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    The Misuse of Executive Privilege in the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal 

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    Many people see the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of 1998 as a scar upon the United States’s history, but it is much more than this. The scandal not only has more to it than meets the eye, but it had a significant impact on history as well. When researching the clClinton-Lewinsky scandal, one question that must be answerd is as follows: To what extent did Clinton’s use of excecutive privilige to avoid testifying in the trial affect his ability to serve as an effective president? Part 2 Throughout history, many presidents have used their executive privilege, which allows a president and other high-level members of the executive branch to withhold information from the Congress, the courts, and the public (Calabrese), to get out of a tight situation. This informal power has been used and abused as time has gone on, such as in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of 1998, where Bill Clinton, was impeached and later acquitted after being accused of sexual affairs, notably by Monica Lewinsky (Waxman).

    Besides the obvious people involved in the famous case, there are a few others tied to its events. For instance, one person integral to the case was Paula Jones, who was first to accuse Clinton of having an affair with her (Waxman). Without Jones’s case going against Clinton first, Lewinsky’s case would not have blown up as it did. Kenneth Starr found much of the evidence used in the case, making him a central figure in the investigation (Waxman). The case started in early January of 1998 with Monica Lewinsky signing an affidavit, a written statement confirmed by oath, that she had never had a sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton, as prompted by attorneys defending Paula Jones, and the case seemed to be closing, but the attorneys received an anonymous tip about Lewinsky shortly, motivating them to look further into the case (Waxman). A few days later, Starr was given over twenty hours of taped phone conversations that contradicted the affidavit. Clinton and his advisors were soon asked to testify for the case and tried to use their executive privilege to avoid doing so, starting a large controversy (Waxman). They were stopped by Judge Norma Holloway, who denied their claims based on U.S. v. Nixon decision, where it was unanimously decided by the supreme court that a president could not avoid producing evidence in a criminal case (Schmidt; “United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974)”).

    Part 4 According to Sidney Callahan of Commonweal magazine, Clinton’s main motivation to use this executive privilege in this situation was to preserve his own reputation. As she says, “While the guilty may atone, the ashamed often strike out to save face” (Callahan). By linking Clinton’s shame to his actions, Callahan makes an interesting case that Clinton reacted to accusations of sexual misconduct with Lewinsky the way he did. In addition, the article ventures that Clinton’s “reckless and self-destructively obsessive behavior” is a sign of sexual addiction, and connects this addiction to the ease with which Clinton lied during the trial (Callahan). With this deeper look into Clinton’s motivations to use his executive privilege and to lie during the trial, Callahan’s article provides an alternate angle on the affair to what many people see at first. Another view on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal comes from the account of several reporters deeply involved in researching the scandal. In the article “‘Washington was about to explode’: The Clinton scandal, 20 years later” on Politico, John Harris asserts that Clinton did not survive the scandal politically because of his assertion that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Harris) but rather because he persuaded the people that the scandal was neither about sex (as many saw it) or about the law (as the Republican party claimed at first). He convinced people that the scandal was about power, putting many with him in a battle of sides (Harris).

    Finally, Clinton’s motives in relation to Lewinsky’s actions are looked into in the Washington Post’s article “Excerpts from the Lewinsky Evidence: ‘You Let Me Down.’” As well, Clinton’s main objective was to protect himself during the case. However, this article uses the evidence found by Starr during the case to make its point. The letters included in the article show both high and low points in the relationship between the two, from an account of the first night that Clinton kissed Lewinsky to a description of several months after the affair was over (“Excerpts”). Part 5 One primary source closely tied to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is Clinton’s speech about the subject on the radio on August 17, 1998 (Clinton). Being given by the President of the United States, it was greatly influential to the people because of Clinton’s position of power.

    The speech is phrased to admit to the public the wrongs of the President while making them seem as insignificant as possible to avoid too much of a kickback afterward. One example of this evasiveness is shown in the line “…I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information” (Clinton). The speech entirely focuses on the Lewinsky issue, as it shoudl given the exitement at the time to hear more about it. The broadcast concludes relatively hopefully for the circumstances: “And so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century” (Clinton). This source is valuable to historians because it gives personal insight into the actions of Bill Clinton during the scandal, allowing for telling of the story much different than most secondary sources. However, one great limitation of this broadcast is the single-sided telling of the events of the case due to Clinton’s need for self-preservation. Because of this, everything that is said must be thought about more than normal. Part 6 The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal affected the political and social climate of the time. Immediately after the scandal, impeachment proceedings were made against Clinton, but he resisted them and eventually was acquitted (Waxman). This alone sparked some contempt, but the situation grew worse as time went on.

