill Clinton based on Starr’s recommendations in his report. However, they ultimately narrowed down the 11 potential offenses to four.
House Republicans sought to charge Clinton with perjury before a grand jury, perjury in the Paula Jones case, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power.
When Was Bill Clinton Impeached?
On December 19, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton.
The first article accused the president of perjury before a grand jury and passed by 228-206 votes. The second claimed that Clinton had obstructed justice to hide the Lewinsky affair. That one passed by 221-212 votes.
The other two articles — which accused the president of perjury in the Paula Jones case and abuse of power — had failed to pass.
Though some thought that Clinton should resign, the president swore that he’d stay in office until “the last hour of the last day of my term.” And, indeed, the ongoing scandal did little to hurt his overall popularity.
While Clinton’s approval rating dropped to 55 as the scandal unfolded, it shot up to 71 again — the same number when he initially denied the affair — after the House voted to impeach him. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who had a favorable view of Lewinsky remained consistently low throughout the entirety of the scandal and at one point dropped to just 5 percent.
But the Clinton impeachment wasn’t over yet — and the president was still at risk of losing his job. His trial next went to the U.S. Senate in January 1999.
There, senators voted to acquit Clinton on both impeachment charges on February 12, 1999. The Senate found him not guilty on the perjury charge by a vote of 55-45. As for the obstruction of justice charge, the Senate tied at 50-50. In order to remove Clinton from office, a two-thirds Senate majority would’ve been required. And so he was free to continue leading the country.
How Many Democrats Voted To Impeach Clinton?
When it came to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Democrats and Republicans largely voted along party lines, with most Democrats supporting the president and most Republicans calling for his removal.
In the House of Representatives, just five Democrats voted for three out of four of the potential impeachment charges: Virgil Goode, Ralph Hall, Paul McHale, Charles Stenholm, and Gene Taylor. And only one Democrat — Gene Taylor — decided to vote for the abuse of power charge.
As for the Senate, no Democrats voted to impeach the president. In fact, 10 Republicans joined 45 Democrats in voting to acquit the president on the first charge. And 5 Republicans voted to acquit him on the second charge.
Did Clinton Leave Office After Being Impeached?
No, Clinton did not leave office after being impeached. Because the Senate acquitted him, he was not required to step down. The same thing happened during the impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump.
Clinton remained in office until January 20, 2001, when he transferred power to the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush.
What Was The Impact Of The Clinton Impeachment?
President Clinton emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed. He got to keep his job, and he remained widely admired by his fans and allies.
The same could not be said for Monica Lewinsky. At the center of one of the first big scandals to break online, she later described herself as “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” At one point, Lewinsky’s mother forced her to shower with the door open — because she was afraid that she would kill herself if the door shut.
Long after Clinton was acquitted, Lewinsky struggled to find respectable employment and support herself. She disappeared from the public eye around 2005 and stayed silent for nearly a decade. It was only in 2014 that she re-emerged in an effort to reclaim her narrative — and to speak out against the “abuse” that she had suffered in the aftermath of the scandal.
“I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position,” she wrote in a Vanity Fair article about her experience of being publicly shamed. “The Clinton administration, the special prosecutor’s minions, the political operatives on both sides of the aisle, and the media were able to brand me. And that brand stuck, in part because it was imbued with power.”
Though Lewinsky has made a new name for herself as an anti-bullying activist in recent years, the 48-year-old still remains largely defined by a time when she was portrayed as the ultimate laughingstock.
Aside from changing the course of a young woman’s life, Bill Clinton’s impeachment also had some long-lasting impacts on the United States as a whole. Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, noticeably distanced himself from the Clinton White House when he ran for president in 2000.
Meanwhile, Gore’s opponent, George W. Bush, was able to campaign on the idea of restoring “dignity” to the White House. For Americans who admired Bush’s father, the former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, and disliked Clinton, this was exactly what they wanted to hear.
Ultimately, Gore lost the election. Despite winning the popular vote, he narrowly lost the electoral college vote in Florida in one of the most disputed presidential elections in recent years. Gore’s loss has since become a major “what-if” in American history — with some wondering whether he would’ve won if he had utilized Clinton during his campaign and some even pondering how Gore would’ve handled major historical events like 9/11.
In the years since Clinton’s impeachment, it has also been suggested that the scandal fueled hyper-partisanship in the United States and led to future clashes between Democrats and Republicans down the line.
“It definitely poisoned the well on both sides,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York, one of the few Republicans who bucked his party and voted against Clinton’s impeachment. “Without getting into the merits of anything, there’s no doubt there were Democrats waiting from the day George Bush took office to even the score for Bill Clinton.”
In that way, it’s clear that the aftershocks of the Clinton impeachment can still be felt. The trial certainly changed individual lives — Lewinsky’s, for one — but it also had a larger impact. Its aftermath irrevocably transformed American politics, culture, and perhaps even the world.