The Isikoff Factor
Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff's stories and inquiries played a major role in shaping developments on the road toward impeachment.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
"I intended to do everything I could to ensure that Monica's story became public."
Tripp also told her friend and Pentagon colleague Monica Lewinsky about Isikoff's inquiry. Lewinsky had been working for Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon since April 1996, after being forced to leave the White House because of a superior's perception that she was spending too much time around the president. In fall 1996, Lewinsky had opened up to Tripp, 24 years her senior, and confessed that she had been having a sexual relationship with the president since November 1995.
``I believe it was in February or March of that year  when I was friends with Linda," Lewinsky testified, ``she had frantically come to me telling me that this reporter whom I had never heard of before that day, Michael Isikoff, had shown up in her office to question her about Kathleen Willey."
The two discussed how Tripp should deal with Newsweek. ``Back in March of 1997, when Monica started to tell me how she perceived I should handle the Mike Isikoff thing," Tripp told the grand jury, ``her first guidance to me was: `You just lie.' "
That night, Tripp went home and called Willey in Richmond: ``Kathleen, what are you doing?" she asked. Willey answered, according to Tripp's testimony, ``You must be misremembering, Linda.... Of course it was sexual harassment. I don't know why you're now saying that I wanted it."
Willey's testimony has not been made public. In a ``60 Minutes" interview on March 15, 1998, with correspondent Ed Bradley, she said the president had sexually harassed her.
``Over time, I talked to Michael Isikoff off the record, on deep background," Tripp told the grand jury. She says after their first meeting, Isikoff ``called repeatedly. Repeatedly," and they talked by telephone.
``I told him I had spoken to Kathleen and that he was right, she was naming me as a contemporaneous corroborative witness," Tripp told jurors, ``and he was right that she was alleging sexual harassment, and he was also right that she seemed completely believable but that it was a new version of the story that I had heard almost four years earlier."
In April 1997, Tripp met with Isikoff in a bar near the White House. She told him Willey was old news, that there was something current and much more serious he should pursue. Tripp told the reporter that the president was involved in a relationship with an intern, whom she didn't name. She may have told Lewinsky about the first meeting with Isikoff but failed to mention she was continuing to talk to him, she told investigators.
Meanwhile, according to an affidavit by Willey's then-friend Julie Hiatt Steele, Isikoff was pursuing the Willey angle. ``In mid-March or early April 1997, Ms. Willey called me and stated that she was in the office of her attorney, Daniel Gecker," Steele said in the affidavit. ``She informed me that she was with Mr. Gecker and Michael Isikoff, a reporter from Newsweek magazine."
Steele says she agreed to see Isikoff at her home. ``I met with Mr. Isikoff that afternoon and, as requested by Ms. Willey, I lied to him about her coming to my home after meeting with President Clinton. In an effort to support Ms. Willey, I tried to repeat the story she had told me--for the first time--literally minutes before Mr. Isikoff arrived at my home. During our conversation, he repeatedly assured me that my comments were `off the record.' "
By July, Lewinsky was hearing from Tripp that Isikoff was getting ready to publish a story about Willey and the president.
``I go to Tripp before the August story and say: `We are going with the story,' " Isikoff told AJR in January. `` `I need you.' She gave me the quote that appeared in the magazine. Even though it's not harassment, she's seeming to confirm that something went on. Remember, at this time, there had been no credible account of any misbehavior of the president in the White House. Here was Linda Tripp, the Pentagon public affairs officer, a career civil servant, by name, on the record, saying: `Here's an account of something I witnessed involving the president.' "
Lewinsky told the president about Isikoff's soon-to-be-published story, and he encouraged Lewinsky to have Tripp call White House counsel Bruce Lindsey. When Tripp called on July 29, this time Lindsey promptly responded.
``And at that time, I knew I had to arm myself with records, because no one would believe it," Tripp told the grand jury.
Earlier that month, on July 4, cybergossip Matt Drudge had reported Newsweek was ``hot on the trail" of a story involving ``a federal employee sexually propositioned by the president on federal property."
``Of course I was pissed," Isikoff told AJR in January. ``How could I not be pissed? Drudge didn't know anything."
In late July, according to Steele, Isikoff called her to say he was going to publish a story in Newsweek about Willey's alleged encounter with Clinton. Even though Isikoff had known about Willey for a few months, he waited to go with the story until the August 11 issue, after he had confirmed that Paula Jones' lawyers had subpoenaed Willey to testify in Jones' suit. The legal angle made it a story.
But the story fell flat. ``It got no bounce whatsoever," Isikoff told AJR in January. ``Nobody paid any attention to it."
In the August 18, 1997, edition of the Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson wrote that the Willey incident ``may have been the shortest scandal in Washington history."
