Hears Tripp Story
By Bill Miller and Susan Schmidt
With a media horde of 300 on hand to catch a rare public glimpse of the most reclusive figure in the Lewinsky saga, Tripp offered no public comment beyond a smile about the testimony she has spent more than 100 hours preparing for in meticulous detail with Starr's prosecutors. Her lawyer, Anthony Zaccagnini, said she would return for another full day of testimony Thursday and offered only that Tripp found it "very easy" to answer the questions posed to her yesterday.
More than 50 witnesses have come and gone before Starr's grand jury since Tripp on Jan. 12 gave the independent counsel the 20-plus hours of tape recordings in which Lewinsky reportedly discussed being urged by Clinton and Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to lie about an affair in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
Tripp's account of her young Pentagon colleague's confidences forms the crux of Starr's perjury and obstruction-of-justice investigation of the president. But until yesterday, she has remained in seclusion. That ended -- if briefly -- when she emerged from a blue minivan at 9:12 a.m. The pony-tailed Tripp, dressed in a black pantsuit, was surrounded by more than a dozen police officers and federal marshals as she walked into the courthouse arm-in-arm with her 19-year-old daughter Allison, her 23-year-old son Ryan at her side.
Inside, reporters lined the corridor. "Ready to tell your story?" one asked. "Are you nervous?" shouted another. Tripp smiled but said nothing as she made her way to the elevator. "She isn't nervous at all," volunteered her daughter.
But that was as much information as the assembled reporters would get; the day's real action took place in secret, as prosecutors and grand jurors began to hear Tripp's account of her friendship with the former White House correspondence clerk who was banished, as was Tripp herself, to the Pentagon press office.
"This is one of the final steps in the investigation; there aren't a lot of other witnesses," said John Barrett, a former prosecutor who teaches criminal law at St. John's University.
Still uncertain is whether the two central figures -- Clinton and Lewinsky -- will testify. The president has not agreed to provide his account despite several requests from Starr seeking his testimony. Meanwhile, Lewinsky's lawyers are negotiating with Starr in hopes of winning her immunity. One of them, Nathaniel H. Speights, at the courthouse yesterday on another matter, was asked about the progress of the talks. "We're working along," he said. "Give us a month."
The White House offered no comment on Tripp's appearance. "We'll let the American people draw their own conclusions about Linda Tripp," said spokesman James E. Kennedy.
Yesterday was not the first time the former secretary in the White House counsel's office has testified for Starr about the Clinton White House. She appeared before a Whitewater grand jury investigating the firing of White House travel office employees, and she was questioned both by Starr's office and in a Senate deposition about the aftermath of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster's suicide.
But the stakes were much higher for Tripp yesterday. "It's safe to assume prosecutors have taken her through a dry run of her grand jury testimony," said former Iran-contra prosecutor Bruce Yannett. "She likely knows all their questions and they know all her answers."
Other important witnesses in the investigation -- notably Clinton confidant Jordan and secretary Betty Currie -- have been summoned for many days of testimony. But some legal observers said yesterday that prosecutors may proceed much more efficiently with Tripp, since she is a cooperating witness well prepared for the questions.
Already, the grand jury has heard portions of tape recordings Tripp made, and lawyers said the duration of her testimony may in part rest on whether prosecutors want her to take the grand jury through a painstaking examination of them. "Prosecutors will want her to explain how and why she come to tape those conversations," Yannett said. If will be important for grand jurors to hear from her "what could lead a person to secretly record a friend."
But Yannett said Tripp would likely also be asked "about the dozens of conversations they had that were not taped." The grand jury also will be keen to learn the circumstances under which Tripp obtained the so-called talking points from Lewinsky, in which Lewinsky instructed Tripp to lie to Jones's lawyers. A central question in the investigation is who, if anyone, helped Lewinsky prepare the document.
But Tripp and her lawyer were offering no details at day's end about her testimony. "When she exited the grand jury room, I had an opportunity to ask her how it was going," Zaccagnini said in a brief statement. "She told me, and I quote, 'I find it very easy to answer the questions posed by the prosecutor and the grand jury.' "
Dozens of camera crews converged on the courthouse for Tripp -- longtime courthouse employees said they had never seen so many satellite trucks gathered there. "You have cameras doing every angle, three [Cable News Network] cameras covering the same shot," said freelance CNN videographer Martin Kos, who was stationed on Third Street NW, where he captured Tripp's arrival.
One set of news crews taped Tripp leaving her home in Columbia just after 7 a.m. Others were in place at her next stop, her attorney's office. They communicated with the courthouse set by walkie-talkie. At 9:05 a walkie-talkie crackled a breathless urgent message: "She just left her lawyer's office."
Ten minutes later, the blue minivan pulled up to the court and Tripp emerged. The TV crews secured their all-important shot.
But for the next six hours, the media throng was left to compare notes about her brief appearance, debating everything from the importance of her testimony to her choice of wardrobe. The Associated Press reported that she was carrying a Chanel handbag, but some in the media scrum thought that the stitching wasn't up to Chanel's standards.
"I think it's really much ado about nothing," said Raj Sunder, 40, a business professor from Toronto, as he and his family checked out what he called Tripp's "moment of glory" between stops at the White House and the Capitol.
Staff writer Annie Groer and staff researchers Ben White and Nathan Abse contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company