By Susan Schmidt
When Linda R. Tripp went to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in January with evidence that President Clinton was having an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, she took with her the tapes of conversations with Lewinsky that lawyers for Paula Jones were counting on to help win their sexual harassment case against the president.
By last November, according to documents recently released by Congress, Jones's lawyers knew in detail about Clinton's relationship with a former White House intern and knew that their informant, Tripp, had taped her conversations with Lewinsky.
The Jones team felt confident that a major breakthrough in the case was at hand. With the help of Tripp's tapes, the lawyers believed, they could not only establish a pattern of Clinton's sexual preying on subordinates, but would have irrefutable proof that would place the president in both legal and political jeopardy. As last year drew to a close, they subpoenaed testimony and evidence from Tripp, Lewinsky and Clinton.
Yet less than two weeks into January, before the trap could be sprung, Tripp deserted them. With the help of several lawyers who had been part of an informal network of conservatives who had provided legal advice in the Jones suit, Tripp abruptly turned over the tapes to Starr.
Tripp still provided the Jones lawyers with enough information to ask Clinton embarrassing questions about Lewinsky and enable Starr to use the president's evasive answers as evidence of perjury against Clinton but the Jones team did not get the tangible proof of Clinton's sexual affair that it had sought. Eventually a judge dismissed the case, writing that whatever the evidence of extramarital encounters by Clinton, Jones "failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to a jury."
For Tripp, her decision made, she later told grand jurors, out of a combination of fear and outrage achieved two major goals: She gained an immunity agreement that she believed protected her from being prosecuted for illegally taping Lewinsky. And in terms of satisfying her anger at the president, she did much more than help Jones she set in motion the events that could lead to Clinton's impeachment.
What happened between October 1997 and early last January how Tripp came to be intimately involved with the Jones case and ultimately moved into the Starr camp is a story of complex motivations on the part of many players, sometimes working toward a common goal and other times at cross purposes. At the center is Lucianne S. Goldberg, the New York literary agent, who was the common link between Tripp and all of Jones's lawyers and who ultimately advised Tripp to go to Starr.
Although some parts of the tale have been previously known, information buried in the mountain of documents gathered by Starr and released by Congress, together with interviews with some of those involved, paint a much more detailed picture.
Clinton lawyer David E. Kendall and many Democrats have argued that the close connection between the "politically motivated" Jones case and Starr's ostensibly nonpartisan investigation undermines Starr's credibility, and they have asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate. But whether or not the questions they have raised have any impact on the House's deliberations on impeachment Reno has said only that she will "review" the matter the new information illuminates the extent to which Tripp and her tapes were the fulcrum on which so much of the Jones and Starr cases came to balance.
Today, despite her belief that safety lay under Starr's umbrella, Tripp herself is under investigation on several fronts. Her immunity agreement notwithstanding, a Maryland prosecutor has begun presenting evidence to a grand jury on whether Tripp knowingly violated the state's law against taping a telephone conversation without the other party's knowledge. And Starr himself is examining whether she lied to him about how the tapes were made.
Goldberg's Advice to Tripp
In August 1997, Linda Tripp was getting nervous. Newsweek magazine had published a story saying that Clinton had made a crude sexual pass at a part-time White House volunteer, Kathleen E. Willey, and cited Tripp who had talked to a Newsweek reporter as a source of some of the information.
Lawyers for Jones, who were looking for other women, like Jones, who would allege that they had been subjected to unwanted overtures from Clinton, immediately seized on the Willey incident. Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's lawyer in the Jones case, all but called Tripp a liar. Tripp, a former Bush White House employee who had been transferred to the Pentagon when the Clinton administration decided it had no work for her, feared for her job.
As she had before, Tripp went to her friend Goldberg, for advice. Tripp and Goldberg shared a deep antipathy for Clinton and his administration Goldberg had once helped Tripp try to write and sell a book exposing shenanigans inside the Clinton White House.
