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The rape allegation against Bill Clinton, explained

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

America’s ongoing national reckoning with sexual assault and sexual harassment by powerful men now has liberals and Democrats reconsidering the legacy of one of party’s most important figures of the past quarter-century: President Bill Clinton.

Clinton has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment, most famously his affair with Monica Lewinsky — which, while consensual in some sense, was nonetheless textbook sexual harassment of a subordinate of a kind that would (or perhaps more accurately, should) get many CEOs fired from their companies.

But it’s not just Lewinsky. Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, sued Clinton during his presidency for allegedly exposing himself to her when he was governor in 1991. Kathleen Willey claims that Clinton fondled her breast and forced her hand on his crotch in the Oval Office in 1993, when she was a White House volunteer.

Most seriously of all, Juanita Broaddrick claims that Clinton raped her during his 1978 campaign for Arkansas governor.

The issue of Clinton’s sexual misconduct came up repeatedly during Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. But Bill himself was not on the ballot, and many were understandably hesitant to make the candidate answer for her husband’s offenses.

Now, in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Louis CK, and many, many more, Bill Clinton’s record is being reassessed as well. "The women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks," Caitlin Flanagan writes in the Atlantic. Chris Hayes at MSNBC tweeted, "As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right's ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is, it's also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him."

Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times titled a column simply, "I Believe Juanita."

And indeed, the Juanita Broaddrick case is the hardest one for admirers of Bill Clinton. Her allegation has never been definitively refuted. Only she and Bill Clinton know what the truth of the matter in the case is. But if one generally believes it's important to believe the victim, it's hard to argue that this case should be an exception.

What Juanita Broaddrick says Bill Clinton did

Juanita Broaddrick gave a lengthy account of her alleged rape in a 1999 Dateline NBC interview (which has been posted in its entirety by the right-wing Media Research Center; the anti-Clinton site has a transcript that aligns with the NBC recording):

The interview was conducted on January 20, 1999, before the Senate ultimately acquitted Clinton on charges related to his affair with Monica Lewinsky on February 12. NBC delayed airing until February 24, and Broaddrick, frustrated, gave accounts to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Post, and the New York Times in the meantime.

In 1978, Broaddrick was volunteering for Clinton's gubernatorial campaign, and claims she met him when he visited his campaign office in her home town of Van Buren, Arkansas, that April. She says he then invited her to visit his office in Little Rock, which Broaddrick agreed to do a week later, when she was in the state Capitol anyway for a conference of nursing home administrators. Once she was at a hotel in Little Rock, she claims Clinton told her that he wasn't going to the campaign headquarters and offered to meet her in her hotel lobby coffee shop instead. Once he arrived, she says he called her room and suggested that they have coffee there, since the lobby had too many reporters. Broaddrick says she agreed. Then, per the Post story:

As she tells the story, they spent only a few minutes chatting by the window -- Clinton pointed to an old jail he wanted to renovate if he became governor -- before he began kissing her. She resisted his advances, she said, but soon he pulled her back onto the bed and forcibly had sex with her. She said she did not scream because everything happened so quickly. Her upper lip was bruised and swollen after the encounter because, she said, he had grabbed onto it with his mouth.

"The last thing he said to me was, 'You better get some ice for that.' And he put on his sunglasses and walked out the door," she recalled.

Several friends of Broaddrick's backed up the story. Norma Rogers, who was director of nursing at Broaddrick's nursing home at the time, told reporters that she entered the hotel room shortly after the assault allegedly took place, and "found Mrs. Broaddrick crying and in 'a state of shock.' Her upper lip was puffed out and blue, and appeared to have been hit." Kelsey elaborated to the New York Times, "She told me he forced himself on her, forced her to have intercourse."

In the Dateline show, Broaddrick's friends Louise Ma, Susan Lewis, and Jean Darden (Norma Rogers's sister) all told NBC News that Broaddrick told them Bill Clinton raped her at the time. David Broaddrick — with whom Broaddrick was having an affair at the time; they both eventually left their spouses to marry each other — also told NBC that Broaddrick's top lip was black after the alleged incident, and that she told him, "that she had been raped by Bill Clinton."

Broaddrick claims she was traumatized by the incident and scared of Clinton's influence, and so didn't report the rape, or tell her then-husband, Gary Hickey. Three weeks later, Broaddrick would attend a Clinton fundraiser with Hickey. She told Myers, "I think I was still in denial that time exactly what had happened to me. I still felt very guilty at that time that it was my fault." She further claimed that Clinton called her nursing home a half-dozen times that year, getting through once and asking when she was going to be back in Little Rock; she told him she wasn't.

