As the U.S. continues to pursue WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition from the U.K., an explosive story from Yahoo News has revealed that top officials, including then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, discussed extraditing and even assassinating him. Michael Isikoff, one of the reporters on that story, joins Ryan Grim to discuss Assange’s fate as well as Isikoff’s recent portrayal in the FX limited series “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” which dramatizes his role in the revelation of the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Ryan Grim: At the end of this month, on October 27 and 28, a British court will hear an appeal from the United States, arguing that a judge’s decision to block the U.S. from extraditing Julian Assange was wrong and should be overturned.
Assange, who was born in Australia, has been charged by the U.S. with publishing documents provided to him by whistleblower Chelsea Manning that exposed evidence of U.S. war crimes. The judge had ruled that if Assange was extradited, there was a significant chance that he would commit suicide in U.S. custody, making his extradition a violation of human rights.
Since then, a key witness in the U.S. indictment, Siggi Thordarson of Iceland, has recanted his testimony and been arrested. And a bombshell report by Yahoo News, written by Zach Dorfman, Sean D. Naylor and Michael Isikoff, revealed that senior U.S. officials — up to and including the president and CIA Director Mike Pompeo — plotted to kidnap Assange, floated assassinating him, and otherwise told CIA operatives to get creative in their war on WikiLeaks. Assange had been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and under U.S. pressure, the Ecuadorians eventually evicted him into British custody, where he remains, held in a violent prison called Belmarsh, where he is said to be wasting away physically and psychically.
Newscaster: Julian Assange is being held in Belmarsh prison, which some have called Britain’s Guantanamo.
Newscaster: The United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture has visited Julian Assange in prison. He says the past 10 years have effectively been psychological torture.
RG: Learning that the country seeking his extradition plotted his kidnapping and even assassination would seem to be a central factor in making the case that Assange’s safety in the U.S. can not in any way be guaranteed. President Joe Biden has previously said that Assange is closer to a “high-tech terrorist” than to Daniel Ellsberg.
David Gregory: Mitch McConnell says that he is a high-tech terrorist, others say this is akin to the Pentagon Papers. Where do you come in?
President Joseph R. Biden: I would argue that it’s closer to being a high-tech terrorist and then the Pentagon Papers.
RG: And Trump, who floated his assassination, is plotting his own comeback to the White House.
We’ll be joined in a moment by Yahoo News reporter Michael Isikoff, who is also having a bit of a pop culture star turn as a fictionalized version of himself is being featured in an ongoing drama on FX, the third season of their show “American Crime Story.” This one follows the story of the investigation into President Bill Clinton that resulted in his impeachment.
Sarah Paulson (as Linda Tripp): There’s a woman I’m very close to in the midst of an affair with the President of the United States.
Danny Jacobs (as Michael Isikoff): How do I know it’s true?
Clive Owen (as President William J. Clinton): I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
RG: Isikoff played a central role in that drama, breaking significant stories on it along the way, eventually becoming embroiled in himself. Michael Isikoff, who’s in Doha, Qatar for a conference, joins us now.
RG: Michael Isikoff, welcome to Deconstructed.
Michael Isikoff: Good to be with you.
RG: Thanks for doing this. and doing it from steamy Doha.
MI: It is steamy. Yes.
RG: And very late at night for you. So you’ve been breaking big stories, as viewers of FX know, for 30-plus years now.
RG: But I wanted to talk to you about your most recent big scoop. This is of the conversations in the Oval Office about kidnapping — or perhaps even assassinating — Julian Assange.
So I’m actually curious: WikiLeaks still exists. WikiLeaks still does journalism, still publishes documents. Do you have any indication that the policy has changed? I mean, obviously, they now have captured Assange himself, and are trying to extradite him over to the United States, but is WikiLeaks still considered by the United States, what did they call it? A non-state, hostile — ?
MI: Well, Pompeo called it a —
Mike Pompeo: Non-state hostile intelligence service.