But that wasn't the case. Isikoff may have thought the story had fallen flat, but in reality it was reverberating in the Clinton administration. And most significantly, Isikoff's 1,327-word story caused Linda Tripp to go ballistic. Tucked inside the story, which named her as a source, is the sentence that perhaps single-handedly induced Tripp to make her fateful recordings: ``[Robert] Bennett, Clinton's lawyer, says Tripp `is not to be believed.' "
Tripp told investigators that after Isikoff's story appeared, she feared she would lose her job. Lewinsky immediately began to pressure her to write a letter to Newsweek contradicting Willey's allegation that the president had sexually harassed her. Tripp did and faxed the letter on August 14, 1997, giving Lewinsky a copy; she told investigators she had written it to ``save her job." Tripp says she consulted Isikoff on how to get the magazine to publish her rebuttal, and he encouraged her to tone down the part about him. Newsweek never published the letter.
Tripp also told the jurors she hadn't wanted to be named in Isikoff's story, but he printed her name anyway. Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, says Tripp knew her quotes were on the record and even asked the magazine to run them by her lawyers before publishing them.
Tripp's insistence that she had spoken off the record may be disingenuous. If Tripp had felt betrayed by Isikoff, it's doubtful she would have continued talking to him after the Willey story appeared. Yet she stayed in touch with the reporter until the story of Lewinsky and Clinton broke on January 21.
Once her name surfaced in a national magazine, Tripp knew she, too, would be subpoenaed in the Jones suit and certainly would be asked if she knew about any other Clinton girlfriends. ``It was pretty apparent to me that I was going to be in a position over Kathleen Willey to be contradicting the president of the United States," Tripp testified, ``and as time went on and knowing that, I intended to do everything I could to ensure that Monica's story became public...."
"I was very shocked and...feeling very strange, that somehow this was closing in more..."
In September 1997, after Isikoff's story appeared, Tripp testified, she called book agent and admitted Clinton hater Lucianne Goldberg, with whom she had worked unsuccessfully on the 1996 book proposal. ``I told her that I had finally had it, that I finally wanted this to come out," Tripp testified. Goldberg encouraged her to begin taping her conversations with Lewinsky. Tripp purchased a $100 tape recorder at Radio Shack and soon was in business. On October 3, Tripp began taping the former White House intern, which she would do until December 22, producing 20 hours of tape. Tripp says she intended to tell the truth about Clinton and Lewinsky in the Jones suit. She taped the conversations as an insurance policy, she told the grand jurors, ``to ensure that I was not convicted of perjury."
Tripp told Goldberg about Isikoff's interest. ``I had told Lucy I had been talking on background with Mike Isikoff for some time, that he was aware but didn't know the name of the individual involved with the president," Tripp testified, ``and that it was my hope that he would do investigative reporting to ensure that he had independent corroboration of this fact so that I could be not named in his report."
Tripp told the jurors that ``the only person I was talking to in the media" was Isikoff.
At one point, when Tripp felt frustrated by the fact that Isikoff had not produced a story, she threatened to go to the tabloids. Tripp testified that Isikoff tried to deter her by saying: ``Don't do tabloids. You'll have no credibility, and if you do tabloids, they'll be able to throw the whole thing away as [a] Martians-in-space kind of thing."
Goldberg told investigators in July that she had suggested Tripp take the story to the tabs. ``Tripp declined, indicating she felt that was `sleazy,' " says the investigator's report. ``Tripp wanted the story to come out in Newsweek so her credibility could be protected."
On October 6, Tripp met Isikoff and Goldberg at Goldberg's son Jonah's Washington, D.C., apartment. Tripp arrived first, bringing two tapes. She played part of one for Goldberg, and then Isikoff arrived.
``At one point, Lucianne suggested that Mike listen to a portion of one of the tapes," Tripp testified. ``And he said that as a journalist, it would put him in a bad position to do that. So we spent at least a good hour talking. We did not play the tapes. He [Isikoff] seemed to be on the case. In fact, I know that to be true, because before that date and after, he called me regularly at the office and at home and used the code name Harvey."
Goldberg told investigators on July 17: ``Isikoff sat stone-faced while Tripp told her story. Isikoff told Tripp he needed more information. Tripp advised Isikoff of the tapes she had. Isikoff did not listen to the tapes."
On November 24, 1997, Tripp was subpoenaed in the Jones suit. Goldberg and Tripp, who talked once or twice a week, had hoped Isikoff would have written his story about the president and the intern by this point. But the saga still wasn't newsworthy to Newsweek. Goldberg says she told Isikoff to check a Washington messenger service, Speed Service Couriers, which Lewinsky was using to send Clinton gifts. The service is owned by Goldberg's brother (which Newsweek did not know at the time), and Isikoff was able to get copies of the messenger receipts between October 7 and December 8.
