To Set Record Straight By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 1998; Page A1 As she emerges publicly today to tell her story to a grand jury, Linda R. Tripp, whose secret tape recordings launched the perjury and obstruction-of-justice probe of President Clinton, said she is eager to dispel claims that she manipulated an unwitting Monica S. Lewinsky to entrap Clinton.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Tripp said she has been unfairly vilified in the five months since she went to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr with the tapes of Lewinsky claiming to have had an affair with the president. "I am so anxious to go before the grand jury and tell the truth," she said.
Her critics say she betrayed her young Pentagon colleague and insinuate she won Lewinsky's friendship in a cynical effort to use her confidences against Clinton. Not so, said Tripp. "I did not cultivate Monica -- she cultivated me," she said. "Monica is a very worldly person. She educated me."
In a 20-minute telephone interview Sunday, her first since the investigation began, Tripp, 48, said she has watched in horror at her public portrayal from the seclusion of the suburban Maryland cul-de-sac where she lives. Tripp offered several new details to what is known about her dealings with the former White House intern and denied allegations that she taped Lewinsky to secure a book deal for herself.
Tripp refused to discuss Starr's investigation, her taped conversations or the grand jury testimony that she has spent five months and more than 100 hours with prosecutors preparing to give. Her lawyer, Anthony Zaccagnini, listened in on the interview and counseled Tripp about what questions she should answer.
Her long-awaited appearance at the grand jury today is the first in what she expects to be several lengthy sessions. It comes as Starr is engaged in delicate talks with Lewinsky's new legal team over an immunity deal. After Tripp, the grand jury will have heard from all the major players in the inquiry except for its two central characters: Clinton himself and Lewinsky.
The waiting, Tripp said, has been made harder by the intense criticism of her and the media glare that has included a procession of satellite trucks periodically showing up at her curb. "It is difficult to get in and out of the house, difficult to conduct life as a normal citizen and a mom," she said.
Unlike some other players in the investigation, Tripp has issued just one written statement and her lawyers have largely stayed off talk shows, although they recently brought in Philip Coughter, a friend of Tripp's from the Pentagon, to help with the expected media onslaught.
Many people have called Tripp the villain in this saga. Internet chat lines are filled with angry comments about her. Polls show that only one in 10 Americans view her favorably. Hefty actor John Goodman portrayed her on "Saturday Night Live."
Some of the harshest words have come from Clinton allies and the Lewinsky camp. Former White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis suggested Tripp was the key player in a perjury trap concocted by Starr and Paula Jones's attorneys. William H. Ginsburg, while still Lewinsky's lawyer, said Tripp had "an agenda" and "directed the conversation" with his client, for which he intended to sue her. Lewinsky's father, Bernard, said he did not know "how she sleeps at night" and called Tripp "a pathetic specimen of humanity."
Tripp said that she has avoided some of the most critical coverage. "It's counterproductive on an emotional level," she said. But friends who have kept in touch with her said she is sometimes distraught as she sees herself assailed.
"The most painful part of all this is watching my kids suffer," said Tripp, a divorced mother, of her college-age son and daughter. "They are very fearful for their mom because of the vilification."
"I won't say it's not been difficult, but I have the truth on my side," Tripp added. "It is what has sustained me. The truth as I know it will be corroborated."
Tripp described getting to know Lewinsky in 1996 after Lewinsky was moved -- unwillingly -- from her White House job to the Pentagon press office. Lewinsky, she said, was immediately drawn to the "jumbo" photographs of Clinton at Defense Department functions on the walls around Tripp's cubicle.
Soon, Tripp became one of Lewinsky's several older female confidants, including her mother Marcia Lewis and Scarsdale businesswoman Dale Young, 47, who testified before the grand jury last week and told reporters that she too had been privy to Lewinsky's tales of sexual exploits with Clinton.
Lewinsky, said Tripp, seems older than her 24 years. She is savvy and "a very likable person."
It was in September 1996, five months after her arrival at the Pentagon, Tripp recalled, that Lewinsky first told her of an affair she said she was having with Clinton. For more than a year, said Tripp, Lewinsky shared confidences about the president. One Tripp associate said Lewinsky would call Tripp 20 to 30 times a day -- at home, in her office, even getting her out of meetings.
By October 1997, Tripp said, she was worried that she would soon be dragged into the Jones sexual harassment lawsuit as a witness against Clinton and that it would jeopardize her Pentagon political job. A few months before, Newsweek had quoted Tripp saying that she saw White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey emerge happily from the Oval Office in November 1993 and told Tripp the president had just made a pass at her. Clinton lawyer Robert S. Bennett responded by saying Tripp could not be believed.
Tripp said she then sought advice from Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent she had approached 14 months earlier with a book proposal about the Clinton White House that was to have included a section on the president's sexual peccadilloes. "At that point Lucianne said 'you better get some proof,' " said Zaccagnini, explaining the impetus for taping Lewinsky.
Tripp said it's "completely untrue" she taped Lewinsky to advance a book deal and those who have made such claims will soon "have to eat their words." As proof, she noted Lewinsky had not told Tripp of her relationship with Clinton at the time Tripp was advancing her book proposal and the project was abandoned in August 1996. What followed, said Zaccagnini, was a "14-month period during which Linda never, ever spoke with Lucianne Goldberg."
The low point of the past few months, Tripp said, came when her 1969 arrest for what her lawyer has characterized as a long-ago teenage prank was unearthed in print; the New Yorker reported that Tripp was arrested for grand larceny but not that she was never convicted and that the record of it was expunged. Her Pentagon bosses told the New Yorker she had improperly failed to record the arrest on security forms. The Pentagon has since said Tripp did not act improperly, and the Pentagon and Starr are investigating the release of data from her personnel file.
The fear that she will be fired continues, Tripp said. She is convinced, she said, her Pentagon bosses want to oust her from the $88,000-a-year job she is now doing from home.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company