The women had been assembled by Trump to counter criticism following the leak of a 2005 video in which the GOP candidate bragged about using his star power to sexually assault women. And so he turned to Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Kathleen Shelton, and Jones, who all shared a mutual opposition to the Clintons—three, including Jones, had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or harassment in the past. The fourth, Kathleen Shelton, was raped when she was 12 years old. Hillary Clinton was her accused rapist’s defense lawyer.
When a reporter asked Trump whether he’d actually groped women as he claimed in the leaked Access Hollywood video, Jones—a plucky 49-year old Arkansan wearing head-to-toe Victoria’s Secret loungewear and a bedazzled hat—snapped back in her trademarked drawl, “Why don’t you go ask Bill Clinton that? Why don’t you ask Hillary as well?”
Two days before, Jones had railed against Trump having to apologize for his boorish comments, in effect saying, “Where is my apology?”
Jones’s dive back into the national spotlight via Trump’s campaign feels at once an unexpected and somehow wholly appropriate end to an election that’s laid bare the political truth that truly nothing matters. Trump, who once publicly ridiculed Jones as “a loser” for claiming Bill Clinton had sexually harassed her, was parading her onstage to distract voters from his own growing list sexual-assault accusations. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—who as first lady dismissed Jones as a pawn of her husband’s political enemies and called her accusations fiction—quietly changed the language in her sexual-assault platform, erasing the notion that professed victims should “be believed.”
Meanwhile, the conservatives who, back in the ’90s, peddled in faux outrage to manipulate and profit from Jones and her claims—then deserted her when she no longer advanced their political agenda—are the same ones who are compromising their professed Christian values in order to embrace their undeniably vulgar, possibly criminal, Republican nominee. What’s most surprising, is that 16 years after acknowledging she’d been used by the far-right movement in a crusade to take down the Clintons, Jones is enthusiastically taking her place back on their team.
Paula Jones’s story was, and is, catnip for conservatives: She has consistently claimed that in 1991, when she was a 24-year-old state employee making $6.35 an hour, Bill Clinton, then Arkansas’s governor, made several unwanted sexual advances and exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room. When Jones expressed shock and disgust, she says Clinton stopped, and told her, “Well, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.” After the alleged encounter, Jones claimed she was threatened, intimidated, and reassigned—all, she claimed, as retribution for refusing Clinton.
The sexual-harassment lawsuit her allegations spawned dragged on five long years—thanks to a group of anti-Clinton conservatives who saw Jones as a means to take down the president—and ended with Clinton handing over an $850,000 out-of-court settlement but never an apology or acknowledgment of any wrongdoing. The president also survived the impeachment fight her case triggered. Clinton has steadfastly denied Jones’s allegations and maintained he doesn’t remember meeting her.
“I’m glad it’s over with, that’s for sure,” Jones told Joe Conason in a 2000 Penthouse interview—the third, and only voluntary time, Jones appeared in the magazine. “And I wish it could have been over with a lot sooner. I’m not looking for fame or fortune or anything like that.”
Jones had reason to be relieved; the ’90s had been hell.
She had taken a beating from the Clinton camp and the national media, been ostracized or ignored by feminist groups, and used then discarded many times over—by the press and pornographers, as well as politically or financially motivated conservative groups that feigned to help her, while working against her best interests.
Jones first appeared on the public eye in the pages of the American Spectator, the ultra-conservative magazine funded by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife that acted as the central cog in what Hillary Clinton would famously described as “a vast right-wing conspiracy” out to ruin her husband.
In a December 1993 article, “His Cheatin’ Heart,” by David Brock (a self-described reformed conservative who now supports Hillary Clinton), a former Arkansas state trooper described escorting a “Paula” to Bill Clinton’s hotel room in 1991. When she emerged an hour later, according to the trooper, “Paula told him she was available to be Clinton’s regular girlfriend if he so desired.” (Brock did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast for this article.)