MI: It was early 2017. And it was Pompeo’s first public remarks as CIA director, and I remember being in the audience that day and listening to him and he was going on and on about WikiLeaks and he used this catchy line about “non-state hostile intelligence service.” And I thought it was a little odd that he was spending so much time talking about WikiLeaks, of all the threats to the country that he had to worry about. And I assumed that the line was kind of a clever line that his speech writers came up with to get some headlines.
But as we reported in the piece, it was really much more than that. In effect, he was making a public and internal designation that the CIA had made, that opened the door for it to do all sorts of aggressive measures, targeting WikiLeaks as a hostile Intelligence Service, that it likely other would not have been able to do without a presidential finding and briefing of the Intelligence Committees on the hill.
Now, to understand the context, there was a reason that Pompeo was doing this. And that was, he was deeply embarrassed and infuriated by the Vault 7 leaks.
Newscaster: WikiLeaks saying that this is its largest ever publication of confidential documents about the CIA ever. Its code name: “Vault 7.”
MI: WikiLeaks had just recently started to publish these documents describing the CIA’s offensive cyber hacking capabilities.
Newscaster: This is a cache of 8,761 documents and files, which essentially made up the CIA cyber warfare intelligence playbook, all of it.
MI: For Pompeo, it’s now on his watch, it’s his agency, and out for revenge. And that’s what spurred this extraordinary series of events that unfolded internally within the Trump White House over the rest of that year in which Pompeo is coming up with all sorts of aggressive measures.
Newscaster: A federal criminal investigation is now being opened into WikiLeaks’ publication of what’s been called Vault 7.
MI: Some of the Trump White House lawyers were extremely nervous.
RG: And the revenge continues. There’s now this appeal of the rejection of the extradition, that the U.S. is appealing it. There’ll be a hearing soon.
Have you gotten any indication of what the impact of your reporting has been on the attempt to extradite Assange? Just as a layperson, you think that if you’re now going through a legal process to try to obtain custody of this person, and it emerges that you recently contemplated assassinating and kidnapping them, that that would undermine your case somewhat?
RG: But I might be naive in that.
MI: [Laughs.] Well, a couple things. First of all, it’s worth noting that this is the Biden administration Justice Department that is pursuing the extradition. So that’s an important point to keep in mind. The aggressive measures and the internal debate we wrote about took place during the Trump era inside the Trump administration.
RG: Although you did report you did report that some of the agency ideas about what to do about Assange had predated Pompeo.
MI: Yeah, I mean, there was an evolution in thinking about WikiLeaks, some of it driven by the events of 2016 and Assange’s publication of the Russian purloined DNC emails, — which, obviously, what the Russians had done in 2016 was a major focus of the intelligence community during that time trying to figure out what the Russians were up to, what their connections were, how they got what they got, how they got it to WikiLeaks, and all of that. So that sort of sharpened the focus on WikiLeaks and Assange.
The idea of indicting Assange had been out there ever since 2010 when he started publishing the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, and the State Department cables, and there was enormous frustration within the government about that, at the time. Hillary Clinton was incensed. That was State Department cables. It was her State Department that had been embarrassed.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community.
MI: Pompeo is interesting, because I remember being at the Aspen Security Conference in 2017, and when the issue of what the Russians had done he was pretty dismissive. He, like everybody else in the government, accepted the findings that the Russians did what they did. That was not a matter of dispute. But he was downplaying it: Oh, yeah, the Russians, they interfere in elections, they interfered in the election, just like they did the previous election, and the election before that — suggesting it was all pretty business as usual, which was not true. What they did in 2016, was a much more significant attack on American democracy and attempt to influence and election
RG: Right. People point to this small, six-figure ad buy that they did on Facebook, but to me, the much more influential move was the emails because that generated tens of millions of dollars worth of free media.
