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Impeachment Tackles Operation Prom Night, the FBI’s “Shattering” Sting on Monica Lewinsky

Impeachment executive producer Sarah Burgess discusses the traumatic, surreal details of the FBI’s swarm on Lewinsky in 1998.

When Monica Lewinsky arrived at the Pentagon City mall on January 16, 1998, to meet Linda Tripp for lunch, the 24-year-old had no idea she was about to be ensnared in a traumatic, nearly 12-hour ordeal that would instantly change the course of her life.

After Tripp showed up, the longtime government aide was soon followed by FBI agents—and Lewinsky immediately knew that the confidante with whom she had entrusted details of her affair with President Bill Clinton had turned on her. It wasn’t until Lewinsky trailed Tripp and the agents upstairs to a room at the adjoining Ritz-Carlton hotel, though, that she realized the depth of Tripp’s betrayal. Tripp had not only disclosed details of the affair, she had tape-recorded approximately 20 hours of phone conversations with the White House intern.

This betrayal, and the extraordinary ensuing hours during which FBI agents pressured Lewinsky to cooperate in their investigation of Clinton, are the tight focus of Tuesday’s episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story, “Man Handled.” The episode, which was written by executive producer Sarah Burgess and directed by Ryan Murphy, is a standout for actor Beanie Feldstein, who plays Lewinsky. Like Lewinsky, she hurtles herself through an emotional roller coaster of rage, humiliation, fear, and calm.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Feldstein says that she was not aware of the details of Operation Prom Night until researching ahead of the episode.

“It was gutting to understand that a 24-year-old girl in her workout clothes was in a room with eight to 12 men with guns, and asked to turn on the president and [his personal secretary] Betty Currie and [personal adviser] Vernon Jordan,” says Feldstein. “And to watch that girl hold her ground and not be [intimidated] by these scary men, who are literally armed, and demand that her mother come and protect her—and to not do what they want [was] a remarkable act. And one of the bravest things I’ve ever portrayed. It was a life-changing episode for me as an actor, because it pushed me to places I didn’t think I could go. But it was all for the most important goal—of helping people finally understand Monica’s pain and what she had to go through.”

The episode was shot over 23 days—for comparison purposes, Feldstein’s 2019 film Booksmart was shot in about 25 days—and was an emotional marathon for Feldstein. “It was, for me as an actor, by far the most emotional place I’ve ever had to go…but I had to feel that pain in order for the audience to feel the pain.”

Burgess had plenty of resources to cull while writing the episode, including Andrew Morton’s 1999 biography of Lewinsky, Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue, the Starr Report, and the Slow Burn podcast. The most helpful resource for storyboarding the episode, however, may have come from the FBI itself—in the form of a document the agency used to memorialize the controversial interview.

“In this case, the FBI basically wrote my outline for me,” says Burgess. “Furthermore, the Office of the Independent Counsel was later investigated for its behavior on this day because it’s not legal, if someone asks for their lawyer, to decline that. Mike Emmick [the agent played by Colin Hanks on Impeachment] in particular was investigated. Because even at the time, there was controversy around this—Ken Starr was pressed by Democrats in Congress about it…because a prosecutor can’t just hold someone in a room against their will. Of course they used ambiguous language to make it feel that they weren’t doing that…. As I was working on this, it was very obvious what a shattering experience this was for Monica.” (The investigation concluded that Emmick showed “poor judgement,” but that prosecutors didn’t demonstrate “professional misconduct.”)

What fascinated Burgess was how Lewinsky—so young and in an unfathomably intimidating situation—was able to toggle between fear, rage, and calculating pleasantries. At one point, Lewinsky refused to cooperate until her mother arrived from New York via train—meaning that she and the agents had hours to fill. Surreally, the unlikely grouping hit the mall—browsing through a Crate & Barrel and sitting down for a meal.

“I was struck that her mind was operating on two tracks,” says Burgess. “We see her being friendly and sort of teasing [the agents] and being warm with them. And then we see her running to a pay phone…I think Monica was very smart and there was some strategy in that. As a young woman, sometimes your only option is to just be nice…but it’s very clear to me that Monica displayed incredible strength. She could have just turned on Bill Clinton, Betty Currie, and Vernon Jordan immediately. She was tested, but she behaved the way I think most of us would want to, which is you keep your feet on the ground and you don’t bend because of fear.”

Lewinsky’s most powerful line of the episode was delivered verbatim from her authorized biography. When Tripp attempted to leave the Ritz-Carlton hotel room, after delivering Lewinsky to the FBI like a lamb to the slaughter, Lewinsky recalled hissing, “Make her stay and watch. I want that treacherous bitch to see what she has done to me.”

