Frame Game

Monica Saves Bill

How the House prosecutors’ star witness outsmarted them.

Monica Lewinsky’s video deposition intrigued the Senate over the weekend, but it seems not to have changed any votes, in part because Lewinsky has said it all before, but in part because she phrases her testimony in ways that protect President Clinton. As Lewinsky’s interrogator, Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., tries to get her to implicate Clinton in subornation of perjury–particularly in a Dec. 17, 1997, phone call and a Dec. 28, 1997, meeting–she repeatedly foils Bryant’s plan not with lies but with Clintonesque verbal tricks.

1. Analysis. Bryant wants Lewinsky to connect the dots of circumstantial evidence in the prosecution’s case. Two of these dots are her false affidavit and the “cover stories” she and Clinton had agreed to offer if asked about their relationship. So in his question about the Dec. 17 phone call, Bryant asks, “When the president told you that you were on the witness list, he also suggested that you could sign an affidavit and use misleading cover stories. Isn’t that correct?” Bryant is trying to force Lewinsky to affirm the two parts of his question–“affidavit” and “cover stories”–together. But she refuses to give him a yes or no. “In my mind, I separate necessarily signing affidavit and using misleading cover stories,” she replies. “Those three events occurred, but they don’t–they weren’t linked for me.”

When Bryant asks about the Dec. 28 meeting, he again sneaks a causal link into his question: “Do you recall anything being said about you going … to New York and that the effect of that might be that you would be more difficult to find?” Again, Lewinsky muddles the inference. “I believe that might have been mentioned briefly,” she replies, “but not as a reason to go to New York, but as a possible outcome of being there.”

2.Synthesis. Having thwarted some of Bryant’s questions by refusing to draw connections, Lewinsky confounds others by drawing alternative connections. Bryant keeps trying to link the Clinton-authorized “cover story” to the false affidavit, but Lewinsky keeps linking it to their pre-existing affair. “It was from the entire relationship, that story,” she explains. “It was part of the pattern of the relationship.” Later, he tries to deduce that her attempt to avoid testifying in the Paula Jones case must have been Clinton’s idea. “Why would you have wanted to avoid testifying?” he asks. She throws other explanations at him: “First of all, I thought it was nobody’s business. Second of all, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Paula Jones or her case.” Bryant presses her: “But you didn’t file the affidavit for your best interest, did you?” Lewinsky doesn’t budge: “Actually, I did.”

3. Reticence about Clinton’s thoughts. The prosecutors want to prove a theory about Clinton’s motives, but they can’t put him on the stand. So Bryant tries to coax Lewinsky, the best available eyewitness, to infer Clinton’s motives based on their conversations. She doesn’t cooperate. After reminding her that Clinton never told her she “had to tell the truth in an affidavit,” Bryant adds, “It would have been against his interest in that lawsuit for you to have told the truth, would it not?” Lewinsky replies that she isn’t “comfortable” surmising Clinton’s interests. Later, observing that Clinton had discussed their “cover story” in the Dec. 17 phone call, Bryant asks her, “Was that in connection with the affidavit? … Why would he have told you you could always say that?” Again, she refuses to speculate.

4.Loquacity about her own thoughts. Lewinsky’s failure to say how Clinton’s motives and calculations might connect the scandal’s behavioral dots is bad enough for the prosecutors. What’s worse is that she offers the defense an alternative explanation, by using her own motives and calculations to connect the dots. Bryant asks her, “Did you understand in the context of the telephone conversation with the president that early morning of December the 17th … that you would deny your relationship with the president to the Jones lawyers through use of these cover stories?” Here, Bryant is offering the word “understand” as a bridge from her mind to Clinton’s, hoping she will affirm that Clinton made clear to her that she should lie under oath. Instead, Lewinsky absorbs the blame for this inference. “I don’t know,” she answers. “But from what I learned in that conversation, I thought to myself I knew I would deny the relationship.”

5. Relativism. Having mocked Clinton’s plastic conception of truth (e.g., “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”), the prosecutors encounter the same maddening fuzziness in their star witness. Bryant asks her, “Did you appreciate the implications of filing a false affidavit with the court?” Lewinsky responds, “I don’t think I necessarily thought at that point it would have to be false.” She insists that her affidavit, her cover story for the relationship, and even her statement that “there were other people present” when she was with Clinton (virtually identical to Clinton’s assertion that “I was never alone with her”) were “incomplete” and “misleading” but “literally true.”

At times, Lewinsky’s dexterity is eerily Clintonesque. When Bryant asks her whether she “did deny the relationship” with Clinton in her affidavit, she objects, “I denied a sexual relationship.” And when Bryant asks her whether she “believe[s] the president’s version of the Paula Jones incident,” she replies, “I don’t believe Paula Jones’ version of the story.” Bryant, dazzled by her ingenious retort, babbles helplessly, “OK, good, that’s a fair answer,” and stumbles to his next query.

More than a year after the world first heard of her, Lewinsky has solved the scandal’s ultimate mystery. Clinton never told her how to confound his investigators. He taught her by example.