- The voiceover of a campaign ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, May 13, 2016.
This ad offers a kitchen sink of claims against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, presumably in response to claims by Democrats that presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump will cost Senate Republicans their majority.
We are not going to litigate each of these claims - we presume some will come again up again during the campaign-but we focus on two of the most explosive: "Defended an accused child rapist, then laughed about his lenient sentence. . . . She politically attacked sexual harassment victims." These claims are aimed directly at Clinton's image as progressive defender of children's and women's rights.
How accurate are these lines?
"Defended an accused child rapist, then laughed about his lenient sentence"
This refers to a 41-year-old case which resurfaced when the Washington Free Beacon in 2014 discovered unpublished audio recordings from the mid-1980s of Clinton being interviewed by Arkansas reporter Roy Reed for an article that was never published. The case was also covered extensively in a 2008 article by Glenn Thrush in Newsday.
In 1975, Clinton - then Hillary Rodham - was a 27-year-old law professor running a legal aid clinic in the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. After a 41-year-old factory worker was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl, he asked the judge to replace his male court-appointed lawyer with a female attorney. The judge went through the list of a half-dozen women practicing law in the county and picked Clinton.
On the recording, Clinton describes it as a "terrible case" and also "fascinating." In her autobiography, "Living History," Clinton wrote, "I told [prosecutor] Mahlon [Gibson] I really don't feel comfortable taking on such a client, but Mahlon gently reminded me that I couldn't very well refuse the judge's request." Gibson has confirmed that account in interviews with Newsday and CNN, saying Clinton told him: "I don't want to represent this guy. I just can't stand this. I don't want to get involved. Can you get me off?" (On the tape, Clinton says the prosecutor asked if she could take the case "a favor to him.")
In other words, Clinton was a court-appointed attorney, given the case despite personal objections. (As Newsday put it, "Her approach, then and now, was to immerse herself in even unpleasant tasks with a will to win.") Once appointed, she aggressively defended the alleged rapist; at one point, she attacked the 12-year-old's credibility, writing in an affidavit that she had been informed "the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and to engage in fantasizing." An investigator on the case told Newsday that there were "serious inconsistencies" in the victim's statements about the incident, in part because of her "infatuation" with a 15-year-old boy who was also present and told authorities he had sex with her.
Ultimately, the prosecution's case fell apart for a number of reasons, including investigators mishandling evidence of bloody underwear, so in a plea agreement the charges were reduced from first-degree rape to unlawful fondling of a minor under the age of 14. Until the Newsday report, the victim did not realize that Clinton had been the lawyer on the other side. She has since attacked Clinton for putting "me through hell."
In the recorded interview, Clinton is heard laughing or giggling four times when discussing the case with unusual candor; the reporter is also heard laughing, and sometimes Clinton is responding to him.
Here are the four instances:
- "Of course he [the defendant] claimed he didn't [rape]. All this stuff. He took a lie detector test. I had him take a polygraph, which he passed, which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs." (Both Clinton and the reporter laugh)
- "So I got an order to see the evidence and the prosecutor didn't want me to see the evidence. I had to go to Maupin Cummings [the judge] and convince Maupin that yes indeed I had a right to see the evidence before it was presented. (Clinton laughs lightly between "evidence" and "before")
- "I handed it [a biography of her expert witness] to Mahlor Gibson, and I said, 'Well this guy's ready to come up from New York to prevent this miscarriage of justice.'" (Clinton laughs, as does the reporter)
- "So [judge] Maupin had to, you know, under law he was supposed to determine whether the plea was factually supported. Maupin asked me to leave the room while he examined my client so that he could find out if it was factually supported. I said 'Judge I can't leave the room I'm his lawyer!' he said 'I know but I don't want to talk about this in front of you.'" [Reporter says, "Oh God, really?" And they both laugh]
To justify the line in the ad, Alleigh Marre, an NRSC spokeswoman, pointed to a 2014 ABC News account that said "Clinton is heard laughing as she describes how she succeeded at getting her client a lighter sentence, despite suggesting she knew he was guilty." Clinton certainly laughs during the conversation but at no point does she laugh specifically about the sentence.
Still, Clinton's recollections may strike some listeners as callous or cynical about the legal process, especially because she implies her client was guilty.
"In the interview she called this a 'terrible case,' and it's clear she is pained to recall it," said Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin. "The reactions that you mention were very clearly expressions of disbelief at breakdowns in the handling of the case and absurdities she encountered within the court system's bureaucracy."
