Tapes Make Tripp's Role Clearer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page A01
Snippets of the Linda R. Tripp tapes have been known for months, the making of them deplored, and the dangers they pose for President Clinton widely proclaimed.
Made public yesterday, they show a tough and at times scheming woman, cautioning Monica S. Lewinsky to trust no one, advising her to look out for her own interests and keep evidence to protect herself. At the same time, Tripp was looking to save her own skin and perhaps to nail Clinton's.
The thousands of pages of tape transcripts, grand jury testimony, FBI interviews and other exhibits released by the House Judiciary Committee show a deep, complex and occasionally contentious relationship between two women that finally exploded last Jan. 13 with Tripp, wired by the FBI, secretly recording a final conversation with Lewinsky about her sexual encounters with Clinton. By then, they were lying to one another.
The image of Tripp that emerges from all of this is more of a manipulative confidante than a conspiring puppeteer. Tripp probes Lewinsky and pushes her to protect herself. But she appears to be reacting and taking advantage of events as they unfold, rather than causing them to occur or driving them to any foregone conclusion.
Tripp's manipulations of Lewinsky stand out starkly in her first interview with the FBI, last Jan. 12, when she disclosed how the young woman had told her about the now famous navy blue dress that was stained with the president's semen. She told the agents that Lewinsky "won't have the dress dry-cleaned to this day."
What Tripp seems not to have told the FBI is that it was she who, according to Lewinsky's version, talked her friend out of having it cleaned.
At another point, in what must rank as one of the scandal's ultimate ironies, Tripp warns Lewinsky about confiding too much in the president's personal secretary, Betty Currie, the so-called "facilitator for Clinton's dalliances."
"I'd be careful about what I said on the phone to her," Tripp advised.
The Tripp tapes, capturing dozens of conversations with Lewinsky that began exactly one year ago today, are dominated by White House gossip, job-strategy sessions and sighing girl talk as well as more serious discussion about possible grand jury appearances and untruthful testimony.
They talk of the White House as though it were a fortress garrisoned with cold, unfeeling senior aides who Lewinsky must outfox if she is ever to find true happiness.
If Tripp is the hardened coach telling the younger woman to use her leverage for a better job, Lewinsky is the lovelorn Juliet, at some times angry and despairing, at others wistful and expectant.
"The first time I ever looked into his eyes close up and was with him alone, I saw somebody totally different than I expected to see," Lewinsky says fondly on an Oct. 6, 1997, tape. "And that's the person I fell in love with . . . that's the person that's been there at tender moments. And he's been distant and vacant with me for the past few months."
"On purpose," Tripp says in typically blunt fashion,
"You're a wonderful person, but the bottom line is, please let some self-preservation enter into this."
The friendship was at times exasperating and frustrating for both women. Tripp said she was bombarded by "20 and 30 calls per day from Monica," and at least five and usually many more visits a day to her office. At her home, Tripp said, "I finally broke down and bought the caller identification box because I literally couldn't cope with the sheer vast number of phone calls from Monica."
They bickered by e-mail as well. On the morning of Nov. 27, 1997, for instance, Tripp sent a curt message saying: "Monica: PLEASE give me a break. I have been more than patient with you and am very worried about your state of mind. ... The information alone is a hefty burden and one I never asked for. The pursuant behavior concerning that information is more than I can take."
Twelve minutes later, Lewinsky e-mailed back: "I will respect your wishes to leave you alone. ... Obviously I hope that you will eventually decide that we can be friends without having to discuss any of this other crap. I will be . . . on my way to NY by the 31st. If you want to resume any kind of friendship before then, I am more than open to it."
Harsh words were also exchanged by computer on Oct. 27, 1997. Tripp: "I really am finished Monica. Share this sick situation with one of your other friends because, frankly, I'm past nauseated about the whole thing."
Monica, 10 minutes later: "That's fine with me, Linda. I would only like to ask that I have your assurance everything I have shared with you remains between us. You have given me your word before, but that was when we were on good terms. Can I still trust that?" Unbeknown to Lewinsky, Tripp had started cooperating with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. First she called Starr's top deputy, Jackie M. Bennett Jr., on Jan. 12 without giving her name. Soon, she was talking to the FBI at her home in Columbia.
