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The sexual harassment allegations against Bill Clinton, explained

Paula Jones (left) and Kathleen Willey.
Paula Jones (left) and Kathleen Willey.
Paul K. Buck/AFP/Getty Images and Michael Smith/Hulton Archive
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.

On Sunday night, with fewer than two hours to go before the second presidential debate, Donald Trump appeared on Facebook live with four women who have accused Bill and/or Hillary Clinton of wronging them: Juanita Broaddrick (who claims Bill Clinton raped her in 1978 and Hillary then intimidated her), Kathy Shelton (who was raped at 12, and whose rapist was represented in court by Hillary Clinton), Kathleen Willey (who accused Bill Clinton of groping her in 1993), and Paula Jones (who accused then-Gov. Clinton of exposing himself to her in 1991).

Trump, like many in the press, has effectively equated these four women’s claims. But they are rather different. On one extreme, Shelton’s accusations amount to blaming Clinton for representing her client adequately in court, a client to whom she was assigned to represent and did not choose. There’s no wrongdoing there. On the other extreme, Broaddrick has a serious and credible accusation against Bill Clinton, though the evidence that Hillary was involved is weaker.

And the sexual harassment accusations of Jones and Willey … well, they’re complicated. Jones’s claims are serious if true, but have been largely shown to be false. Basically, Jones alleged that Bill Clinton had a "distinguishing mark" on his penis that both doctors and Monica Lewinsky said he did not have. That casts doubt on whether the incident happened as she alleged it did. Willey’s accusation is less clearly fallacious, but several factors cast serious doubt on it, and it’s overall much less credible than Broaddrick’s.

The Paula Jones accusation

Paula Jones
Paula Jones attends President Clinton's deposition in her sexual harassment suit against him on January 17, 1998.

Jamal A. Wilson/AFP/Getty Images

Paula Jones is perhaps best known today for initiating the 1994 lawsuit against the president set the stage for Clinton's impeachment; it was in a Jones case deposition that Clinton claimed under oath to have never had sex with Monica Lewinsky, setting up a perjury prosecution.

Jones alleged that in 1991, when she worked for the State of Arkansas' Industrial Development Commission, Clinton propositioned her and exposed himself at a conference in Little Rock. Clinton, Jones claimed, beckoned her to his suite at the hotel where the conference was being held, and after a few minutes of conversation, "unexpectedly reached over to me, took my hand, and pulled me toward him, so that our bodies were close to each other."

Clinton then, she said, made a number of sexual comments ("I love your curves"), slid his hand up her thigh, and tried unsuccessfully to kiss her on the neck until she stopped him. Jones claims she asked, "What are you doing?" and walked away from Clinton, and tried to change the conversation, after which Clinton walked back toward her, "lowered his trousers and underwear, exposed his penis (which was erect) and told me to 'kiss it.'" Jones rejected the overture, to which she claims Clinton replied, "I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do." Before she left, she claims Clinton added, "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves."

The lawsuit dragged on for years, generating reams of testimony, but eventually federal district court judge Susan Webber Wright granted summary judgment in Clinton's favor, saying that even if the events alleged transpired, they did not amount to sexual assault and that Jones had no evidence she'd been punished or emotionally afflicted in the workplace for rebuffing the governor.

Jones's side appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, after which Clinton and Jones came to a settlement in which she was paid $850,000 (all but $200,000 of which went to her legal fees), but Clinton admitted no wrongdoing. Neither the settlement nor Wright's judgment tells us much about the validity of Jones's underlying complaint.

The witnesses corralled by Jones and Clinton's legal teams, however, are somewhat informative. Jones and her lawyers offered two witnesses to corroborate the events. Pamela Blackard, who had been working with Jones at the registration desk for the conference, said she noticed Clinton "starting intently" at Jones before the incident, heard a state trooper tell Jones that the governor wanted to see her, and spoke to a "shaking" Jones about what had happened immediately afterward (though it was later revealed that Jones only told Blackard the most salacious parts of the allegation days after the fact, not immediately). Jones's friend, Debra Ballentine, claimed that Jones showed up unannounced at Ballentine's office later that day and recounted the story.

But multiple other witnesses suggested that Jones was, to the contrary, elated by her interaction with Clinton. Pam Hood, a coworker of Jones's, told the New Yorker's Jane Mayer in 1997 that the meeting sparked a "bubbly enthusiasm" in Jones similar to her demeanor after seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger visiting Little Rock. Carol Phillips, a switchboard operator at the governor's office, said Jones had a "happy and excited manner" in describing her meeting with Clinton, who Jones called "gentle," "nice," and "sweet." In 1994, her sister and brother-in-law, Charlotte and Mark Brown, told Sidney Blumenthal — then a New Yorker reporter — that Jones was suing Clinton for "the money," and that, "Paula's suing over a stupid lie, and she knows it."

Unlike the Broaddrick case, the Jones case also has some physical evidence involved. Kind of. Jones gave an account of what the president's penis looked like that was then thoroughly discredited, which is perhaps the strongest reason to think her whole accusation is false. Daniel Traylor, the first lawyer who Jones hired for the case, told Mayer that Jones never told him that Clinton's penis had specific "distinguishing characteristics," a notorious detail in her allegation. Jones's later lawyers suggested that Traylor just hadn't asked the right questions to get his client to reveal that detail — but there's plenty of reason to think it was an after-the-fact embellishment.