    Nearly twenty years after the affair, Hillary Clinton said tweeted the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky was “not an abuse of power,” a statement which was heavily critiqued immediately afterward for its inaccuracy (Rannard). As Arn Menconi, running for Congress in Colorado at the time, replied to Hillary Clinton on Twitter, “POTUS vs intern. It’s like the same thing” (Rannard). This reaction by the people and politicians alike shows not only the public’s disappointment with Clinton’s actions in the trials but also their reactions to his misuse of executive privilege. The affair also impacted presidential powers moving forward. At the beginning of the use of executive privilege, it was used simply to protect sensitive information for national security (Calabrese). However as time went on, the informal power began to be used more and more to protect the president from court proceedings (Calabrese), and Clinton was part of this change.

    Clinton tried to expand executive privilege greatly with his actions, but it remained mostly unchanged afterward (Berman), likely because of the negative effect on the power because of his failure in court. Finally, one lasting impact that this scandal had on executive powers was to encourage wariness in politicians against misusing these powers (Calabrese), since Clinton had been so nearly impeached. Clinton is also said to have taught later presidents not to let the truth get in the way of politics (Harris), as expanded upon in Executive Privilege: a Legislative Remedy by Emily Berman: “The more successful the executive is in keeping secrets, the more freedom it has to act… secrecy thus perpetuates itself.” Part 7 Obviously, Clinton’s use of executive privilige landed him in trouble. For one thing, his attmept at excecutive privilige is a misuse of the informal power itself. A

    lthough informal powers have been shown to evolve over time (Calabrese), using executive privilege to get himself out of a sticky situation was bringing the use of the power too far away from its roots of protecting national matters. By using his excecutive privilege to withhold information and start a battle of power (Harris), Clinton showed cowardice and an inability to own up for his actions. However, Clinton’s seemingly large blunder did not have the expected effect on the public opinion. In fact, Clinton’s public approval ratings were up to 73% after the impeachment trial started, up almost 10% from about a week earlier (“Poll: Clinton’s Approval Rating up in Wake of Impeachment”). Possibly in spite of Congress, the public supported Clinton most whan he was in political danger. This bounce up in his popularity does not, however, change the nature of Clinton’s behavior during the trial. Even with a high public approval rating, Clinton not only excercised his powers for his own self-preservation but tried to keep a secret that was far outside of what should have been his power (Calabrese; Harris). In the Clinton-Lewinsky trial, President Clinton’s use of excecutive privilige not only was the wrong choice, but did damage to his reputation and his ability to serve effectively as president for the rest of his second term.

    Works Cited

    1. Berman, Emily. “Executive Privilege: A Legislative Remedy.” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 2009,
    2. Calabrese, Chris. “When Presidents Use Executive Privilege.” National Constitution Center, National Constitution Center, 24 Mar. 2017,
    3. Callahan, Sidney. ‘The shaming of America.’ Commonweal, 6 Nov. 1998, p. 8. General OneFile, Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.
    4. Clinton, William. “Transcript: President Bill Clinton – Aug. 17, 1998.” CNN,
    5. “Excerpts from the Lewinsky Evidence: ‘You Let Me Down.’” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Sept. 1998,
    6. Harris, John F. “’Washington Was about to Explode’: The Clinton Scandal, 20 Years Later.” POLITICO, 22 Jan. 2018,
    7. “Poll: Clinton’s Approval Rating up in Wake of Impeachment.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Dec. 1998,
    8. Rannard, Georgina. “Was Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky Affair an ‘Abuse of Power’?” BBC News, BBC, 15 Oct. 2018,
    9. Schmidt, Susan. “Executive Privilege Invoked For Two Aides.” The Washington Post, WP Company,
    10. “United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).” Justia Law, Justia, 2018,
    11. Waxman, Olivia B., and Merrill Fabry. “Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky Scandal–Timeline of Key Moments.” Time, Time Magazine, 4 May 2018,

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