By Amy Goldstein and Rene Sanchez
The White House's directive struck Pentagon officials as curious. They had not asked the White House for any promising job candidates in public affairs, and were unaccustomed to such edicts, according to a senior official in that office who agreed to speak only on background but had been authorized to discuss Tripp's employment.
Nevertheless, within weeks, the White House had succeeded in removing a woman who had become exasperated with her fading role there, and outspoken about her dissatisfaction with top Clinton officials. And Tripp won a substantial raise. Her new salary was about $20,000 higher than her pay as a White House secretary.
Tripp's move across the Potomac River was a fateful transition in her career, for she has emerged now as a catalyst in the controversy involving President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky, a former White House intern who eventually arrived at the Pentagon herself and befriended Tripp. Since both Clinton and Lewinsky have denied they had a sexual relationship, the most tangible evidence to the contrary exists in tape recordings, made secretly by Tripp, of conversations in which Lewinsky claimed to have had the affair.
It remains unclear what motivated Clinton aides to offer Tripp such a career-enhancing favor in 1994. After all, for months she was left in limbo, even though she had asked them repeatedly for a new job after her boss left and the new White House counsel brought in his own secretary.
Did they become eager to remove her because she was considered, as one former White House co-worker suggests, a "dangerous commodity . . . kind of a loose cannon" with a bad attitude? Did the White House want to make her happy because they feared she might possess damaging information about events surrounding the suicide of Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel in whose office she had sometimes worked? Or did they feel obliged to help find a job for a woman whose services were no longer needed but who had put in many years with the government?
Whether White House officials, in fact, found Tripp a job because she was a potentially dangerous employee is significant. More than three years later, under different circumstances with different actors, the White House sought to secure a job for Lewinsky, too. Now, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is exploring whether Clinton's friends and aides helped the former intern get a job offer from Revlon in New York in order to quiet a potentially nettlesome witness.
The events surrounding Tripp's move to the Pentagon do not appear to be the subject of any investigation. The White House declines to comment on them. "I'm not aware of the circumstances of the job shift, and we're not in a position to inquire," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
Tripp's lawyer, James Moody, would not comment publicly on the matter.
No one interviewed could say who in the White House came up with the idea to send Tripp to the Pentagon. But the senior Pentagon public affairs official, who worked with her after she arrived there, said that in early August 1994 the White House liaison officer to the Pentagon at the time, Charlie Duncan, gave the office a "priority placement list" on which Tripp's was the only name. Duncan, who has since left the Pentagon, did not return repeated telephone calls.
The directive was unusual in several respects, according to the Pentagon official. The White House forwards many names on priority lists, but they usually arrive near the beginning of an administration, as an incoming White House team tries to assist the people they are displacing.
In Tripp's case, she had been displaced several months earlier, when Bernard Nussbaum resigned and Lloyd N. Cutler took over as White House counsel in a caretaker's role for a few months. He did not revamp the entire staff but brought along his own executive assistant, a move that left Tripp suddenly without a job.
In addition, because Tripp was a political appointee in the White House, rather than part of a civil service system that provides strong job protections for employees, the administration had somewhat less obligation to find her another job.
'Knew Too Much'
With Tripp, "what was unusual was the strength of the request. . . . There were no options [but to hire her]. There was no interview," the Pentagon official said. "It was kind of the extreme of possibilities."
Tripp also received an uncommon raise. Her starting salary at the Pentagon of $69,427 "was high," the official said, but it was the figure reached after negotiations among the White House, the Pentagon and the Office of Personnel Management.
Most of the time, when political appointees switch agencies, their salaries are based largely on what they had been paid in the past. In Tripp's case, her pay at the Pentagon represented an increase of 45 percent from the $47,920 annual salary she had received at the White House as of 1993.
After two years at the Pentagon, Tripp received favorable job evaluations that helped boost her salary to $88,000. Tripp has cited those evaluations in recent days to suggest she was a trusted employee, not a malcontent. The Pentagon official said her top ratings were hardly unusual; three-quarters of the Pentagon's 114 public affairs employees also are rated as "outstanding."
The Pentagon official said that Tripp performed well -- when she was supervised. But he added that "she came here, it seemed to me, somewhere between angry and with a chip on her shoulder." Shortly after she arrived, Tripp demanded a private office -- which she did not get -- and was critical of one co-worker, the official said. Several of her Pentagon colleagues also recall her saying that she had been exiled there because she "knew too much about Whitewater."
"Linda tends to see the dark side of people, the dark side of situations," the official said.
That world view was evident during Tripp's White House days, according to those who knew her.
Tripp arrived at the White House during the Bush administration, working at first as a low-level secretary and eventually as an administrative aide. At the time Foster killed himself, six months into the Clinton administration, Tripp worked for him occasionally as part of her job as Nussbaum's executive assistant.
In the days after Foster's death, Tripp exchanged e-mail messages with co-workers in which they derided the way White House officials were handling materials left behind in Foster's office, according to testimony and documents.
But despite the signs of her growing discontent, she remained in the counsel's office until the following March, when Cutler arrived.
In 1995, once she had moved to the Pentagon, Tripp told Senate investigators during their probe of the Whitewater case that she had been "roleless" during her last months at the White House, assigned an empty desk in another part of the White House, with nothing to do.
In her Senate testimony about Whitewater, Tripp was viewed by some Republicans there as a cooperative, straightforward witness -- but one hardly gushing with important revelations. Some Democrats, however, questioned whether she had divulged sensitive information about Whitewater to conservative political groups.
In late June of 1994, two months before she was transferred to the Pentagon -- White House employees began receiving requests to testify in Whitewater, including about Foster's death. Whether Tripp received one of these earliest subpoenas is not clear.
Two co-workers from Tripp's White House years recall her as competent but prone to be negative and self-aggrandizing. "I don't think she ever did anything contrary to the presidency," one former co-worker remembers, "but she was . . . constantly disagreeable, someone who tried to act like a big gatekeeper, a player in everything, when she in fact was really only a secretary."
And as her work diminished, her unhappiness grew. "I don't think she was ever at a level of Clinton-hating as a dogma," said another official who worked with her. "It was more like, 'I've been screwed. They're going to have to deal with me.' "
At the time, the issue of dismissing White House workers already was a sensitive one, because a year earlier the Clinton administration had been besieged with criticism after it fired employees in the travel office.
The co-workers said they believe the White House could have been motivated to find Tripp a job elsewhere because many thought she had a sour attitude.
"One of the best ways to get a better job in government is for people to really need you to move out of the job you have," one of the officials said. "And she was viewed as something of a dangerous commodity. . . . Exactly what she has become now is what people sensed might happen back then."
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