In 1979, she was appointed by Clinton to a non-paid advisory board position, which she told Myers she accepted before she knew it was a gubernatorial appointment. In 1984, she claims she got a letter from Clinton after her nursing home was recognized as one of the top facilities in the state, with a handwritten note saying, "I admire you very much." She interpreted that as a thank you for her silence. Then, in 1991, she says she saw Clinton outside a meeting on nursing home standards in Little Rock, and that he said he wanted to apologize to her, and asked what he could do to make things right. She recalls saying "nothing," and walking away.

About six months after her initial interviews in 1999, Broaddrick told the Drudge Report that mere weeks after the alleged assault, Hillary Clinton had tried to thank her for her silence on the matter at a political rally:

"[Hillary] came directly to me as soon as she hit the door. I had been there only a few minutes, I only wanted to make an appearance and leave. She caught me and took my hand and said 'I am so happy to meet you. I want you to know that we appreciate everything you do for Bill.' I started to turn away and she held onto my hand and reiterated her phrase -- looking less friendly and repeated her statement — 'Everything you do for Bill'. I said nothing. She wasn't letting me get away until she made her point. She talked low, the smile faded on the second thank you. I just released her hand from mine and left the gathering."

NBC’s Lisa Myers confirmed to me that Broaddrick included this detail in her initial interview with the network. Broaddrick repeated it in 2003 in an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity:

Before going public, Broaddrick had been courted to come forward about the allegations by Clinton enemies for years. She told reporters that an anti-Clinton businessman in Arkansas named Philip Yoakum urged her to come forward in 1992, during Clinton's presidential campaign. When Paula Jones sued Clinton for sexual harassment in 1994, Jones’s lawyers also approached Broaddrick, who declined to cooperate. She only came forward after she was interviewed by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's office and her allegation leaked. Broaddrick told the Journal that NBC News reporter Lisa Myers pursued her for nearly a year before she agreed to an interview, and that she came forward because she wanted to rebut false rumors circulating after her statements to prosecutors (like that David Broaddrick had accepted hush money from the Clintons in exchange for silence).

Why Clinton's defenders discount Broaddrick's story

Bill Clinton denied Juanita Broaddrick's allegations through his personal lawyer, David A. Kendall, in 1999, who said, "Any allegation that the president assaulted Mrs. Broaddrick more than 20 years ago is absolutely false. Beyond that, we're not going to comment." At a press conference, Clinton himself added, "Well, my counsel has made a statement about the … issue, and I have nothing to add to it."

In their 2000 book The Hunting of the President, Joe Conason and Gene Lyons note that the FBI investigated the allegation for Kenneth Starr's Independent Counsel office, and found the evidence "inconclusive." There are no direct witnesses and no physical evidence to back up the accusation. "It’s important to note — and Broaddrick concedes — that aside from her, there are no witnesses and as far as we know, no one saw Clinton enter or leave Broaddrick’s room, or even the hotel," Myers said in the NBC broadcast. "She took no photos, kept no evidence and the hotel has no records to confirm that she stayed there." That said, there are plenty of rapes where the victim has no physical evidence or good witnesses with which to back up their story. The lack of those categories of evidence makes the key question in the case, "Do we believe Broaddrick, or do we believe Clinton?"

In his memoir The Clinton Wars, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal notes that when Paula Jones's lawyers first approached Broaddrick, she refused to cooperate, and upon being subpoenaed signed an affidavit saying, "I do not have any information to offer regarding a nonconsensual or unwelcome sexual advance by Mr. Clinton." Only after that did she file another affidavit insisting the assault did occur, at which point, Blumenthal argues, she "had no standing as a reliable witness." That's one interpretation. But it often takes a while for rape accusers to come forward, so Broaddrick's initial unwillingness to relay the allegation is hardly airtight proof she's lying.

Blumenthal also noted that Norma Rogers and Jean Darden had reasons to want to damage Clinton's reputation, because in 1980 he had commuted the death sentence of their father's killer. This is a fair point, but Blumenthal seems to overplay his hand. He claims that Rogers, Darden, and David Broaddrick were the "only ones claiming to be witnesses to Broaddrick's rape story." But NBC News interviewed Louise Ma and Susan Lewis on camera as well, who didn't have that particular family grudge against Clinton, and to my knowledge there’s no evidence they had some other unspecified grudge. That doesn't mean their claims are necessarily accurate, but it's not the case that the only statements corroborating Broaddrick's story came from people with established grudges against the Clintons.

