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Clinton accuser fights a legacy of being doubted

Kathleen Willey, 72, sits on the front porch at her home in Powhatan, Va. Photo for The Washington Post by Julia Rendleman.

Thirty-nine days before she would lose the home she loved, Kathleen Willey poured her coffee, fed the dogs and clicked on the TV above her fireplace. Fox News was the ever-present background noise to her life, but on this morning, Willey would be paying close attention. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh were about to testify before Congress.

A woman accusing a powerful man of sexual assault. Her story being picked apart. Her credibility questioned. All of it, Willey had experienced, too, and so she opened her laptop to check her GoFundMe page once again.

"Thanks to all of you for your understanding and support through these turbulent years. Ever since I became involved in the Clinton impeachment 21 years ago . . . " it began, though most people on the page "HELP KATHLEEN WILLEY SAVE HER HOME" already knew her story.

In 1993, she'd been a White House volunteer when, she told friends and colleagues, President Bill Clinton kissed and groped her against her will. When the allegations were leaked nearly four years later, Willey was thrust into the political scandal of the century. Her story - which she eventually told to "60 Minutes," the FBI and a grand jury - was emphatically denied by Clinton, who stated he did nothing more than comfort Willey when she was upset.

Ever since, the ordeal has shaped her life. She believes it is why she has problems with trust. Why she struggles to find a good job. Why, at least in part, she is in financial peril, about to lose her timber-frame cottage to foreclosure.

For 21 years, Willey has lived down this secluded gravel road in the woods of Powhatan, Virginia, a community west of Richmond. The three-bedroom house on 10 acres is assessed at $279,200, but after two home-equity loans, Willey is more than $350,000 in debt on the property.

She has filed for bankruptcy five times, including earlier this year, to stave off foreclosure. In September, her loan servicer notified her that the house would be auctioned off on Nov. 5. If she couldn't come up with enough money to satisfy the bank, Willey, at age 72, would lose the home she shares with two dogs and three cats.

"I've been praying to God to help me," she said. "I can't let myself think about being homeless."

She had no attorney, no family members coming to her aid, no plan. She'd tried crowdfunding before, without much success. But this time around, her GoFundMe page was getting more traction than usual. In two weeks, she had raised $12,660.

As one of three Clinton accusers who campaigned for Donald Trump, Willey never thought what she calls the "toxic" #MeToo movement would do anything for her. Yet as the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice hung in the balance, it seemed people were paying attention to Willey once again. The accusations against Kavanaugh appeared to be driving donors to her page.

"Keep on fighting!" said someone who sent $10.

"Love and admire you for standing up for what is right . . . " came a note with $50.

"God Bless you Kathleen!" donated $100.

The total kept rising that day, as Ford described being victimized as a teenager. Willey watched her with a mix of partisan skepticism and grudging sympathy, aware of how it feels for a story of assault to become a national spectacle. Maybe the country had started to believe women who accused coaches, comedians or CEOs. But Willey knew when it came to politics, credibility often hinged on the party, not the person.

In the 1990s, she was a victim of that divide - disowned and ridiculed by Clinton's Democratic defenders. Now, she is a die-hard conservative. And this time, the divide seemed to be working in her favor.

She raised hundreds of dollars the day of the hearing, and thousands more was on its way.

"Unlike the fake allegations against Kavanaugh," one donor would write, "I know yours are true."

She thought the president could help fix her problem.

Willey, who'd raised money for Clinton's campaign before becoming a White House volunteer, suddenly needed an income. Her lawyer husband, she'd learned, had stolen money from his clients, creating marital and financial turmoil.

On Nov. 29, 1993, the 47-year-old mother of two went to Clinton to ask for a paid job.

Willey alleges that Clinton pushed her against the corner in the private hallway behind the Oval Office, kissed her, forced her hand onto his genitals and reached up her skirt, saying, "I've wanted to do this since the first time I laid eyes on you."

Only when she dove for the door did she get away.

Shaken, she confided in Linda Tripp, a White House staffer who went on to secretly record conversations with an intern named Monica Lewinsky. Then Willey went home to look for her husband, Ed, who after a blowout fight in front of their children wasn't returning her calls.

She spent hours searching, only to learn Ed had driven to another county, walked into a marsh and shot himself.

The suicide irreparably damaged Willey's family and left her financially adrift. What she had left was her role at the White House - to which she returned around Christmas.

For more than three years, she told only close friends about what had happened with Clinton.

But in 1997, the legal team of Paula Jones, who was suing Clinton for sexual harassment, received a tip about Willey. That tip was passed onto a Newsweek reporter. The rumor of that tip was published on the Drudge Report.

Jones' lawyers subpoenaed Willey. Soon, she was a cooperating witness in the case against Clinton, a tangled web of accusations, denials, affidavits, FBI reports and unanswered questions that would ultimately result in the president's impeachment.

In the process, Willey's credibility was questioned, and in the eyes of many, destroyed. Along with Clinton's own denials, Tripp claimed Willey looked delighted when she spoke of her tryst with the president. A friend of Willey's who at first corroborated her story recanted, saying Willey asked her to lie. When Willey gave an interview to "60 Minutes," the White House released adoring letters she wrote to the president after the alleged incident.

Even Brett Kavanaugh, who at the time worked for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, pressed his boss to leave Willey's allegations out of the report calling for Clinton's impeachment. The proof in her case was no more than "he-said/she-said," Kavanaugh wrote in a memo. "Bottom line: We look unhinged to include Willey."

Intimidation tactics Willey described to the FBI - strangers threatening her children, nails puncturing her tires, the skull of her missing cat appearing on her porch - were mocked. Even prominent feminists scorned her, with Gloria Steinem declaring that her story, if true, was proof only that Clinton "took 'no' for an answer."