"She politically attacked sexual harassment victims"
This line echoes an attack already used by Trump - that Clinton is an "unbelievably nasty, mean enabler" of her husband's affairs. "She would go after these women and destroy their lives."
This line appears as the ad shows video of Bill and Hillary Clinton answering questions on "60 Minutes" in 1992 about their marriage and allegations by Gennifer Flowers that she had had a 12-year affair with the then governor of Arkansas.
(Carl Bernstein's 2008 book "A Woman in Charge" reveals that Hillary Clinton was involved in a pre-1992 effort to obtain signed statements from women denying they had affairs with Clinton, including Flowers. "There can be no question that Hillary was Bill's fiercest defender in preventing his other women from causing trouble," Bernstein wrote.)
In the 1992 interview, Bill Clinton acknowledged causing pain in his marriage but denied having an affair with Flowers. Under oath in 1998, however, he acknowledged a sexual encounter with her.
But Flowers did not work for Bill Clinton and there was no discussion in the 60 Minutes interview of sexual harassment. Marre explained the video simply was "b-roll" in the ad. Instead, she said, the NRSC's claim of attacking sexual harassment victims referred to a completely different interview with Hillary Clinton six years later - on The Today Show on Jan. 27, 1998, a week after the president was accused of having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
That accusation emerged during discovery for a sexual harassment lawsuit by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who alleged that in 1991 Clinton, while governor, propositioned her and exposed himself.
Marre pointed specifically at this quote:
"I mean, look at the very people who are involved in this, they have popped up in other settings," Clinton told Matt Lauer. "This is the great story here, for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."
This is a famous statement by Hillary Clinton, which came after she referenced what she believed were false attacks by Republican foes: "Having seen so many of these accusations come and go, having seen people profit, you know, like Jerry Falwell, with videos, accusing my husband of committing murder, of drug running, seeing some of the things that are written and said about him, my attitude is, you know, we've been there before, we have seen this before, and I am just going to wait patiently until the truth comes out."
This interview, by many accounts, was certainly pivotal to saving Bill Clinton's presidency, as his wife forcefully backed him. But while the NRSC describes this as a political attack on Lewinsky and Jones, by Hillary Clinton's account at the time her husband had not yet admitted the Lewinsky affair to her. That did not happen until Aug. 15, 1998, according to her memoir:
"He told me for the first time that the situation was much more serious than he had previously acknowledged. He now realized he would have to testify that there had been an inappropriate intimacy. . .. I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him. . . I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Up until now I only thought that he'd been foolish for paying attention to the young woman and was convinced that he was being railroaded. I couldn't believe he would do anything to endanger our marriage and our family. I was dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged that I'd believed him at all."
Moreover, at the time of the interview, Lewinsky also denied there had been a relationship. Her lawyer had submitted an affidavit on Jan. 12 from her saying she "never had a sexual relationship with the president." Lewinsky did not begin to testify before the independent prosecutor about the full extent of the relationship until July 27, six months after the Today Show interview. Lewinsky testified for 15 days, after which the president finally confessed to his wife.
When Clinton ran for the Senate, she was asked during a debate whether she misled Americans during the Lauer interview two years earlier. "Obviously I didn't mislead anyone," Clinton replied. "I didn't know the truth. And there's a great deal of pain associated with that and my husband has certainly acknowledged that and made it clear that he did mislead the country as well as his family."
Some might argue that because Lewinsky had relations when Bill Clinton was in a position of executive authority, he engaged in sexual harassment. Certainly an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim could have been filed, though Lewinsky did not do so.
Bill Clinton in 1998 settled the Paula Jones suit for $850,000, with no apology or admission of guilt. There is no indication he ever admitted to his wife that Jones's allegations were true. The case had been dismissed by a federal judge, who ruled that even if Jones's allegations were true, such "boorish and offensive" behavior would not be severe enough to constitute sexual harassment under the law. That ruling was under appeal when the case was settled. Readers can decide for themselves whether she was a victim of sexual harassment but it was never proven under the law.
These are both very complex situations that have been reduced to misleading sound bites. Clinton did defend a child rapist four decades ago, but at the request of the court -and she had a legal obligation to wage a solid defense of her client. The laughter on the tape is open to interpretation; certainly some might find it disturbingly lighthearted. But it's a stretch to say she laughed about the sentence.
As for attacking sexual harassment victims, the timeline does not support the claim that Hillary Clinton attacked Lewinsky, knowing that her husband had had a relationship with her. The revelation came months later. The NRSC cited one quote, aimed apparently at Republicans, not victims, and thus it falls short. In the future, we expect we will explore other instances of "destroying" women cited by Clinton's foes.