Blumenthal's other attempted rebuttals are also less than convincing. He notes that Yoakum, who first encouraged Broaddrick to come forward, and Sheffield Nelson, Clinton's 1990 Republican challenger in the governor's race, suggested to David Brock (then a right-wing anti-Clinton journalist, now a prime Clinton defender) that the rape story might not be true. This was even after Yoakum and Nelson claimed to have made a secret tape of Broaddrick detailing the accusations. That certainly makes Yoakum and Nelson sound like scumbags, but it doesn't say much one way or another as to Broaddrick's reliability, especially since she didn't appear to be cooperating with them at that time.

Blumenthal also cites reporting from Conason and Lyons suggesting that Broaddrick had asked the Van Buren Press Argus-Courier, her local paper, to photograph her nursing home in 1990 upon the visit of Gov. Bill Clinton. "This was hardly the attitude of a rape victim toward her predator," Blumenthal writes. This assertion, that a "true" rape victim would cut off all contact with their rapist, is rather misleading and pernicious, and maintaining contact with an alleged assailant is hardly proof that a victim is lying. "It is common for victims to maintain contact with their abusers because they may still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse," according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. "It is also common for some victims to maintain contact in an attempt to regain control over their assault. Others may maintain contact in an attempt to regain a feeling of normalcy."

Some Clinton allies have implied that Clinton may have had consensual sex with Broaddrick, but that she alleged rape because she didn't want her then-boyfriend David Broaddrick to know she was cheating on him (and on her husband). In his book Blinded by the Right, David Brock hypothesizes that, "Dave Broaddrick had suspected Juanita of having consensual sex with Clinton and that Juanita came up with the rape claim later to get herself out of trouble with her boyfriend." In his book Uncovering Clinton, Michael Isikoff — who helped break the Monica Lewinsky story as a reporter at Newsweek — writes, "Privately, Clinton's lawyers have conceded that Clinton may have had consensual sex with Broaddrick but insist that he would have never forced himself upon an unwilling participant."

The call to "believe victims" entails believing Broaddrick

No one besides Bill Clinton and Juanita Broaddrick knows the true story here — and ultimately, the matter comes down to which of their two accounts one believes. There is certainly not enough here to convict Clinton in a court of law, even if there weren't a statute of limitations. There's no physical evidence. There's just Broaddrick's and her friends' words against Clinton's. To that end, last year, I reached out both to the Hillary Clinton campaign and Bill Clinton's personal representatives; the former did not reply, while the latter declined to comment.

Given the prevailing view among many progressives — including Hillary Clinton — that one should default to believing rape accusers, the Broaddrick allegation thus poses a problem. Michelle Goldberg, then at Slate, explained the conundrum well in a piece from December 2015:

Our rules for talking about sexual assault have changed since the 1990s, when these women were last in the news. Today, feminists have repeatedly and convincingly made the case that when women say they’ve been sexually assaulted, we should assume they’re telling the truth. Particularly when it comes to Broaddrick, it’s not easy to square the arguments against believing her with the dominant progressive consensus on trusting victims.

…We will probably never know the truth of what happened between Broaddrick and Clinton. But today, few feminists would find her shifting story disqualifying. Consider, also, another piece of evidence that was marshaled against Broaddrick in the 1990s: Three weeks after the alleged assault, she attended a fundraiser for Clinton. Speaking to Klein, she says she was traumatized and blamed herself for what happened. "I felt responsible. I don’t know if you know the mentality of women and men at that time. But me letting him come to my room? I accepted full blame." In any other context, most feminists today would find this credible. After all, many were outraged when rape skeptics tried to discredit Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz because she’d sent friendly Facebook messages to her alleged rapist after the alleged rape.

As Goldberg notes, some of the conservatives who resurfaced the Broaddrick case in 2015 and 2016 were clearly doing so in bad faith to attack the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who certainly did not personally assault Broaddrick (Broaddrick's allegations of intimidation aside). And similarly, the story is being exploited by conservative media to deflect from accusations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

But the Clinton critics have a point. There is a crucial tension between "believe survivors" and the "Juanita Broaddrick is lying" position of some Clinton defenders, lacking further information. When Hillary Clinton tweeted during the campaign that "Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported," it’s reasonable to ask if that’s true of Juanita Broaddrick, too.