MI: Of course. Of course. And by the way, the ad buys on Facebook, there’s a force multiplier effect that we’ve learned for inflammatory content on Facebook, and they were blasting away with inflammatory content that also had an impact. But you’re right. It was the emails, and the Podesta emails, that clearly got a lot of attention.
But anyway, Pompeo was not especially exercised about WikiLeaks being used by the Russians in 2016. But once the Vault 7 leaks took place, now it was his agency on his watch, much like the State Department cables were on Hillary Clinton’s agency and on her watch. So he, like she, took it personally; he proposed a lot of really aggressive measures — most of which, the ones that got the most attention, were never carried out as snatch operation. That was the sort of thing that really set off alarms among the Trump lawyers.
There was talk of assassination, but as we, I hope made clear, I’m pretty sure we made clear in the story, that never got very far. There’s accounts of Trump raising a question about it, but Trump said all sorts of stupid things —
RG: Right. Why don’t we nuke a hurricane?
MI: Yeah. [Laughs.] — in the Oval Office, that doesn’t translate the policy,
RG: It is fascinating to think about him contemplating the assassination of the guy that helped get him elected. It does speak to Trump’s level of loyalty in an interesting way.
MI: Right. I know. But if you read all the way through our story, there’s a new quote from Trump, which we got for the story, in which Trump denies he ever raised the question about assassination, and then says: “I think Julian Assange is being treated very badly.”
So he’s reverted to the: I love WikiLeaks Trump of the 2016 campaign. At the end of the day, in Trump’s mind, it’s all about him. And yes, you’re right. I think he maintains a soft spot for Julian Assange for the help that he gave him in the campaign.
RG: Right, not so soft he didn’t float killing him, but still soft spot. It’s complicated for Trump.
MI: But anyway, the upcoming hearing will be interesting, because we will see — I mean, the Assange lawyers, I feel confident, are going to raise this. The immediate issue, for those of your listeners who haven’t followed it closely is, Assange has been indicted. He’s in the UK. The Justice Department has asked the Brits to extradite him so he could face trial. The British judge who heard the case denied the extradition request on the grounds that Assange would be at serious risk of suicide if he were to be taken to a U.S. prison.
And so, technically, the appeal is about that ruling — but I think we can expect the Assange lawyers to bring up the extreme measures that the CIA was talking about. This would clearly give Assange concern to be returned to a country whose government had high-level officials who were trying to do these sorts of things to him.
RG: Sure, it wouldn’t be hard at all to argue that it would bear on your mental state knowing that the government that you’re being sent to contemplated kidnapping you or worse.
MI: Yeah. I would think.
So it’ll be really interesting. I have no idea how the British court will handle these questions. The most interesting thing I’ll be looking for is, what does the Justice Department lawyer say about any of this, if anything — if the judges choose to question the Justice Department lawyer about what we reported in our story.
And let me just mention, this was a collaborative effort I did with two of my colleagues, Zack Dorfman and Sean D. Naylor, and they did a lot of this reporting as well.
RG: So I also wanted to ask you about — I don’t know what the transition is from Trump to Monica Lewinsky — but I wanted to ask you about your recent star turn or your facsimile star turn.
MI: Yeah. [Laughs.]
RG: And so for people who haven’t been watching it, they should. It’s a really interesting series covering the lead-up to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. And there’s a character in there who is you.
DJ (as MI): Are you Linda Tripp?
SP (as LT): Maybe.
DJ (as MI): I’m Michael Isikoff. I cover Washington for Newsweek.
SP (as LT): I know who you are. I used to work in the West Wing. People were afraid of your calls.
DJ (as MI): Really?
RG: What’s that like to see somebody playing you in a drama?
MI: [Laughs.] It’s a bit surreal. It’s a bit surreal. The actor Danny Jacobs did call me last year sometime when he was doing this; it’s always a bit uneasy when you’re told somebody is going to be playing you in a TV show or movie.