She had been taping Lewinsky on her own, with a RadioShack recorder, since Oct. 3, 1997. According to the notes of that first FBI interview, Tripp said she began taping the conversations for protection because she feared Clinton lawyer Robert S. Bennett.
Tripp said she "believed that Bennett and the White House would try to destroy her based on what she had seen them to do other people who got in their way."
Other interviews show that Tripp also had a book in mind and that it was New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg who suggested that Tripp record her conversations with Lewinsky. In her interview with Starr's agents on July 17, Goldberg said she had warned Tripp that without such irrevocable proof, the Clinton "machine" would destroy her.
A holdover from the Bush White House who got a public affairs job at the Pentagon in 1994, Tripp met Lewinsky not long after the former White House intern arrived there in April 1996 as an aide to the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Kenneth Bacon.
Excited at finding someone else who had worked at the White House, Lewinsky began the garrulous, eventually grievous relationship that caused her to burst out to a grand jury in August: "I hate Linda Tripp."
"She seemed needy," Tripp told a federal grand jury June 30 under a guarantee of immunity from federal prosecution and a promise of help in fending off Maryland investigators looking into possible illegality in her taping of telephone conversations. "I thought she was incredibly beautiful, bright, clever. Everything to offer. And on the other hand, completely lacked confidence on every level."
Lewinsky appreciated how close they had become, telling Tripp on the telephone on Oct. 3, 1997, that "we really have a unique relationship, you know."
"There's a lot of mother-daughter there," Tripp observed.
"Yeah," Lewinsky said, not realizing that Tripp was taping her for the first time.
At the outset of their friendship, the two women found they had much to share. Both had not only worked at the White House, but both had also been shoved out, Tripp after being told she would have to take a pay cut if she wanted to stay, and Lewinsky for being too flirtatious with the president. Both had a weight problem.
"We had lots in common, surprisingly enough," Tripp testified. "We commiserated at great length about our history of being overweight. ... We tried countless diets. We supported one another that way."
Both were also severely faulted by their colleagues for the quality of their work. Lewinsky was supposed to be a transcriptionist on international trips, but she was a poor typist and speller. Tripp appears to have had a high opinion of her own abilities, but a harsh three-page memo from her boss, Cliff Bernath, in the fall of 1994 said "she has been a disruptive force since her arrival and nothing we do seems to assuage her."
Tripp had wanted to stay at the White House after Clinton was sworn in; she told the FBI she was kept on because of her institutional knowledge, arranging, for example, to have some West Wing phone numbers changed because they were ringing off the hook.
Tripp said she was entrusted with working on files of the Clintons' personal business though she expressed concern she might be suspected of any leaks. There were no leaks, she said. In 1994, she did leak to reporters news of Clinton friend Webster L. Hubbell's resignation from the Justice Department.
While working in the White House, Tripp got to know volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, who told her in the spring of 1993 that she was flirting with the president. In fact, like Lewinsky would later, Willey began to call Tripp regularly, and show her drafts of notes to the president.
After the president allegedly kissed and fondled Willey in November 1993, she described the incident to Tripp, according the FBI interview notes. Willey described the president as "a great kisser." but said she had expected the kiss to be more romantic. When Willey expressed concern someone might see them, Clinton said, "deny, deny, deny," Tripp said.
When Lewinsky told Tripp some three years later about the oral and phone sex she had with the president, Tripp told the grand jury: "It was almost a sense of deja vu. It was Kathleen Willey worse, it was knowing of the others that had admitted this sort of thing while I was at the White House. It was a sense of 'why me?' What are the odds that two of them will tell me the same thing?"
She said she knew of at least one other woman who had had "an affair" with the president and that there were rumors about others. Tripp said that "some of us" at the White House referred to former Clinton girlfriends as "the graduates."
When asked about the Willey incident by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff in 1997, Tripp said it was not sexual harassment but "a matter between consenting adults who were both in bad marriages." She said she also discussed the matter with presidential adviser Bruce R. Lindsey, who asked if Tripp would agree that Willey was "an unstable person who was emotionally unbalanced."
Tripp said she told Lindsey that she had accused Willey of making the story up, but that Willey stood by it. Tripp said she also told Lindsey that she regarded Willey as "a damsel in distress . . . used, abused and penniless."
