July 9, 1998

Tripped-Up: Linda & Perjury?

By Robert Parry

Coached by prosecutors for more than 100 hours, Linda Tripp finally has begun her long-awaited testimony before a federal grand jury investigating whether President Clinton coached Monica Lewinsky to lie about an alleged affair.

Tripp reportedly waltzed through the choreographed questioning in a manner her lawyer termed "very easy." But a nagging question that neither Tripp nor special prosecutor Kenneth Starr may want evaluated is whether Tripp has told the whole truth under oath, particularly whether she is describing frankly her active role in advancing the case against Clinton.

The 48-year-old Pentagon official could trip herself up on possible perjury issues if she goes too far in casting herself as a passive victim drawn into a political whirlpool not of her own making.

In a pre-testimony interview with a friendly reporter, Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post, Tripp made herself out to be the real victim and lashed out especially at those who saw a profit motive in her actions. Tripp vowed that those who view the secret taping of her 24-year-old friend as a run-up to a book deal would "have to eat their words."

Tripp insisted that the taping was only to protect herself in case Paula Jones's lawyers asked about her knowledge of Clinton and other women, information which Tripp claimed was forced on her against her will by Lewinsky.

"I did not cultivate Monica -- she cultivated me," Tripp told Schmidt. "Monica is a very worldly person. She educated me." Some of Tripp's friends buttressed that claim with stories about Lewinsky pestering the older woman with 20 to 30 phone calls a day supposedly to complain about Clinton's disinterest.

"The most painful part of all this is watching my kids suffer," continued Tripp about her college-age son and daughter who tagged along on Tripp's first day of grand jury testimony. "I won't say it's not been difficult, but I have truth on my side." [WP, June 30, 1998]


Yet Tripp's self-portrayal as a victim -- virtually unchallenged in Schmidt's account -- does not square with the documentary record. From that record, derived from portions of tapes so far revealed and from the statements of other principals, Tripp appears to have been anything but the timid bystander. Instead, she comes across as the busy bee cross-pollinating the entire scandal, either out of her contempt for Clinton or for some other personal motive.

It was Tripp who consulted her book agent, Lucianne Goldberg, and then followed Goldberg's advice to tape her talkative young friend (in apparent violation of Maryland law); Tripp then joined in Goldberg's campaign to leak the information to Newsweek; Tripp also played a likely role in tipping off Paula Jones's lawyers to Lewinsky (leading to the subpoenas that Tripp supposedly had feared so much that she began the taping).

In addition, Tripp sparked the criminal investigation by delivering her 20 hours of tapes to Starr's office; Tripp agreed to be wired for another conversation to incriminate her friend; and Tripp then snuck away from Starr's investigators to brief the Jones lawyers about the new developments so they could ambush Clinton during his deposition.

These are not the actions of a passive observer -- and should raise questions about Tripp's objectivity. But in the grand jury testimony that started on June 30, Starr's prosecutors were likely no tougher on Tripp than Schmidt was. According to press reports, the prosecutors had spent more than 100 hours prepping Tripp for her appearance.

Tripp's self-pity, however, could have unintended consequences by undercutting the impeachment case that Starr hopes to bring against Clinton for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. Indeed, the more Tripp describes Lewinsky as an unstable personality harassing friends with crude stories about sexual encounters with the president, the more Lewinsky loses credibility as a potential witness. By portraying Lewinsky as "very worldly," Tripp also lessens the public outrage over Clinton's alleged dalliance with a White House intern.

Since Tripp's testimony is largely hearsay, it may be useful in raising doubts about Lewinsky's sworn affidavit, in which she denied a sexual relationship with Clinton. But Tripp's testimony is much less valuable against Clinton, who also has denied having sex with Lewinsky. Assuming Starr can negotiate an immunity deal with Lewinsky and get her to admit a sexual relationship, it is her credibility that will take center stage, not Tripp's.

Already, Tripp's story of Lewinsky supposedly saving a semen-stained dress as a presidential love trophy -- when the FBI found no such article of clothing in Lewinsky's closet -- raises credibility questions about Lewinsky, assuming she actually made the lurid claim.

Tripp's book agent, Goldberg, has acknowledged passing off the semen-stained dress story to eager reporters in the early throes of the Lewinsky scandal. Goldberg claimed to have heard the tale from Tripp who supposedly heard it from Lewinsky, though possibly in an untaped conversation. [See Brill's Content, July-Aug. 1998.]

In its initial article on Monica-gate, Newsweek reported the incident without attribution: "Lewinsky told Tripp that she was keeping, as a kind of grotesque momento, a navy blue dress stained with Clinton's semen. Holding it up as a trophy to Tripp, she declared, 'I'll never wash it again'." [Newsweek, Feb. 2, 1998]

But the dress story is so wacky that it suggests that Lewinsky is either a troubled or delusional young woman -- or that the Tripp-Goldberg duo planted the story as disinformation with a gullible news media. It's also possible that Lewinsky was making a crude joke about some other type of stain on her dress and that Tripp took the joke literally.

Since the FBI found no such dress, the claim is unlikely to be corroborated as factually accurate, even if Lewinsky confirms that she told it to Tripp. Lewinsky, after all, is quoted on one tape as declaring "I have lied my entire life."

Conflicting Stories?

Besides Lewinsky's underlying credibility problems, Tripp and Goldberg are having trouble presenting a consistent story of their own -- though these discrepancies have drawn little attention from the Washington press corps.