So, look, I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts, not just about me, but about the whole thing. But I go back and forth on this. First of all, most immediately, of the scenes with me, I’d say, some of them are pretty accurate. In fact, they’re lifted from the book I did, “Uncovering Clinton.” They’re just lifted straight out of there. And they use that. And I’m not making a dime off this. They didn’t option my book. But it’s public domain. So there’s nothing I can do about it, you know?
There are some other scenes that are just made up.
RG: What are the made up scenes?
MI: Oh, the scene with my editor, who would have been Ann McDaniel, grilling me: What are you up to? How are we going to justify this? Blah blah blah, New York.
Actress (as Ann McDaniel): I defend you to New York when they say you’re on the sex beat. But Michael, when you spend weeks chasing these women, then have nothing to show for it.
DJ (as MI): This new one, it’s really promising.
Actress (as Ann McDaniel): You need something soon or I’m putting you on campaign finance.
MI: That never happened. She was keenly interested in what I was reporting and wanted to know every last detail of it. So there wasn’t, at that point, any internal dissension about what I was reporting.
I mean, my overall take is, I think the Linda Tripp character, played by Sarah Paulson, is pretty spot on. I mean, that’s the Linda Tripp I remember and dealt with for many months.
RG: Was she one of those sources that was relentlessly getting in touch with you once you had made contact with her?
MI: There was lots of communication.
RG: I mean, this is pre-cell phones. We’ve all dealt with whistleblowers — or people who fancy themselves as whistleblowers — who, at first, you’re extremely excited to hear from them, and then after a while, you don’t ever stop hearing from them.
MI: Right. Well, there’s a delicious scene that they didn’t use for the show, which they should have, I think, because it was quite entertaining.
I don’t know if you saw the episode where Linda Tripp is over Monica’s apartment, and Monica shows her the blue dress, the famous blue dress, for the first time.
SP (as LT): Is that — ?
Beanie Feldstein (as Monica Lewinsky): So gross, right?
SP (as LT): How did that even get up there? I thought you said he never completed?
BF (as ML): Our first time together after the election he was so excited to see me that he, you know —
MI: The next morning, Linda Tripp calls me, tells me about the blue dress, and then says: Do you think I should take it? — as in steal it.
And I said: What would you do with it?
She said: Give it to you.
And I said: Well, what am I gonna do with it?
And she said: Well, you can have it tested.
And I’ve thought about this for a moment. And aside from the fact that I was not eager to take custody of stolen property, I gently made the point that I had no access to Bill Clinton’s DNA, [laughs] so how could I possibly test the alleged semen on the dress to determine that it came from Bill Clinton? And I told her to move on, forget it, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Little did I imagine that that would be the crucial piece of evidence that would force Bill Clinton to finally confess.
RG: There was also a scene I was curious about where Lucianne Goldberg, Linda Tripp, and yourself are in a room, and I think it’s actually in Jonah Goldberg’s apartment.
RG: And I think in the real scene Jonah was there but they just wrote him out. I guess he was extraneous for their narrative.
MI: I thought they had him somewhere in the background.
RG: Maybe he is somewhere in the background.
MI: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
RG: And Linda Tripp starts to play the tapes that she’d been recording.
DJ (as MI): You’ve been taping her?
SP (as LT): Do you want to hear her voice?
DJ (as MI): Why would I want to hear her voice? I don’t even know her name.
SP (as LT): Her name is Monica Lewinsky.
RG: So there are a couple things I was interested in. You said: No, I don’t want to hear that.
RG: That this is unethical.
BF (as ML): I’m trying to see him tomorrow —
DJ (as MI): No, stop.
SP (as LT): What’s wrong? [Laughing.]
DJ (as MI): I can’t listen to this. Taping without consent violates my journalistic principle.
TK LI: Oh, for God’s sake.
RG: If that’s true, you have stronger journalistic ethics than I do. Although, at a point, I’d be like: OK, I get it. I don’t need to hear more than 30 seconds of this. Like I get it. But was that accurate?