Tripp had also told Goldberg about a friend of hers at the Pentagon, a young former White House intern who had confided details of a sordid sexual relationship with the president. In order to protect her from Bennett and, not incidentally, gather information that could serve as proof of Clinton's sexual affair Goldberg suggested that Tripp start recording telephone conversations with the young woman, Monica Lewinsky.
If she ever had to testify in the Jones case and describe what she knew about the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky, Goldberg told her, Clinton and Lewinsky would deny it and she would be caught in a "perjury trap," Tripp later said. Goldberg, Tripp said, told her she had consulted lawyers and was assured that such taping was legal in Maryland. On Oct. 3, Tripp began taping her phone calls with Lewinsky.
By Oct. 6, Tripp was ready to plant the seeds for another media exposeĽ of Clinton. Tapes in hand, she and Goldberg met with Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. He expressed interest in the matter, they said, but asked for more information.
Beyond her connection to Tripp, Goldberg had other entrees into the Jones case, ultimately making contact herself with the Jones lawyers. At the same time, she was an acquaintance neither will discuss the extent of their relationship of Richard W. Porter, a lawyer in the Chicago office of Kirkland & Ellis, which was also Starr's law firm.
Porter said in an interview that he had done no legal work on the Jones case, but he was friends with several lawyers who had, including Jerome M. Marcus of Philadelphia and George T. Conway III of New York.
Since the Jones lawsuit was first filed in 1994, Conway and Marcus, an expert in sexual harassment law, had been working behind the scenes to help. Conway had written a 1994 op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times arguing against presidential immunity from a civil suit such as Jones's. Together, he and Marcus had helped write the briefs filed by Jones's two lawyers of record, Gilbert K. Davis and Joseph Cammarata, for arguments before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately before the U.S. Supreme Court, on the question of presidential immunity.
By one informed account, Conway and Marcus were ghostwriters for everything of substance that Davis and Cammarata did in the Jones case. Davis said he and Cammarata sought advice from or were contacted by numerous other legal experts during the litigation, including Theodore B. Olson, a Washington lawyer and close friend of Starr, and Robert H. Bork, the former appeals court judge.
Eventually, conservative lawyer and Washington political commentator Ann Coulter was brought into the mix, working last summer on the Jones response to a Clinton motion to dismiss the case. The group of mostly thirty-something lawyers worked for free and, according to Coulter, kept their activities quiet. "I don't think any of our law firms would be wild about it," she said in an interview. "It's a high-profile case against a Democratic president."
They all assumed that they would be accused of being part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" cited by Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Coulter, author of the recently released "High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton."
In early September, Davis and Cammarata, who had been pursuing a settlement with Clinton, quit the Jones case, citing "fundamental differences" with their client. Coulter called Jones's publicist, Susan Carpenter McMillan, to help look for a new team for Jones, explaining to her about the "kitchen cabinet" of lawyers Conway, Marcus and Coulter who were helping in the case.
On Oct. 1, Jones and McMillan announced that she had accepted financial support from the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which recommended that she hire a Dallas law firm, Rader, Campbell, Fisher and Pyke.
In October, Jones's new lawyers decided they would call Tripp as a witness to Clinton's encounter with Willey. Sometime that month, the Rutherford Institute also received an anonymous call from a woman who suggested they also look into Clinton's relationship with another woman Monica Lewinsky.
Who made that call is still a mystery. Goldberg has said she did not, and has strongly suggested it was Tripp. Tripp has not commented publicly, or in her published testimony before Starr's grand jury.
According to the documents released by Congress early this month, however, once it was clear that the leak to Newsweek had not resulted in a story, Goldberg called Jones's lawyers in November. Tripp later testified that she authorized Goldberg to make the call because, while she "looked forward to testifying truthfully" in response to the subpoena regarding Willey, she was worried about Bennett's cross-examination.
Goldberg told the Jones lawyers that Tripp knew about another presidential affair and was willing to talk about it. On Nov. 21, Jones lawyer David Pyke said in an interview, he called Tripp directly.
"We did have conversations with her in which she let me know there was something more," Pyke said. "Early in conversations with her she mentioned she had tapes," he said, adding, "I don't know what her motivation was."