For Willey, that time was like her set of Russian nesting dolls, a gift from a friend's trip to Moscow. On the outermost doll is a painting of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Open it up, and the doll inside is Lewinsky,the young woman whose dalliance with the president led to Clinton's impeachment. The next doll is Jones, who accused Clinton of exposing himself to her. Then Gennifer Flowers, who recounted an extramarital affair that Clinton denied then admitted. And then came the tiniest doll, a miniature Kathleen Willey.

To her, that moment in the Oval Office had upended her life. But to the world, she was just one little piece of a much bigger story.

For most of the next decade, Willey kept out of the public eye. She purchased her home in Powhatan with her husband's life insurance money. She got remarried and divorced. She worked at a bakery, at Saks Fifth Avenue and as a real estate agent, but never landed the higher-paying jobs she wanted. Lack of a college degree and difficulty with computers didn't help. But neither did her past.

"They knew. You could tell that they knew," she recalled. "I finally got to the point where I realized people were interviewing me just so they could say they met me."

She became deeply conservative - one of many reasons she re-emerged in 2007 with a book: "Target: Caught in the Crosshairs of Bill and Hillary Clinton."

Hillary was running for president, and Willey wanted the public to know she was complicit in her husband's crimes. And, she said, "I was in a bad position and I needed some money." WorldNetDaily paid her $16,000.

Come 2016, Willey wasn't just against Hillary. She was wholeheartedly for Trump, from the day he announced his candidacy.

"I cried because I felt like somebody was running for president who loved our country," she remembered.

She said political consultant Roger Stone offered to pay her $5,000 a month to fly around the country speaking out against the Clintons. She agreed, but she wasn't sent to any events until The Washington Post published a recording of Trump bragging about grabbing women's genitals without their consent.

The tape was didn't change her mind. "I mean I wasn't real happy about it, but I knew that nobody got raped," she said. "That's a big difference." She said she wasn't aware that more than a dozen women had come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Trump.

So Willey appeared at the second presidential debate, alongside Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, who claims Clinton raped her in 1978. The stunt caused a media frenzy, introduced the allegations to younger voters and, best of all to Willey, left Bill Clinton with "that shifty look in his eyes."

The next day, Trump invoked Willey's name at a rally, arguing that the former president was "a predator" enabled by his wife.

But Stone - who declined to talk about his interactions with Willey - never came through with the money, Willey said. And over the next two years, her life only seemed to grow harder.

She broke her shoulder, tore a rotator cuff and had back surgery for a slipped disk. Her only income was $1,318 a month in Social Security. It never seemed to be enough.

In 2017, as the #MeToo movement began toppling titans of Hollywood and Capitol Hill, Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct was not left out of the conversation.

"The women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have [recently] come to light," Caitlin Flanagan wrote in the Atlantic. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., suggested that Clinton should have resigned.

But where, Willey thought, were the real consequences? All around her, she could see them in her own life. No one from the #MeToo movement was going to change that.

"They have paid absolutely no attention to Juanita, Paula, Gennifer or me," she said. "We were conservative, and so we didn't count."

Seven days before foreclosure and Fox News was on again, but this time Willey wasn't watching. She was waiting for the call. Her loan servicer. Any minute now.

She turned up the volume on her landline, then set it on the table in front of her, beside a leather-bound Bible, a Mega Millions ticket and the paint color brochures she'd picked up when she still had hope she could keep the house.

For the first time in weeks, that hope was back. A retired businesswoman in California whom she knew only from Facebook had sent her a message saying, "I might be able to help you." They talked on the phone.

It bothered the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, that conservatives who trotted out Willey as an anti-Clinton showpiece weren't coming to her aid now. It bothered her that crowdsourcing for Ford, a Kavanaugh accuser who struck her as "mentally unstable," had raised more than $800,000.

She'd always admired Willey, she said in an interview. And because her marriage had recently ended, she suddenly felt empowered to spend her money how she wished. She took money she had saved for her kitchen renovation and wired it to Willey.

It was $50,000.

With the $37,805 that 749 people donated to her on GoFundMe, Willey now had nearly $90,000. Maybe, she thought, that was enough to halt the foreclosure. Maybe they would renegotiate her loan. Maybe she could republish her book with an addendum, and write about the way she thought #MeToo has gone off the rails, and how she wouldn't want to be a man dating today and . . .

The phone rang.

"Ok," she said. "Here it is."

"Hello?" she answered. "Speaking. How are you?"

"The good news is I have raised over $100,000," she said.

"Now I'm flush with money! I can still live off my Social Security if I am careful and I can stock the $100,000 away and make my monthly payment," she said.

"I think it will be a good deal for you, and a good deal for me," she said.

She said the agent was encouraging, telling her: "That's good news." And, "I'll be back in touch with you in a day or two."

The call clicked off. She sank into the couch and covered her face in her hands. She started to laugh.

"God almighty," she said. "I've been sitting here thinking about what am I going to do for Christmas and where am I going to put all this furniture and I literally sat here, every night, and . . . and I am thinking, 'How in the name of God am I going to be able to emotionally pack things up and put them in storage and then, go where?' "

All she had to do was wait for the loan servicer to call back. She had the money. They could come up with a new payment plan.

She opened up her GoFundMe page, checked her total again. She scrolled to the comments and reread them again.

"I don't believe anyone should be punished for telling the truth."

"Put your trust in Jesus and he will give you His grace to get through this. God will punish the Clintons, if not in this life it will be in the next one for all eternity."

"I believe THIS survivor!"

Four days before the foreclosure, her phone rang again. Her loan could be renegotiated, the agent told her. Willey could keep her house.

- - -

This article was written by Jessica Contrera, a reporter for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post's Jonathan O'Connell and Alice Crites also contributed to this story.

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