MI: I mean, yeah, no. It’s in my book and it’s not exactly the way they presented it. I’m not such a fuddy duddy that I would have said: This is against my ethical values as a journalist. I just don’t talk that way.
RG: Didn’t sound exactly like you.
MI: Yeah. But what made me uneasy at the time was — and just sort of set the context here a little bit — I had known about the existence of a young intern, who, according to Linda Tripp, was having this affair with Bill Clinton. At that point, I didn’t know her name, which made it impossible to try to check anything related to what she’s telling me, because I didn’t have enough information to do so. So I was mainly interested in that.
And in the tapes, it was made clear to me that there was no smoking gun in this tape. Right? This is the first time I’m learning that Linda Tripp is secretly taping Monica Lewinsky. And the way it was presented to me was: We want your advice on what Linda should say to Monica that would produce answers that would make a story in Newsweek.
And that was kind of the thing that made me uneasy. They were drawing me into this process of secretly taping her, which I’m learning about for the first time. And there’s Lucianne, and they’re like, you know, plotting this thing, and it just made me feel they were trying to suck me into a process that seemed a bit sketchy.
RG: Right. That makes you a player in that.
MI: Right. It made me a player. And I didn’t want to be a player, I wanted to report, but I didn’t want to be a player. And that plus the fact that they already told me there was no smoking gun, so the idea of sitting there listening to a tape of these two women talking, when the purpose was to try to get me to be a part of it.
So yeah, and it’s true. I left without listening to the tapes. And then didn’t ask to hear them until the very end, when I learned that Ken Starr was involved, and a later tape was the basis for Ken Starr to start doing what he did. At that point it was evidence in a new, extraordinary federal investigation of the President and I damn well wanted to hear everything that was on that tape. And we did listen to the tape in the offices of Newsweek on the night before Bill Clinton’s deposition in the Paula Jones case.
RG: What’s striking in that scene in the way that they set the narrative up is at the end of it you say: Look, you don’t have anything here. You don’t have a cover up.
DJ (as MI): I don’t work for the National Enquirer. I am a serious reporter. I report on abuses of power.
SP (as LT): This is an abuse of power.
DJ (as MI): There’s no quid pro quo. He’s not paying her off. He’s not getting her a job to keep her quiet.
RG: And then the very next scene, Linda Tripp is calling Monica saying: You should be getting a job for silence.
MI: Yeah. Yeah.
SP (as LT): He owes you a job. And if it’s not going to be the White House, he needs to find you one somewhere else. You need to take advantage of this.
RG: It seemed like she was like the FBI and a group of Michigan would-be terrorists, who they talk-in to pretending to blow up a bridge, and then go in and arrest her.
MI: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: She was the FBI in that situation.
MI: [Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah.
RG: Shouldn’t you cover this up and get a job for it? And tell me about it?
MI: Yeah. And remember, I mean, the reason very soon after that that had to be covered up is because Linda, through Lucianne, had informed the Paula Jones lawyers that this would be potential material for their lawsuit.
So yeah, I think that there’s a sort of rough truth to that sequence of events. I’m sure I did not lay it out in the way the show presents me laying out. But I’m also fairly confident at various junctures — and Linda Tripp was pretty sophisticated about these things as well, that what could make this a story, which I always thought was the story, it was: OK, the President has a girlfriend a secret affair with a former White House intern, that’s pretty eyebrow-raising on its face.
And one could argue that it was newsworthy just in and of itself, assuming one could ever establish compelling evidence that it’s true, right? Which I didn’t, at that point, have. But it certainly occurred to me that it raised all sorts of potential questions.
I have to go back and check because I think the job thing had come up already; that the idea of getting her a job was on the table; Monica wanted out. And I’m sure Linda had related it to me. And I remember thinking that the job thing, Clinton getting her job, was potentially problematic that could make this into a story.