In a call tape-recorded by Tripp and eventually turned over to Starr, Tripp told Pyke, "Just so you're aware, if I am asked the right questions I will not lie." But, she told him, "I need to look hostile" to the Jones lawyers in front of Bennett. "My livelihood is at stake here."
She particularly was loath to let Bennett know she had made tapes of Lewinsky. "If he asks me under oath I'll have to say, you know, that yes, I have proof, and I'm dead meat," Tripp testified she told Pyke.
Once again, Tripp was confronted with the conflicting goals of exposing Clinton while protecting her job. Despite the fact that she had already offered to play some of the tapes for Isikoff, Tripp later testified that she never expected the tapes to become public. "I didn't take it mentally to the next step, how I would use the tapes," she said. "I just knew I wanted to have them as my insurance policy."
Tripp and Pyke worked out the wording of what would be demanded of her in a subpoena issued Nov. 24. The request was for testimony and "writings," and deliberately omitted boilerplate language that would have included the tapes.
Tripp was not only afraid of Bennett, she had become nervous about her own lawyer, Kirby Behre, whom the White House had found for her when she was called to testify in Starr's earlier investigation into the death of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, for whom she had once worked. In her conversation with Pyke in November, Pyke said, Tripp had described Behre as a "Clintonite," and Pyke suggested she find someone she was more comfortable with.
At a meeting during the first week of December, Tripp told Behre about the Jones subpoena and about her tapes. To her alarm, he told her that the taping was illegal in Maryland and that she could be prosecuted. To extricate her from the problem she had created for herself to testify truthfully in the Jones case she might be forced to reveal the tapes, while revealing them would expose her illegal act Behre suggested that Bennett himself be informed of the tapes. Once Clinton knew such evidence against him existed, Behre said, he would move to settle the Jones case and Tripp would never be called as a witness.
Behre not only alarmed Tripp, she felt he had patronized her. When she suggested another way to get evidence of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair swabbing a stain on a dress Lewinsky had told her contained Clinton's semen he told her she'd be seen as "a nut." Perhaps that was true, Tripp wrote in her diary, but "a vindicated nut."
By mid-December, Goldberg was actively searching for a new lawyer to represent Tripp someone who would work for free and was willing to go up against a Democratic White House. Several prominent Washington lawyers were sounded out, among them Theodore Olson and Victoria Toensing, but no replacement was readily found.
For help, Goldberg turned to the circle of contacts she had been referred to by Richard Porter, the lawyer at Starr's firm, Kirkland & Ellis. Among them was Marcus, an associate at Berger & Montague in Philadelphia who had written an early amicus brief in the Jones case. She also called Jones attorney Wesley Holmes, who contacted Conway, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York who had worked with Marcus on the case.
Conway called his friend Coulter another member of the behind-the-scenes Jones team. Coulter suggested calling her friend James Moody, a Washington solo practitioner who handles whistleblower cases. Moody's number was passed back up the line to Goldberg, who gave it to Tripp. On the evening of Jan. 9, Tripp called Moody.
By this time, Tripp seemed to be in a panic, fearful that the Jones lawyers, despite their assurances, would try to obtain the tapes "that they would try to use them in testimony, retrieve them, despite the fact that they had assured me they would not." Jones lawyer Pyke, she testified, told her that "so much as he didn't want to put me in a bad position with Bob Bennett, he was very, very eager to get the tapes."
By early January, one source involved with the Jones team said, they believed Tripp was even thinking of destroying the tapes.
After her first meeting with Moody, Tripp was more convinced than ever that she had to keep the tapes out of the hands of the Jones lawyers. Tripp later testified that Moody and the Jones lawyers eventually worked out an arrangement under which they would agree not to depose Tripp if she would agree to an "oral interview with them prior to President Clinton's deposition," scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 17.
Moody, it turned out, favored turning the tapes over to Starr. The connection to Starr's investigation, which for the past four years had looked into many aspects of Clinton's financial and political life, was through Vernon Jordan. Jordan, the Washington lawyer and Clinton friend, was involved in efforts to help Lewinsky get a job, according to Lewinsky's comments on the tapes. Jordan was already being investigated by Starr on other Clinton-related matters.