The story only used her first name—an inclusion the Spectator editor in chief would later admit was an “editorial mistake”—but Little Rock was a small place and everyone, Jones thought, knew who the trooper was talking about. She’d never had sex with Clinton, as the article implied; in fact, she told family and friends, when the governor allegedly dropped his pants and asked her to “kiss it,” that she had rejected him. So at a friend’s suggestion, Jones sought legal counsel “to clear her good name.”
Bill Clinton had been president for a year, and amassed plenty of enemies on his way to the White House. And Jones soon found that a horde of Clinton’s adversaries were happy to champion her cause.
Jones and her lawyer held a press conference at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Jones then went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, telling the televangelist, “I felt raped. Whether he touched me or not, it was disgusting what he did.” Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue’s leader Patrick Mahoney created a legal defense fund for Jones, because he said, “sexual harassment is wrong.” (Mahoney has not formally endorsed a candidate in 2016, but on Twitter, called Trump’s behavior toward women during the campaign, “troubling and shameful.” Roberston defended Trump on his program last week, dismissing the leaked video as “macho talk.”)
She also appeared on National Empowerment Television, a precursor to InfoWars that peddled in Clinton conspiracy theories alleging the Clintons to be murderers. Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog, spent thousands on newspaper ads criticizing the hypocrisy of the liberal media for covering Anita Hill’s complaints while ignoring those from Jones.
And Southern Baptist Old Time Gospel Hour televangelist Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, a political organization for religious conservatives, paid for, distributed, and tirelessly promoted The Clinton Chronicles, a truth-lite “documentary” which accused the president of being a drug-running, murderous womanizer, and prominently featured Jones and her husband, Steve. The tape sold for a donation of $40 plus $3 shipping and handling.
The reaction from the left to Jones’ $700,000 civil suit against President Clinton—filed just days before the statute of limitations would run out—was equal and opposite from the support she received by the far-right.
Clinton’s camp was cruel. Longtime loyalist James Carville famously said of Jones, “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
And women’s-rights groups were noticeably silent. Susan Estrich, a lawyer and feminist pioneer, wrote in Slate, “This is just one more political assault on the president, politically motivated and politically pursued. You can’t tell me this woman didn’t know whom she was hiring as a lawyer, whom she was allying herself with, whom she was using, and who being used by.” This year Estrich colorfully referred to Trump as “the most vulgar, rude, offensive, racist, bombastic, insensitive, unqualified, disrespectful boor ever to be nominated by a major party in our lifetimes”—then baffled feminists when she signed on to defend Roger Ailes against a sexual-harassment lawsuit brought by anchor Gretchen Carlson that led to the Fox News founder’s ouster.
While not offering their exact support, eventually the National Organization for Women, which stood by Clinton, told the president’s supporters they had gone too far in their bashing of Jones. NOW President Patricia Ireland told the New York Daily News in 1997, “I would urge President Clinton to rein in his lawyers on this,” calling their threats to dig up further dirt on Jones in response to a defamation suit she brought, an “inappropriate and disappointing strategy using the so-called ‘nuts and sluts’ defense.”
But none of it compared to Jones’s Penthouse treatment.
Less than a year after coming forward, Jones’s lawyers were fighting to keep 12 nude photos of their client from being published. Penthouse argued the photos were protected by free-speech laws because of their newsworthiness—ostensibly that they betrayed Jones’s true character and undermined her “I’m not that kind of girl” defense. Jones’s lawyers contended publishing the photos, taken when Jones was 19 years old by her 31-year-old boyfriend, was a violation of New York privacy laws. A judge disagreed.
“Publication of these photos was the functional equivalent of a rape—a public raping of Paula Jones—where the rapist instead of being punished gets paid for his behavior,” Jones’s attorney Joseph Cammarata said in response to the ruling. (Cammarata is currently representing seven women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby.)
While Jones was trying to repair her reputation, the 1995 article that accompanied the photos sought to destroy it. Through dozens of anecdotes—provided by Jones’s brother-in-law, former boyfriends, neighbors, even a manager at the shoe store where she once worked—writer Rudy Maxa crafted a profile of Jones as a “small-town vamp.” For rural Arkansas, Jones’s makeup and short skirts, her devil-may-care attitude, and popularity with boys all added up to something.