Lewinsky did not tell Tripp of her relationship with the president until the fall of 1996, months after they met. In subsequent conversations and phone calls, Tripp said Lewinsky told her there were three kinds of people in the White House when it came to the affair with the president.
There were "helpers" like Bayani Nelvis, the steward; and Lewis Fox, a uniformed Secret Service officer, "who would give Lewinsky access to areas of the White House and intelligence about the president and his whereabouts. There were the "protectors" of the president such as Nancy Hernreich, Evelyn S. Lieberman and Stephen Goodin who would spot her and "shoo" her away, and there were the "facilitators," such as Betty Currie.
On the day in May 1997 that the president told Lewinsky he couldn't see her anymore, Tripp recounted, Lewinsky said Clinton told her he had had hundreds of women, that he was obsessive and could not stop.
By this account, Clinton said Lindsey always took the hotel room next to him on the road so Clinton couldn't sneak in women. And when Lewinsky called him handsome, he responded: "When I look in the mirror, I sees [sic] a fat little kid who couldn't throw a ball straight."
Tripp's discussions with agent Goldberg about a book began in the summer of 1996 after a furor over publication of Gary W. Aldrich's "Unlimited Access: an FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House." Full of assertions about drug use, rampant theft, open gay/lesbian sex and late night disappearances by the president, it was assailed harshly and repeatedly by the White House, but rose to the best-seller lists nonetheless.
In her grand jury testimony, Tripp said she was upset to see Aldrich "smeared in the media" when she considered most of what he had written "based on my observations" to have been truthful. Having been urged by a friend, Fox-TV commentator and former Bush speechwriter Tony Snow to write a book, Tripp contacted him and he put her in touch with Goldberg.
The result was a 12-chapter synopsis prepared by Maggie Gallagher, a syndicated columnist Goldberg recommended, on the basis of what Tripp told her. It included a chapter dealing with Willey and, Tripp said, incidents "pertaining to other women." Lewinsky was not among them, not yet having told Tripp of her encounters.
Tripp claimed she was "absolutely horrified" by Gallagher's synopsis. She acknowledged it was based on what she told Gallagher, but "it was way too sensational . . . it looked like a tell-all book" as opposed to "the matter-of-fact accounting" of the Bush and Clinton presidencies that she had in mind.
Goldberg was exasperated. "[T]he last words Lucianne Goldberg said to me is, 'Who do you think you are, the queen of England?'‚" Tripp recalled. "And she slammed the phone down and I didn't talk to her again until the end of September of '97."
Goldberg told the FBI that Snow passed word that Tripp wanted to see her again and when they spoke, "Tripp provided just enough information for Goldberg to be interested in the story."
At their meeting, Goldberg said, Tripp told her she had "explosive" information about a young woman, also working at the Pentagon, who was having an affair with Clinton.
Tripp suggested she wanted the story to come out in Newsweek magazine, whose reporter already had been in contact with her. Goldberg advised Tripp to record her conversations with the young woman. Without such irrevocable proof, Goldberg said she told Tripp, the "machine" would destroy Tripp. On at least two occasions Goldberg spoke to Tripp on the telephone and taped the conversations.
In September, Goldberg and Tripp had an inconclusive meeting with Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. Goldberg said she advised Tripp to get further documentation of the affair, and suggested that Tripp tell Lewinsky to send her gifts and letters to Clinton via Goldberg's brother's courier service.
In the meantime, Goldberg said, she called a friend in Starr's private law office, who suggested Goldberg call Jackie M. Bennett Jr. Goldberg called Bennett with Tripp's story, the report of the Goldberg interview said, "sometime before Tripp did."
After Tripp herself spoke with the independent counsel's office on Jan. 12, she told Goldberg she had agreed to wear a secret FBI wire to lunch with Lewinsky the next day. She called Goldberg afterward to say that "everything went fine," but that prosecutors had advised her to have no further contact with Goldberg.
The night before Tripp's first appearance before Starr's grand jury, Snow again called Goldberg and said Tripp wanted to talk. Goldberg told agents they spoke "five or six times" after that, "mostly about the grand jury."
Goldberg also said that she had been offered $750,000 to sell the transcripts of the tapes of her conversations with Tripp. She said that she believed all of Tripp's tapes were worth approximately $2 million.
Staff writer Charles R. Babcock contributed to this report.
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