In fact, this is also in my book. In October, we learn that she’s going for an interview with Bill Richardson, then the U.N. ambassador that Clinton had set up. And we thought that was a pretty important event if it was true, and the interview was supposed to take place at the Watergate, and so we even arranged to stake out the Watergate. The idea was that Bill Richardson was supposed to meet her, I think, in a conference room. She lived in the Watergate, but he wasn’t going to go to our apartment, he was going to go to some conference room, I believe, at the Watergate. And I had been on MSNBC a bit, people kind of knew my face, so we had my colleague, Danny Klaidman, still my colleague today at Yahoo, actually stake out the Watergate in the coffee shop for hours waiting to see whether Bill Richardson showed up. It turned out he did but he showed up through a back door so Klaidman never got it. He drank like 15 cups of coffee and, you know, waited for hours. So the job thing was —
RG: They taped the door of the Watergate open so that they could get it.
MI: Yeah, right.
The job thing moved it closer to a potential story. But then when it becomes part of the Paula Jones case, then it becomes even closer to a story. And then, of course, Ken Starr comes in and then it was an obvious blockbuster of a story — as much for Ken Starr’s involvement as for Bill Clinton’s mendacity and philandering.
But just my main critique is, and I think this is worth mentioning, is I got into this because back when I was at the Washington Post, I looked into the Paula Jones case. And I concluded, based on my reporting, that this was a credible allegation of sexual harassment and more. I mean the details of the Paula Jones case kind of got — they haven’t really explained the context and that’s the proper one to look at this. I mean, Clinton sees, as governor of Arkansas, a woman who strikes his fancy, and deputizes his state trooper to go fetch her and bring her to a hotel room where he immediately begins to make sexual advances, exposes himself, and asks for a blowjob.
I mean, today that sounds like Harvey Weinstein. Right? At the time — well, Paula Jones is trailer park trash, and you can’t believe her, and she has a wild sexual past and therefore — but the fact is that there were multiple layers of corroboration for everything Paula Jones had said. The state trooper swore under oath that he, in fact, brought her to Clinton’s hotel room. Her co-worker, Pam Hood, who was there, witnessed this taking place and then talked to Paula after she came down. By the way, she’s a state employee at the time, on the job, after she comes down and she describes Paula has shaken by what happened inside the hotel room. She goes to see a friend that day who was able to recount, with a great deal of detail, everything that Paula Jones told her that day, so there was real-time corroboration for the event.
And then you put on top of that, then I learned about Kathleen Willey, who goes to see Clinton in the White House as president about getting a job and, according to Kathleen Willey’s account, Clinton turns it into a clumsy sexual tryst in which he slips his hand up her dress, paws her, begins to kiss her and essentially makes unsolicited sexual advances while a woman has come to talk to him about getting a job at the White House.
And I think that, although they have somewhat sympathetic portraits in this show of Jones and Willie, it would have been a lot more helpful if they fully described and recounted what these women had described as what Clinton had done to them.
RG: Right. All of it is worse than anything Andrew Cuomo was accused publicly of doing, it seems like.
MI: Um, yeah! The Willie thing, there might be some analogies to Willie and the state trooper, but the Jones thing — and then, of course, you add on Juanita Broaddrick, who my former colleague at NBC News, Lisa Meyers, was convinced was the most solid story of all, and there was plenty of corroboration for Juanita Broaddrick’s account, too.
So you had a guy — I mean, this was not about a single wayward affair by a president having a midlife crisis, who strayed, and he’s so sorry. The emphasis on this being told through this lens of Monica — and I get it. There’s a reason for that. It was Monica that led to his impeachment. It was Monica —
RG: She is a producer on it.
MI: Yeah, she’s a producer of the show.
But to fully understand why all of this was of interest to me as a journalist, one has to look at the totality of the evidence here, and it suggests a much darker side of Bill Clinton than the public was aware of.
RG: Where the series has paused for now is they just executed Operation Prom Night.