“Jones’s accusations, detailed in a lawsuit filed against Clinton last spring, did nothing to to help raise the public’s perception of the president’s character,” Maxa wrote. “But what about Paula Jones’s character?… What about Paula Jones’s reputation?”
To add insult to injury, Penthouse reprinted the photos in April 1998, the month a federal district judge dismissed Jones’s case. (She would appeal.) For this, Maxa went back to Arkansas for more local dirt on Jones’s alleged promiscuity and again rehashed back-fence gossip about her tight dresses and loose morals. Even the headline, “The Devil in Paula Jones,” was the same.
Maxa wondered once more: Why had Paula Jones waited so long to come forward? And why had she not been more upset when telling family what Bill Clinton had allegedly asked of her in that hotel room? But he included new details, too: She’d supposedly had sex in a car once; Jones’s landlord said the Joneses never had money; her handyman allegedly said Jones flirted with him.
According to the unnamed handyman, Jones responded to his rejection of her advances with, “You men… I can get back at you, you’ll see.”
(If this seems like an unlikely quote, a look at Maxa’s own record raises further questions concerning the Penthouse writer’s dedication to facts and accuracy. Two months after the Jones story, Penthouse retracted an equally explosive article from Maxa on New York Episcopal priests who, he reported, had engaged in homosexual orgies with Brazilian men. Most of the allegations were found to be untrue. In 1991, he left or was booted from his gig at Washingtonian magazine shortly after the publication printed an apology and settled a libel suit with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke over a profile that painted him as racist who knew about the fixing of football games.)
After the Penthouse shaming, some of Jones’s staunchest conservative supporters turned their backs on her; among them, Operation Rescue’s Rick Mahoney, who set up Paula’s first legal defense fund. “All the sudden these pictures surface and and then they dumped me like a hot potato,” Jones would later explain to Joe Conason. “I guess because I was dirty and this and that…”
Meanwhile, Jones’s harassment suit was being commandeered for a greater cause—the takedown of a president. The search for evidence in Jones’s case uncovered the affair between the president and Monica Lewinsky, and the discovery that Clinton had lied under oath about his relationship with the White House intern, which in turn led to independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report and Clinton’s impeachment.
Things were moving fast for Jones, and it wasn’t always clear just who was in control of her case. In 1997, Jones was being represented by Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata—two moderate Republicans who suggested that Jones accept a settlement offer of $700,000. For her part, Jones later said, “Oh, I instructed them many times to try and get the case settled…”
But there were other lawyers steering the ship from behind the scenes, a group of young conservatives who referred to themselves as Elves (as in the muscle and magic that runs Santa’s workshop). These elves included George Conway—husband to Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s third and current campaign manager who has defended Trump’s trotting out of Jones and the other women, telling Anderson Cooper, “I believe that voters should know who Hillary Clinton is.” George Conway wrote the Supreme Court brief that allowed Jones’s case to continue and leaked to Matt Drudge details of a sealed affidavit that would later be used to discredit Jones—one in which she described a “distinguishing characteristic” of the president’s penis, specifically a bend, a condition that doctors who examined Clinton disputed.
Another “Elf,” now-famous conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, was little-known outside far-right DC circles at the time, but made no secret of her distaste for the quick settlement that Jones said she always wanted.
In Michael Isikoff’s Uncovering Clinton, Coulter called news of a settlement “a fucking disaster!”
“We were terrified that Jones would settle,” Coulter reportedly said. “It was contrary to our purpose of bringing down the president.”
While other accounts downplay Coulter’s actual contributions, Bob Guccione Jr., the eldest son to Penthouse magazine’s publisher, and one-time boyfriend to Coulter in the ’90s, said the blonde political commentator was clear about her role then, and what she thought of Jones.
“[Coulter] boasted about surreptitiously writing Jones’s legal complaint with a couple of her conservative lawyer friends in DC,” Guccione Jr. told The Daily Beast. “She bemoaned that Jones made a fool of herself in the media, because not only had she not been involved in writing her own complaint, she hadn’t bothered to read it when it was done.”
Coulter did not respond to a request for comment.