Tripp, she later testified, thought Moody was a little "nutty." But her friend Goldberg shared his view that Starr offered Tripp a way to protect herself and, Goldberg felt, a way to get the information out.
Getting in Touch With Starr
Some time during the first week in January, Goldberg said in an interview, she called her friend Porter, in Chicago, for help in getting a high-level contact at Starr's office for Tripp to call. Porter called Marcus in Philadelphia. "At one point, Marcus was on the line with Porter," Goldberg said. In addition to Porter, Marcus had another law school friend, Paul S. Rosenzweig, who was on Starr's staff in Washington.
On Jan. 8, Marcus called Rosenzweig to outline Tripp's story and to say Starr's office might be getting a call from her. On Jan. 9 the same Friday Tripp had her first conversation with Moody Rosenzweig alerted Jackie M. Bennett, one of Starr's top deputies, to the impending Tripp call, according to Starr spokesman Charles G. Bakaly III, who said he is not sure whether Marcus mentioned Tripp or Lewinsky's name.
Bennett told Rosenzweig to pass along his phone number. On Monday, after the office had taken the weekend off, he alerted Starr.
By that day, Jan. 12, Tripp was becoming frantic, near hysterics, by her own testimony. She called Goldberg to recount her conversation with Moody the previous Friday, saying Moody's zeal for the case made her wonder if he had a political agenda. Goldberg responded that Starr's office was waiting for her call and gave her Jackie Bennett's number.
"That was the first I had ever even considered the idea" of calling Starr, Tripp testified.
Once she made her decision, Tripp moved quickly. She had a previously arranged lunch scheduled for the following day with Lewinsky, who without knowing of Tripp's extensive contacts with the Jones lawyers was pressuring her to promise to lie in her Jones testimony if asked about Lewinsky. It was something Lewinsky was anxious to nail down, since she was about to file her own Jones affidavit saying she had had no sexual relationship with Clinton.
Tripp placed a call to Jackie Bennett late in the day. Bennett and several other lawyers moved swiftly, driving out to Tripp's house in Columbia that night for their first debriefing session. When she met with Lewinsky for lunch the following day at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Tripp was wearing an FBI wire.
That night, Tripp called Goldberg and told her what had transpired.
Early Wednesday morning, she received a call from the FBI demanding to know whether she had talked to Newsweek's Isikoff. In her diary for that time period, Tripp noted with annoyance that Goldberg confessed to Moody that she had told Isikoff about the Ritz-Carlton taping. Moody told Tripp to stop talking to Goldberg and Isikoff and to disconnect her telephone.
On Wednesday afternoon, Moody went to Behre's office to reclaim Tripp's tapes, waiting for an hour before they were turned over. Sometime during the next two days, Moody received a subpoena from Starr for the tapes.
On Friday morning, based on Tripp's information, Starr obtained an expansion of his mandate to investigate Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. That afternoon, with Tripp's help, FBI agents working for Starr confronted Lewinsky at the Pentagon City mall and spent the day questioning her.
That night unbeknownst to Starr Tripp returned home to fulfill her agreement with the Jones lawyers for an oral briefing they could use when they questioned Clinton in a deposition the next day.
"As far as the vast right-wing conspiracy goes," the source close to Tripp said, "if the object was to get the tapes out, the conspiracy was a flop."
It was, in fact, a flop as far as the Jones case was concerned. "The Jones lawyers were angry. They thought Lucianne [Goldberg] was greasing the skids," the source said.
"The night before the deposition is when we learned we weren't going to get" the tapes, Jones lawyer Pyke said in an interview. "We got a phone call from Moody," he said, and realized "we're screwed." Pyke's partner Holmes went to Tripp's home that evening. "We got enough information from Tripp that night to inform the questioning" of Clinton, Pyke said.
On Saturday, Jan. 17, Clinton denied under oath that he had had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky.
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