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Once-Trusted Aide at Heart of It All

Linda R. Tripp. (AP)
By Dana Priest and Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 23, 1998; Page A22

For many years, Linda R. Tripp was a dutiful military wife who followed her Army husband around the globe, a civil servant so trusted that she landed several sensitive military jobs, including a classified position with the highly secret Delta Force.

But more recently, after a lengthy stint as a White House aide, Tripp has become enmeshed in very different circumstances -- as a recurring figure in several ongoing probes surrounding President Clinton. She has been called to testify about what she knows about Whitewater and the suicide of deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. Now she has become a key source of information about two alleged sexual encounters Clinton had, the latest of which has spurred perhaps the most serious investigation to confront his presidency.

She even began writing an "insider's" book about White House intrigue but abandoned it recently because she feared it might ruin her Washington career, according to a friend and former colleague.

"She really agonized over the benefits and the downsides," of writing more than the couple of chapters she finished with the help of a ghost writer, he said. "She said to me, `What's a few thousand dollars compared to throwing away a career?' "

As the news emerged this week that Tripp secretly tape-recorded conversations with 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky, her motives have become a central question.

Was she out to get material for the book? Was she trying to protect her job after Clinton's lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, accused her in public of lying when she told Newsweek about another woman alleged to have had an affair with Clinton? Did she develop a personal vendetta against Clinton because of it?

Some of her friends and former colleagues are asking how is it that someone they think of as an honest but somewhat blunt and brash executive assistant who once showed outward enthusiasm for President Clinton has become the primary channel for such inflammatory allegations against him.

In recent days, however, some White House officials have characterized Tripp as an indiscreet gossip.

For 10 years, beginning in 1972, Tripp had a life typical of military spouses -- finding jobs to match her husband's roving assignments. She worked as an executive assistant to the top-ranking military representative in the Netherlands, and as the personal assistant to the deputy chief of staff for personnel at the 7th Army headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany.

In 1987 she became a secretary in a classified unit of the U.S. Army Intelligence Command at Fort Meade and a year later she joined the Army office of the Delta Force in Fort Bragg, N.C., according to a copy of Tripp's resume on file at the Defense Department.

In 1990, she began a White House career that lasted four years, first for President Bush and later for President Clinton. Though her chores changed, she was always working close to the inner circle of advisers for both presidents.

She began in 1990 in the equivalent of the typing pool, working her way up to a "floater" doing secretarial work in offices. Many colleagues remember her as a straight-arrow who kept confidences.

"She was talkative, friendly, outgoing, helpful, conscientious, responsible," said Evelyn Prytula, a retired secretary now living in Arizona. "But she was not a gossip. She never said anything personal about anybody."

Tripp's 21-year marriage ended in divorce in 1992. She now lives in Columbia with her two children and several cats.

Tripp's account of her White House work, detailed in a 1995 deposition she gave to Whitewater investigators, suggests that she had arrived with ambition but left dejected, with little work to do and the strong sense that she was being shown the door.

In the Bush White House, she worked her way up to the chief of staff's office, in a role that she once described as a "jack-of-all-trades," managing files, phone calls, and schedules, and assisting with speech writing.

Shortly after Clinton was elected, Tripp recalls in the deposition, she figured her days in the White House were over. But a former Bush aide recommended her to Clinton's transition team, and for the first three months of his term she worked on the support staff of Bruce R. Lindsey, one of the Clinton's closest advisers.

She moved to Foster's office, where, among other things, she was entrusted to photocopy all of the Clintons' tax records.

After Foster's suicide, and after White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum left, for whom she also worked, Tripp's role changed drastically. In her deposition, she describes sitting at an empty desk in an obscure office for weeks with nothing to do "but prepare my resume."

During that period, according to documents, Tripp also exchanged e-mail messages with co-workers that mocked and criticized senior White House officials for how they had handled documents in Foster's office after he committed suicide. In one message, Tripp referred to several White House lawyers as "the three stooges."

When she returned from a three-month leave, in August 1994, Joel Klein, an official in the counsel's office, told that there was no work for her at the time, or any on the horizon.

"It was never, `You must leave,' " she said in the deposition, "but the inference was `Find something else.' "

White House officials found her a job in the basement of the Pentagon, just below the office were Monica Lewinsky would later come to work.

In her job at the Pentagon, Tripp arranged a once-a-year orientation program for influential community leaders. She went out of her way, said her friend, to display large photos of Clinton on naval ships or with troops.

She also did not stand for unethical behavior and once turned in an Army reservist for petty wrongdoing for which he was subsequently fired, according to Pentagon officials.

Staff writers Judith Havemann, Paul Valentine and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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