Actor: We’re waiting for Linda Tripp to confirm, but Prom Nights have to start at 12:45.
Dan Bakkedahl (as Ken Starr): Prom Night?
Actor: It’s what we’re calling it.
RG: Which just helpfully reveals how disgusting the entire thing was. That was what they called their operation to get Monica Lewinsky into a Ritz Hotel room and try to flip her into cooperating as a witness against Clinton.
Actor: Half hour with a girl in a hotel room. Operation Prom Night.
RG: Where it ends, she has not flipped and she’s saying: I want to talk to my mother. And I’m not doing anything until she gets here. Her mother gets on the train, comes down from New York, and then Ken Starr says something like, well, Michael Isikoff at Newsweek is going to have this in 48 hours. It’s going to be in the next issue.
DB: What is our timeline?
Actor: Well, Isikoff at Newsweek has the whole story and they go to print in 48 hours. And President Clinton goes under oath first thing in the morning.
RG: Did Linda immediately tip you off that it had all gone down successfully? How are you able to be, in real time, reporting on this?
MI: Well, I wrote about this in great detail for the book I did, “Uncovering Clinton.” But in the book, I had to leave out one crucial fact which was my tipster, as to who tipped me off to the fact that Starr had entered the case and had authorized an FBI sting of the meeting of Monica and Linda at the Ritz-Carlton that day. As it happens. The tipster has since been on my podcast “Skullduggery” and revealed himself as the person who tipped me off.
RG: You had Brett Kavanaugh on your podcast?
MI: I did not have Brett Kavanaugh on my podcast. It was not Brett Kavanaugh. But it’s somebody else you’ve read a lot of: George Conway.
RG: Oh, of course. George Conway. Yeah, he’s a character in this.
MI: Who is a character in the thing? But you know, and my reaction at the time was: Starr? Are you fucking kidding me? How did Ken Starr get involved in this?
But I remember. And it’s vivid because it nearly knocked me off my chair, and I was white for a while. Because I’d known about the Lewinsky thing for about eight or nine months, I knew it had the potential to blow up but I never quite saw how it would ever get out, how would I ever be able to prove what Linda Tripp was telling me. There were the steps I took like the Bill Richardson thing and other other things we were able to establish, but no nothing that gave me anywhere close to being able to write a story. But once I knew Starr was involved, I knew this was big. This was real. And it was now a story.
And as I said at the time, it’s as much a Ken Starr story as it is a Bill Clinton story. It’s like: How did Starr get involved? How did we get to a point? How did this all unfold?
So there was a pretty crazed several days there where we were crashing to try to put together a blockbuster exclusive for Newsweek magazine. And I thought we were ready to go, we confirmed that not only had Starr done this, but he had gone to the Justice Department, and had gotten Justice Department approval to expand his mandate to conduct this investigation. It was official! We had that!
And the editors of Newsweek, at the end of the day, balked and didn’t want to publish. They wanted more work done on the story. That was their excuse. But I just think it was too big for them to stick their neck out and publish a story that was going to shake the country.
RG: They just flinched, you think, in the face of the power that they were going up against?
MI: Yeah. I’m not aware of threats.
RG: Or they didn’t want to hurt Democrats. They didn’t want to hurt Clinton.
MI: It was just too — we had listened to the tape, so we knew that what Linda Tripp was saying more or less accurately represented what Monica Lewinsky was telling her. There was enough there to know that Linda Tripp wasn’t a fantasist. She might have been shading things a bit — and she did at times — but she wasn’t making stuff up. She was, you know, more or less accurately representing what Monica Lewinsky had told her.
But the excuse is: What if Monica Lewinsky is a fantasist? What if this is all in her mind? What if she’s crazy? How do we know? Right? So I think that was what was cited as a reason to do more work. Not to spite the story, but to do more work on the story. Of course, at that point, this is in the prehistoric age of internet journalism, if we didn’t publish that for the issue coming out that Sunday, we weren’t going to have another bite at the apple until the following Sunday. Newsweek had a website that was a dedicated AOL site that had only been used, at that point, to publish what was in the magazine. The idea of writing a story for the web, was not anything in our camp. That idea had never come up.