When Tripp finally was able to exit the FBI operation she brought on her onetime friend, Tripp did not leave the premises—she went shopping. And at one point when Lewinsky and her FBI detail were killing time in the mall, Lewinsky spotted Tripp, shopping bag in hand.

“I always was very fixated on Monica running into Linda in the mall,” says Burgess, who prowled the same mall as a teen. “I understand why Linda shops—I think you don’t want to be alone with yourself and maybe you don’t want to totally leave. That was my way of reading that in a humanizing light.” Strangely enough, Tripp was not the only figure tangled in the Clinton saga to be shopping while Lewinsky was suffering some of the worst moments of her life. Speaking about the character played on the series by Judith Light, Burgess adds, “Susan Carpenter-McMillan was actually also shopping there that day. She was buying earrings for Paula Jones to wear to Bill Clinton’s deposition.”

“Man Handled” was a particularly fascinating episode for Burgess to tackle given that she was also writing from Tripp’s point of view—even while Tripp was committing a Shakespearean betrayal.

“When we meet Linda, she’s been jettisoned from the West Wing and the experience of the death of Vince Foster was quite hard for her, so she’s in a frustrated, angry place…and I believe that anger doesn’t go nowhere…. She’s an invisible woman, and she doesn’t put up with it anymore. The tragedy of Linda is that instead of attack[ing] the patriarchal system that has made her wretched, she attacks this young woman who doesn’t deserve that at all.”

It bears noting that Ken Starr himself has publicly agreed that Lewinsky showed incredible strength during the marathon operation. During a section of his 2018 memoir devoted to Operation Prom Night—a section in which Starr establishes that Lewinsky was not placed under arrest but “simply invited” to join the FBI agents upstairs—he writes:

In thinking she was a naive, starstruck young woman in love who would quickly cooperate, we underestimated her. In her determination to protect the president, Monica kept a team of experienced FBI agents and career prosecutors twiddling their thumbs for much of the day. She was searching for the perfect solution. Monica doubtless calculated that if she could maneuver the situation, she would skate from criminal prosecution and at the same time not turn on the president.

Incredulously, in his book, Starr actually blames the duration of the operation on the 24-year-old woman who was up against a team of FBI agents.

Before long, Monica announced that her distraught mother was coming to Washington. Since her mother refused to fly, she was taking the next train from Manhattan. She would then find her way as quickly as possible to the hotel.

Wisely or not, we went along. We thought it was a good sign that her mother, Marcia Lewis, was rushing to be at her daughter’s side. It was perfectly understandable, but we now faced a long delay. Monica refused to decide what to do without parental input and guidance.

Lewinsky recalled Operation Prom Night much differently. In Morton’s biography, Lewinsky remembered how she felt after Emmick told her that the FBI was prepared to charge her with a number of crimes that could result in “up to 27 years in jail” if she did not cooperate.

“I find it difficult to describe the raw openness, the fear I felt,” recalled Lewinsky. “It was as if my stomach had been cut open and someone had poured acid onto my wound. I just felt an intense stinging pain and overriding terror.”

Upstairs in the hotel room with the FBI agents, Lewinsky even contemplated suicide, according to Morton’s biography.

“The room had sliding windows, and she considered throwing herself out, to crash to her death through the glass canopy below,” writes Morton. “At one point she mused out loud, ‘If I kill myself, what happens to everyone else in this investigation? Does it all go away?’”

When Lewinsky finally arrived home after the ordeal, she has said, “I was so distraught my mom made me shower with the bathroom door open, so, I mean, there was that concern.”

More recently, both Starr and Lewinsky—who surreally met in a 2017 encounter Lewinsky described for Vanity Fair—have looked back on their entwined chapter. In 2018, Starr was asked by CBS This Morning whether he would ever apologize to Lewinsky—to which he responded, “No…I had a responsibility. I will say, and I have said this many times, I regret the pain that resulted to so many…but no, I can’t in conscience say to Monica anything other than I’m sorry the whole thing happened.”

In the same interview, he denied that Operation Prom Night was a sting operation.

“It was a mechanism to confirm what we thought we knew…and to give her the opportunity to cooperate with the investigation,” said Starr, before somehow shifting the blame of a national nightmare onto the former White House intern. “Had she cooperated, this entire matter would have wound down in a matter of several weeks and the nation would have been spared all of this.”

Meanwhile, earlier this year, in an interview with CNN’s David Axelrod, Lewinsky underscored the FBI’s apparent disregard for her and her emotional state, even after she raised the subject of suicide to the FBI agents surrounding her.

“As more of an adult now, I think back, How is there not a protocol? That’s a point where you’re supposed to bring a psychologist in or something,” said Lewinsky. “How is that not a breaking point in whatever their plan for Prom Night was?”

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