Goldberg and Tripp first met in 1996 when Goldberg, a conservative literary agent was looking for an author to write a tell-all book about the Clinton White House. For her part, Tripp had visions of turning her unhappy experiences as a Republican holdover at the White House into a lucrative best-seller. One chapter would examine Clinton's alleged sexual peccadilloes.

By fall 1997, Tripp had mentioned Lewinsky. But Tripp and Goldberg have differed over whether the Lewinsky story was part of the free-flowing book discussions. Goldberg saw the information in that context, while Tripp insisted she didn't.

"One day Linda called and told me about what she called 'the pretty girl,' who'd become her friend," Goldberg told Brill's Content. "She said the pretty girl said she had a boyfriend in the White House. Linda was excited. This might be material" for the book.

"A few weeks later," Goldberg continued, "Linda told me the pretty girl's name [Monica Lewinsky] and said the boyfriend was Clinton." But Goldberg stressed that Tripp would need more than a second-hand story about an alleged affair for the book. Goldberg thought that Lewinsky's personal story might make a best-seller, but not Tripp's.

Tripp offered a different version of Lewinsky events in the interview with Schmidt. Tripp claimed the book project died in August 1996 and insisted that Lewinsky first mentioned the affair with Clinton in September 1996. In other words, Tripp maintained that the book was not an issue when she contacted Goldberg a year or so later.

But the Tripp-Goldberg account diverges from the known record in other ways. On CNN's "Larry King Live," Goldberg claimed that Tripp called because Newsweek's correspondent Michael Isikoff was pestering Tripp to talk about Kathleen Willey's assertion that she had been groped by Clinton during an Oval Office meeting.

"She [Tripp] was afraid to see him [Isikoff]," Goldberg told King. "She said, 'you know the media'." [CNN, June 30, 1998] Yet, the Newsweek story about Willey's allegation and Tripp's partial corroboration ran in its Aug. 11, 1997, edition. The story was already in print when Tripp renewed contact with Goldberg.

Goldberg's account stretches credulity on another point. Isikoff had been talking with Tripp since March 1997. By late summer or early fall 1997, Tripp would not need Goldberg's help in handling Isikoff's Willey questions.

Flacking the Story

Indeed, the meeting which Goldberg arranged with Isikoff in October 1997 was not about Willey at all, but to persuade the reporter to listen to two tapes which Tripp had made of her phone chats with Lewinsky. Goldberg and Tripp were enticing Isikoff's interest, not vice versa; they were trying to push the Lewinsky story into the public domain, not protect Tripp from its unintended release.

Tripp's efforts to expose the alleged Lewinsky-Clinton affair may date back even earlier. Isikoff told Brill's Content that as early as spring 1997, Tripp was steering him toward a sex story about a White House intern and the president. When Isikoff balked at the subtle guidance, Tripp grew more aggressive.

After making the first two tapes, Goldberg and Tripp invited Isikoff to a meeting at the Washington apartment of Goldberg's son, Jonah. Isikoff was told Lewinsky's identity and offered a chance to listen to the tapes. Isikoff declined, while making clear that the women would need "something official" before Newsweek would run the story.

That prescription led Goldberg and Tripp to arrange for Lewinsky to send several packages to the White House through a Goldberg family courier service. Continuing to press for the story's publication, the Goldberg-Tripp duo then supplied Isikoff with the documentary evidence of the deliveries and let him interview one of the couriers.

Also in October 1997, an anonymous woman began calling the Paula Jones legal team with advice to subpoena Tripp and Lewinsky. Although the caller's identity has never been firmly established, Jonah Goldberg told Brill's Content that "Linda did [make the calls], but I can tell you that she didn't get the idea on her own."

Lucianne Goldberg ducked the question of whether she urged Tripp to call. "Do you think I had to?" Goldberg said.

Though it's still unclear whether Tripp was the mystery tipster, it's obvious that for a woman who insists that she was trying to avoid the legal fire, Tripp seemed hot to jump out of the frying pan. That behavior continued as Tripp and Goldberg stoked the flames more in January 1998.

According to Goldberg, Tripp's determination to push the Lewinsky case caused Tripp to drop her first lawyer, Kirby Behre, and hire a conservative attorney named James Moody. Goldberg explained that the reason for the switch was "because we wanted someone to get the tapes back from Behre so we could take them to Starr."

After Tripp called Starr's prosecutors on Jan. 12, they rushed to her home to de-brief her. They then wired her for another conversation with Lewinsky on Jan. 14. On that date, Tripp claims that Lewinsky also gave her "talking points" which suggested how Tripp should compose an affidavit in the Jones case. [See "talking points."]

When Tripp lured Lewinsky to another meeting on Jan. 16, Starr's investigators pounced and pressured her to cooperate in their probe of President Clinton. While Starr's team was closeted with Lewinsky in one room of the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va., Tripp excused herself and drove home for a private session with Jones's lawyers. Armed with Tripp's information, the lawyers waylaid Clinton with detailed questions about Lewinsky in his Jones case deposition on Jan. 17.

In public, Tripp has avoided any detailed discussion of her actions and motives. Even in the Schmidt interview, Tripp refused to discuss Starr's investigation, the Lewinsky tapes, or the grand jury testimony.

The preponderance of evidence, however, is that Tripp was not protecting herself from the unintended disclosure of the Lewinsky-Clinton story, but rather was eager to flush it out into public view. Tripp could risk charges of false testimony if she protests too hard that she didn't make the scandal happen.

Copyright (c) 1998

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