By Peter Baker
Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr instructed Tripp yesterday to appear on Tuesday to testify for the first time in the investigation of the president she sparked when she approached Starr's office in January and turned over more than 20 hours of recordings.
Legal experts had expected Tripp to be the last witness brought before the grand jury investigating whether Clinton lied under oath or encouraged others to do so, and one attorney close to the case suggested yesterday's subpoena "ratchets up" the pressure on Lewinsky to reach an agreement with Starr to testify. Another lawyer close to the investigation, however, recalled that Starr signaled long ago that he would summon Tripp in mid-June and said it should not be seen as an attempt to squeeze the former White House intern.
Starr and Lewinsky's new legal team are engaged in negotiations to secure her cooperation with prosecutors in exchange for protection from prosecution. Her lawyers have renewed an offer to have her testify that she had a sexual relationship with Clinton despite both of their sworn denials, but she would not say that the president encouraged her to lie under oath about it in the since-dismissed Paula Jones lawsuit, according to lawyers familiar with the discussions. Starr has not been satisfied with the offer but talks are continuing.
Tripp, a former White House aide who befriended Lewinsky when both worked at the Pentagon, has been one of the most intriguing figures in the whole saga, largely keeping to herself and for a time staying in quarters provided by the FBI, even as she has been reviled by Clinton backers, Lewinsky lawyers and others for betraying a friend's trust.
Tripp's lawyers, Anthony Zaccagnini and Joe Murtha, confirmed that she was subpoenaed to testify Tuesday and Zaccagnini said he views the development as a signal the independent counsel's office is moving forward.
"It is clear that Linda is now the star witness and that her value to the independent counsel's office cannot be understated," said Zaccagnini.
The president's camp bristled at the news that Tripp would appear while Clinton is in China on one of the most important foreign missions of his presidency, seeing it as further evidence of Starr's political ill will. "This was about trying to embarrass the president," complained one Clinton ally who declined to be named.
Word of Tripp's impending testimony eclipsed the final appearance of another witness whose testimony was so hotly disputed that Starr and Clinton went to court to fight over it. Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House communications strategist ordered by a judge to talk despite Clinton's claim of executive privilege, testified for the third time yesterday and was told he was probably finished.
"The president shared his account of the Lewinsky matter with me," Blumenthal told reporters on the courthouse steps afterward. "He did so unguardedly and freely, under the assumption that we were speaking in complete privacy. What I told the grand jury under oath supports completely what the president has told the American people and is contrary to any charge that the president has done anything wrong."
Blumenthal, considered a confidant of Hillary Rodham Clinton, also said he had spoken in confidence with the first lady and that she had told him, "the accusations will collapse eventually of their own insubstantiality."
His lawyer, William McDaniel, said that in contrast to his complaints about a previous appearance "many of the questions actually touched upon some of the substantive allegations" yesterday. But McDaniel again charged that "there were still many, many questions that revealed Ken Starr's focus on what the White House is doing to deal with the media, and what the White House thinks and says about him."
Moreover, McDaniel said prosecutors did not focus on the ostensible reason for summoning Blumenthal, any role he had in spreading negative information about Starr's deputies. "Mr. Blumenthal had nothing to do with any of that, but they wouldn't know that because they never asked him," McDaniel said. "They never raised those allegations."
Blumenthal was forced to answer questions after a court rejected Clinton's claim of executive privilege and the president decided not to pursue an appeal. But the White House is still appealing a different part of the court ruling that also ordered White House deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey to testify despite attorney-client privilege. The White House filed its final brief in that appeal under seal yesterday in preparation for oral arguments Monday before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
A separate three-judge panel of that court will hear oral arguments this morning in a parallel fight over whether Starr can force Secret Service officers to testify about what they know of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt and staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.
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