Bill Clinton privately boasted to a close friend that he had "never had more money in his life" less than two months after leaving the White House in 2001, contradicting a claim by Hillary Clinton that the former first couple was "dead broke" and struggling financially at the time.
The former president made the comments just weeks after he left office, according to a contemporaneous audio diary recorded by his long-time friend Taylor Branch and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
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Branch recounted one conversation that he had with Bill Clinton on March 7, 2001 at his home in Chappaqua, New York.
"[Clinton] is doing these speeches," said Branch. "He said he’s never had more money in his life. He’s made more money in the past month than he has in previous years, giving these speeches."
Bill and Hillary Clinton have reportedly made over $100 million giving paid speeches since 2001. However, Bill Clinton’s lecture-circuit strategy was already taking shape before he departed the White House, according to the recordings.
Clinton told Branch a week before his exit date that he planned to immediately sign up with a speaking agency and devote significant time to "making money."
Branch recorded dozens of late-night interviews with Bill Clinton for an oral history project between the early 1990s and 2000. Although the president kept the only copies of the interviews, Branch took notes and recounted the conversations into a tape recorder after each of the interview sessions ended.
The previously unpublished recordings challenge Hillary Clinton’s narrative that the couple struggled financially after leaving the White House.
"We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt," Hillary Clinton said during an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2014. "We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea's education. You know, it was not easy."
According to the Branch recordings, Bill Clinton was flush with cash almost immediately. Clinton said he even delayed accepting a massive book deal for his first couple of months out of office because he was concerned about how the high-dollar payout would look publicly.
"I talked to [Clinton] about his book, and all he said was, more than once, ‘You wouldn’t believe the offers I’ve gotten,’" recounted Branch in a March 7, 2001 tape. "And he was still postponing them and holding them off because he knows there will be a burst of publicity about the amount of money involved in any book offer he takes."
Before leaving the White House, Clinton also outlined his priorities to Branch, according to a January 8, 2001 recording. Clinton said his first concern was making money, followed by setting up his library and foundation. He said any time left over would be devoted to public service.
"[Clinton] said I’m coming off two terms, a two-term presidency with high public ratings and rating still rising and contacts all over the world. He said, ‘I know where to find this money, I think I can find it so that’s what I want to do.’"
When Branch asked Clinton what his plans were after leaving office, the president gave his friend a detailed description.
"[Clinton] said then, on Monday, I want to sign an agreement with a lecture firm, start lecturing and get to work on my book contract," according to Branch.
"He said then, the next two or three years, I want to spend roughly half my time making money either lecturing or working on the book, and most of the other time getting my library and foundation up and running. Whatever’s left over in public service."
The Clintons spent a significant amount of their personal money on legal fees during their years in the White House, including $850,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Bill by Paula Jones.
According to a recording from Jan. 26, 1999, Clinton claimed that the media mogul David Geffen offered to cover the Paula Jones payout.
"I asked [Clinton] off the tape about the Jones case, whether it was the largest check he had ever written," said Branch. "And he said it absolutely was. And he said ‘Somebody offered to pay that for me.’ I said, ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘David Geffen.’ And he said, ‘David Geffen wanted to pay the fine for me, [Geffen] said he had made $500 million in the stock market, and that it was a pittance to him, and it was unjust, and that it was more than half the president’s net worth, and it didn’t seem right.’"
Clinton said he turned down the alleged offer for appearance’s sake—but told Geffen he could pay him for speeches instead after he left office.
"The president said, ‘No, as long as I’ve got this impeachment going, it won’t look right … after I leave office you can hire me to give some speeches or something, if you want,’" said Branch. "But [Clinton] said he did write the check himself and that it was the right thing to do."
Geffen told the Free Beacon that he never made such an offer, and has never paid Clinton for a speech.
"I have never hired him to give a speech or anything else and never made such an offer," said Geffen in an email. "I do not know anything about it. I have no recollection of ever talking to him about Paula Jones."
Hillary Clinton sought to clarify her "dead broke" comments amid controversy last summer, saying that she meant that Bill had to work hard after his presidency ended.
"Bill and I were obviously blessed. We worked hard for everything we got in our lives and we continue to work hard, and we’ve been blessed in the last 14 years," she said. "So for me it’s just a reality what we faced when he got out of the White House, it meant that we just had to keep working really hard."
Branch painted a more leisurely portrait of Bill Clinton days after leaving office, noting in the March 2001 tape that the former president did not seem to be doing much when he visited him at his Chappaqua home.
"There’s a pool. And there’s a barn outside where [Clinton] hopes to put some exercise equipment, but he doesn’t have any yet. I don’t think he exercises," said Branch. "I don’t think he has a whole lot to do except for talk on the telephone. He is doing these speeches."
Branch wrote the 2010 book The Clinton Tapes based on his interviews with the former president, but some of the recordings did not make it into the volume.