When Susan Carpenter McMillan, an antiabortion activist who had befriended Jones, got wind of a settlement in the spring of 1997, she officially signed on as her official spokesperson, telling Jones’s lawyers: “I’m on board. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to approve of it. I’m here. I’m going to defend her.”
Jones’s advisers and husband convinced her not to take the 1997 settlement, leading her attorneys, Davis and Cammarata, to quit. McMillan held a press conference in front of her home to announce the split.
No case was more publicized at the time, and Jones’s case was quickly taken over by Dallas lawyers provided by conservative a Christian legal organization, the Rutherford Institute, whose first order of business involved sending out direct-mail requests for donations. When the money didn’t come rolling in—they only collected $300,000—Rutherford President John Whitehead could only guess why.
“There’s a sexual angle to the case that bothers some people,” Whitehead told the Associated Press. “I thought I would have people patting me on the back… but I haven’t heard a thing from anybody.”
When a settlement was finally reached in 1998, Jones had incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of unnecessary debt. Her reputation was ruined: She was mocked mercilessly on late-night television, and in a 1998 national poll, only a quarter of Americans said they believed Jones was telling the truth. After legal fees, her $850,000 settlement turned into $151,000, and because of mismanagement of one of her legal defense funds, Jones owed thousands in taxes and penalties to the IRS.
A year after the settlement, Jones was an unemployed, broke, divorced mother of two boys, and all her conservative friends had disappeared. So she agreed to pose for a tasteful spread in the very magazine that she had sued to stay out of, the same one that had disparaged her twice before. The money, she said, would be used for her sons’ college funds.
Upon hearing Jones was posing for Penthouse, conservatives who had abandoned her in droves, began to actively attack her. Ann Coulter made her disdain public, writing, “[Jones] used to be a hero in a David and Goliath conflict. She used to have dignity and nobility and tremendous courage. Now she’s just the trailer-park trash they said she was.”
In 2000, Jones sat down for an accompanying Penthouse interview with Joe Conason, coauthor of that same year’s The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. Jones still thought she had been “done wrong” by the Clintons and their attack machine, but she seemed to have also grown wary of the right, concluding, “I was used by a lot of people to get to him.”
“I feel like I came out with the wrong end of the stick, you know?” she said.
But that was then. These days, though many of the players are the same, Jones seems like a woman on her own mission. Jones came out against Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in a 2015 interview with the Daily Mail and told Inside Edition in September, “I am a big Trump supporter, I think he would be our next best president since Ronald Reagan.”
After joining Trump’s impromptu press conference last week, Jones appeared with the same women on non-journalist Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. There, Jones alluded to the conspiracy theories first pushed in the Clinton Chronicles in which she appeared decades ago: “There’s been so many things to happen to so many people that are connected to the Clintons.” When Hannity asked if Jones fears for her own life, she answered, “Absolutely I feel that way if she becomes the president. She’s going the rule the world.”
Jones declined an interview with The Daily Beast. Her husband, with whom she lives in Arkansas, Steven McFadden, told me that Jones is cautious these days when it comes to the media, but in a brief telephone call, praised his wife for weathering more than most could imagine.
“Paula’s definitely a strong lady. She’s not one that you want to back into a corner,” McFadden said.
Jones hasn’t commented on the spate of women who came forward last week with stories alleging Donald Trump had sexually assaulted them, or his denials, which routinely invoke the unattractiveness of his accusers—a tactic with which Jones, ridiculed mercilessly for her appearance and social class, should feel all too familiar.
She’s also stayed quiet regarding the recently rediscovered tapes of Trump disparaging her in the press. In 1998 on Fox News, Trump said that Bill Clinton himself had been a victim of a “truly an unattractive cast of characters,” naming Jones among them. He was more direct on MSNBC, telling Chris Matthews in 1998, “Paula Jones is a loser.”
Still, if Jones harbors any animosity toward the Republican nominee or his alt-right backers who, not so long ago, used her for their own political agendas, she hasn’t made it known. For Jones, whatever happened in that Little Rock hotel room—and the price she ultimately paid for it—seems to trump all.
Tatyana Bellamy-Walker contributed research.