Lewinsky testified that her attorney asked her if she ever received any courier packages from the White House. That question unnerved her, so she called the courier service on January 15 ``and was unable to find out that the records could be subpoenaed and then I spoke with Betty [Currie] later that day and she told me that--that Michael Isikoff had called her or had called for her intern and Betty had answered the phone and in the course of that he asked her about the courier, my sending things to her through a courier."
With Isikoff on the trail, Lewinsky was worried. ``I was very shocked and very--feeling very strange, that somehow this was closing in more and I--I didn't know how they could have gotten this information about the courier because there was--the first person that I thought of that knew about the courier was Linda," Lewinsky testified.
Currie testified that after Isikoff called about the messenger receipts and ``taped conversations," she called superlawyer and Clinton friend Vernon Jordan because she had a ``comfort level with Vernon," and he told her to come to his office. (Lewinsky's pager records indicate Currie also called Lewinsky soon after Isikoff called.) Currie and Lewinsky went to see Jordan.
Jordan also testified that Currie had called him because of Isikoff. ``Betty Currie called me and came to see me because she had a call from Michael Isikoff," Jordan testified. ``She told me that she had a call from Isikoff from Newsweek magazine, who was calling to make inquiries about Monica Lewinsky and some taped conversations. And I said, `You have to talk to [then-White House Press Secretary] Mike McCurry and you have to talk to Bruce Lindsey.' "
"Shit hit the fan...Urgent." ###
It's clear from the mountain of testimony that much was happening on Thursday, January 15, 1998--much of it prompted by Isikoff's closing in. By this time, Isikoff knew from Goldberg, and Starr's office had confirmed for him, that Tripp had gone to the independent counsel on January 12 and told all.
Isikoff also knew--because, according to Tripp's diary, she had told Goldberg, who in turn told Isikoff--about FBI agents outfitting Tripp with a hidden microphone to record Lewinsky at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton Hotel on January 13. In fact, what Isikoff knew was partly responsible for Starr asking the Justice Department that night for permission to expand his authority so he could investigate any attempt to cover up the president's relationship with Lewinsky. With Newsweek trying to nail down the story by its Saturday deadline, Starr needed to move fast.
``The Justice Department's hand was forced in part by the press," Evan Thomas and Isikoff wrote in Newsweek's February 2 issue. ``On Thursday morning, Starr's office had received a call from Newsweek's Isikoff. The day before, he had learned about Starr's sting operation against Lewinsky. Before Newsweek could publish a story, Isikoff said he needed to contact the subjects of the investigation, Lewinsky and Jordan. Starr's deputies asked him to hold off. Isikoff agreed to wait until 4 p.m. Friday. That gave the prosecutors less than 36 hours to move."
While Starr's prosecutors were at the Justice Department on January 15, Tripp's diary indicates Lewinsky called her sometime around 2 p.m. Tripp wrote: Monica ``asks me about Speed Courier. `It's become an issue.' I tape call. We explore how this happened. Suggests it's a media interest--warns me about Isikoff. I concede that caller ID shows Newsweek a couple of times. I did not take calls and will not.... She sounds strange. This is no longer a friend but a manipulator--I feel the same way. We are on opposite sides. Guilt is still there, but lessening. Her decision to lie is hers alone."
Goldberg had called Tripp at 7:30 p.m. and left a message with Tripp's son, Ryan, indicating Isikoff was zeroing in. ``Shit hit the fan.... Urgent," Tripp wrote in her diary.
Tripp dialed Goldberg and wrote: ``Called Lucy. Isikoff is outing you tomorrow."
At 7:43 p.m., according to Tripp's diary, Isikoff left a message for her: ``working late, want to talk to you or your representative to soften the blow."
Two days later, on January 17, Isikoff--armed with knowledge of Starr's expanded investigation into allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice involving the president, familiar with the Tripp-Lewinsky tapes, with notebooks full of details--pleaded with his editors to go with the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. They decided it wasn't quite ready.
Meanwhile, other reporters who'd been covering Starr, Jones and Whitewater began to get wind something was up. The Drudge Report weighed in, and on January 21, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and ABC filled in the details, much to Isikoff's chagrin and frustration. Once the story was in play, Newsweek jumped. By 8 that night, Isikoff had dumped the contents of his notebooks into a 4,000-word narrative for the Internet.
While he had been scooped on his own exclusive, it is the combative Isikoff--who for years stuck with the seamy saga of alleged sexual misconduct by the president that few other reporters wanted any part of--who is likely to end up in journalism's history books.
``This guy is going to make a lot of money and probably should," says Baltimore Sun Washington Bureau Chief Paul West. ``But he didn't own the story all alone. I don't think any one reporter owned the story the way Woodward and Bernstein owned Watergate. There were a lot of people who did good work on this story once it was broken. But if you had to pick one person associated with the story, Isikoff would probably be that person."