Clinton's personal lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, got sworn statements from three doctors denying any "abnormalities in terms of size, shape, direction, or whatever Bennett felt a devious mind might suspect," Bob Woodward writes in his book Shadow. "A thorough dermatological examination disclosed no blemishes, no moles, no growths." Eventually, it became clear that Jones specifically meant that Clinton's penis was crooked or bent when erect. But in a Q&A with prosecutors before her grand jury appearances, Monica Lewinsky specifically disputed Jones's description of Clinton's penis.

"Evidence from confidential sources now establishes with near certainty that the alleged 'distinguishing characteristic' described by Paula Jones at the time of her encounter with then-Governor Clinton in 1991 did not exist, as an anatomical matter," writes Duquesne University's Ken Gormley in The Death of American Virtue, his definitive history of the Clinton impeachment. "Thus, at least one key aspect of Ms. Jones's account is not corroborated by medical sources or individuals who would have had an ample opportunity to observe that trait if it had existed."

In other words: Jones's allegation is probably bunk.

The Kathleen Willey accusation

Kathleen Willey, Clinton accuser
Kathleen Willey attends a John McCain presidential rally in 2000.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kathleen Willey's accusations of sexual assault against Clinton are less serious in nature than Broaddrick's, and received less coverage than Jones's. Given the number of factors casting doubt on her claims, that relative obscurity is probably justified.

Willey was in 1993 a volunteer in Clinton's White House, having met him at a 1989 campaign event for Virginia Lt. Gov. Douglas Wilder's successful gubernatorial run. Both Willey and Clinton agree that on November 29, 1993, they had a private meeting in the Oval Office; Willey was in financial turmoil and was seeking a permanent paid position. But Willey additionally claims that at the end of the meeting, as they reached the door of the oval office, Clinton ran his hands through her hair, kissed her, and fondled her.

Willey told several people about the incident shortly after it occurred. Ruthie Eisen, who formerly volunteered at the White House too, said that Willey told her about the incident the afternoon or evening of the day it happened. Willey's friend Dianne Martin said that Willey called her and told her the day of the incident. Willey's friend Linda Tripp (yes, that Linda Tripp) also said Willey told her shortly after the alleged assault; Tripp, however, also claimed that Willey had a romantic interest in Clinton, which contradicted Willey's testimony.

Willey's friend Julie Hiatt Steele also tried to back up the claim, initially telling Newsweek's Michael Isikoff that Willey informed her the night of the incident, but she later reversed herself and said that she lied to Isikoff because Willey told her to. Eventually Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr indicted Steele with lying to a grand jury and to the FBI about the case; the case ended in a mistrial.

But Willey was not a particularly reliable source for Starr's office. In a deposition for the Paula Jones case, she said that she could not recall if Clinton successfully kissed her, and said that he hadn't followed her. In her grand jury testimony, however, she insisted he fondled her and kissed her. She also claimed in the deposition that she never spoke to anyone besides Steele, Isikoff, and her attorney Dan Gecker about the details of the encounter, throwing doubt on Eisen, Martin, and Tripp's attempts to corroborate her allegations. Willey also lied to FBI agents about her ex-boyfriend, and confessed to having lied when confronted with evidence contradicting her statements. But because Willey had been given an immunity deal by the Independent Counsel, she couldn't be charged with making false statements.

Starr's office eventually concluded, "the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the President’s deposition testimony about his conduct with Willey was false," and that, "Even assuming Willey’s testimony was truthful about the incident with President Clinton, her testimony at trial would be subject to further challenge based on the differences between her deposition and grand jury statements, as well as her acknowledgement of false statements to the Office of the Independent Counsel."

Beyond Starr's conclusions, an investigation by the Nation reporters Florence Graves and Jacqueline Sharkey found that:

  • Six people said that Willey told them about the encounter with Clinton and was thrilled with it, and perhaps actively seeking an affair with the president.
  • Willey contacted Lynn Nesbit, a New York literary agent, at least two months before going public with her story.
  • Willey repeatedly withheld information from judges in the Jones case about her cooperation with Jones's attorneys.
  • In an earlier case involving a $274,000 debt she was trying to avoid repaying, Willey made a number of misleading or evasive statements under oath.

Since the end of the impeachment saga, Willey has taken on a career as a right-wing conspiracy theorist of some note. Her 2007 autobiography argued that her husband — who committed suicide on the same day she alleges that Clinton fondled her — was murdered on the orders of the Clintons, a claim she supported by drawing parallels to the death of Vince Foster (a White House deputy counsel whose suicide many right-wing conspiracists have argued was actually a Clinton-ordered murder). Willey currently runs an anti-Clinton site called A Scandal a Day, and serves as national spokesperson for Women Against Hillary, a PAC organized by long-time conservative hatchet man and conspiracy theorist Roger Stone.

Of course, only Kathleen Willey and Bill Clinton know what actually happened. But Willey's credibility is lacking, to say the least, given how frequently she contradicted herself, lied to investigators, and baselessly accused the Clintons of murder.