As it turned out, they held the story. Various sources, whether it was Lucianne, or Conway or Coulter, somebody tips off Drudge, and he publishes what he publishes late that Saturday night. By the way, everybody says: He scooped, he had the story. Actually, he didn’t have the story. If you go back and look at what Drudge wrote, he wrote about there were big screaming matches at Newsweek, which wasn’t really true — there was vigorous debate, but there weren’t screaming matches — about whether to publish a story about Clinton having an affair with an intern. The story wasn’t that Clinton had an affair with an intern. The story was that Starr was investigating whether Clinton was covering up an affair with an intern in the Paula Jones case by using his good buddy Vernon Jordan to buy Monica’s silence by getting her a job at Revlon. That was the story. And if you go look at what Drudge wrote, he didn’t make any mention of Ken Starr at all. It just never came up.
Now, a few days later, the Post does publish. And then after that, since we knew more than anybody else, and we had listened and made a transcript of what was billed as the smoking gun tape, we decided, for the first time ever, we were going to put out a story on the Newsweek AOL website, and we did it that Wednesday. And to make sure that people saw it, we actually had to fax the story to newsrooms around Washington, because how else would people know where to find a story.
Anyway, another era in American journalism.
Actually, I did have another question, just about what it feels like in retrospect to have been part of this history. Because as I look at everything you did through there, not only was each journalistic move defensible, this was impressive journalism. This is working sources. This is uncovering abuses of power. It’s sordid, it’s gross, that this captivated the entire political scene for several years —
MI: Well, I —
RG: That’s a separate question. But I’m curious about how you feel about having been involved in it. Do you take pride in the work? Or when you look back, are you like — ?
MI: No. Neither. Not “yuck.” I mean, I have no problem, as I look back, on what I did and how I did it. And it was a very unusual situation to be in, in which, the ethical lines are extremely blurry and exactly how to handle these, you could have journalism, entire seminars, discussing: What are the ground rules in a situation like this? When do you publish? How do you deal with it?
It definitely made me uneasy the whole time that I was more of a player than I wanted to be. I was more of a player, because of the reporting I’d done. There was the episode in which, after I do the Kathleen Willey story, which was several months earlier, there was like, Clinton wants to know who’s talking to Isikoff. He’s asking Monica who’s saying that. The idea that people were judging what they should say, or how they should act, based on what I was doing, or what I might do, or what I knew, definitely made me uneasy, because I was affecting what these people were doing, right? And you never as a journalist really want to be in a situation like that. You want to publish your story, and then have as much impact as you can have, and have people react to it. But while in the course of reporting, you don’t want to change the trajectory of events. And that’s what made me uneasy.
Now, of course, at the time, all through that year, I got ferocious attacks from the Clinton world. And they were really nasty, and really personal, and really unpleasant. And that was not a nice thing to go through. But, at the end of the day, we’re all big boys and girls, and you gotta take it, and I don’t hear that sort of criticism as much today. I mean, this series, other than that phone call from the actor, they didn’t consult me; I wasn’t a consultant on it. They lifted scenes for my book, but they didn’t option my book, so I don’t get anything out of it. But I think they have a bit of a more balanced account of what was going on then the spin from the Clinton world at the time.
RG: Well, Michael, it’s late where you are.
MI: It is.
RG: But I really appreciate you joining us.
RG: Thanks so much for being on.
MI: Sure, anytime.
RG: That was Michael Isikoff, and that’s our show.
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SP (as LT): You should see what this girl is going through.
DJ (as MI): She’s not going to talk. There’s no story.
SP (as LT): What? Of course there is. You have no idea how inappropriate —
Actor: Michael Isikoff? [Laughs.] You will go anywhere for a story, won’t you?