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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

There's Something About Linda

Tripp may have helped trigger the Lewinsky scandal, but tales of her manipulations may now be key to Clinton's counterattack

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

(TIME, October 5) -- Notes for a book proposal: How to Bring Down Bill Clinton, by Linda R. Tripp. Part 1: Befriend a young woman who has caught the President's wandering eye. "Tripp advised Lewinsky that she was the kind of woman the President would like, and an affair with the President would be a neat thing to tell her grandkids," according to an FBI report prepared for Ken Starr. Then she discovered that Lewinsky and Clinton were already involved. "Tripp kept hounding Lewinsky until Lewinsky finally said, 'Look, I've already had an affair with him and it's over,'" the report said.

Part 2: Fuel Monica's obsession with Clinton--and get the evidence. Tripp coached Lewinsky in her campaign to rekindle the affair, secretly tape-recorded her confessions and got her to document her encounters and preserve crucial evidence. Claiming she was good at identifying "patterns" in relationships, Tripp had Lewinsky create a spreadsheet detailing her visits and phone calls with Clinton. She talked Lewinsky out of having the semen-stained dress cleaned, telling her not to wear it because it made her "look fat," and advising her to lock it in a safe-deposit box because "it could be evidence one day," according to Lewinsky. "And I said that was ludicrous." Tripp helped her compose letters to Clinton and sent her e-mail messages praising a tie she had given him ("stupendous, no kidding, clean, crisp, texture, color, pattern, bright, without being at all over the top") and a valentine Monica placed in the Washington Post.

Part 3: Set the trap. In October Tripp told Lewinsky that a friend at the White House had heard rumors about Monica and thought she should "get out of town" and that Clinton should find her a job. "They create jobs at the White House, you know, six days a week," Tripp quoted the friend as saying. And Tripp apparently planted the idea with Monica that Clinton should get lawyer Vernon Jordan to find the job for her. Lewinsky told FBI agents that Tripp had suggested it. Monica later testified that "I know I had discussed [Jordan] with Linda. Either I had had the thought, or she had suggested Vernon Jordan would be a good person who is a close friend of the President and has a lot of contacts in New York."

Part 4: Push for a quid pro quo. When the job hunt was on, Tripp made Lewinsky promise not to sign a Paula Jones affidavit denying sex until her new position was locked up--"because if you sign the affidavit before you get the job, they're never going to give you the job." Had Lewinsky taken her advice, it would have looked like an explicit deal--lies in exchange for employment--when in fact Lewinsky started asking Clinton for job help months before she knew she was a Jones-team target. But here's a neat plot twist: Lewinsky says she lied to Tripp about the affidavit, pretending not to sign it because she hoped to keep Tripp on her side. Monica also says she lied to Tripp about the alleged cover-up, telling her that both Clinton and Jordan had urged her to lie about the affair--which she now says they never explicitly did.

Part 5: Contact the special prosecutor. When Tripp went to Starr, she repeated those crucial lies, which must have made the prosecutor salivate, because this appeared to be just the kind of obstruction case that had eluded him during his long investigation of Clinton. Starr already suspected that Jordan had arranged consulting contracts for Clinton crony Webster Hubbell in exchange for Hubbell's silence in the Whitewater probe. The Monica job hunt fit the same pattern--and Starr used it to help persuade Attorney General Janet Reno to let him probe the Lewinsky affair. But as Lewinsky tells it, the job search appears to have been Tripp's idea, not Clinton's. And it was Tripp who helped set up Clinton for perjury--now at the core of Starr's case--by briefing a Jones lawyer about the affair on the eve of the President's testimony.

This, the Democrats' best-case scenario for making Tripp the main villain in the Lewinsky-Clinton saga, is based on new details buried in the 3,183 pages of evidence released last week by the House Judiciary committee. The scenario summarizes the case against Lewinsky's former friend, a holdover from the Bush White House who was exiled in 1994 to the Pentagon, where she nursed her resentments and then met Monica. "Linda Tripp is a trip," says a senior Democratic staffer on the House Judiciary committee. "She set up Monica, she set up Vernon, she set up the President and she set up the press. Then she got the independent counsel to come in and unwind it." For 10 months Clinton and his allies have seen Tripp as an enemy second only to Starr himself, a venomous woman who dragged the country into crisis.

But today they see her as a ticket out. That's because Tripp's role demonstrates just how gray and blurred the allegations against Clinton really are. The 11 stark "grounds for impeachment" in Starr's report become more pallid and inconclusive with each new dump of supporting evidence--quite the reverse of what Starr intended. That is likely to happen again this week as the House disgorges an additional 17 boxes of evidence--some 40,000 pages--into the unwilling arms of the public. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, 61% of those questioned said they did not want to see any more evidence. But see it they will, including edited transcripts of the infamous Tripp tapes (and later, edited versions of the tapes themselves) and the full text of Tripp's testimony before the grand jury. (The testimony will probably to feature a grilling of Tripp by jurors, who bonded with Lewinsky during her two days of testimony. At one point, after Lewinsky broke down in tears and said, "I hate Linda Tripp," a juror told her that Tripp "is definitely going to have to give an account for what she did.")

Tripp's won't be the only drama in the next 40,000 pages. Testimony will be released from Jordan and Betty Currie, the Clinton secretary who did so much to facilitate the President's affair with Lewinsky. According to committee sources, Jordan's story is not expected to conflict significantly with Clinton's or Lewinsky's, while Currie's betrays an intriguing split between her different days of testimony. In early grand jury appearances, Currie is fairly forthright; later, after she had accompanied the Clintons on the President's March trip to Africa, she frequently said she could not recall key information.

With so many pages being issued, what will the press and public focus on? Republicans and Democrats will be waving their arms frantically, trying to draw the public's attention to the evidence that bolsters their side's case. So far, the Democrats have had the upper hand in this data-dump game because the charges against Clinton have been so thoroughly aired. At this point, more sleazy details about the affair can only hurt the Republicans, who will get blamed for releasing them.

All last week Clinton's friends on Capitol Hill--and suddenly there were plenty more of them to be found--were using one argument after another to stoke the public's burgeoning pro-Clinton sentiment in hopes of derailing the impeachment train. Democrats called the process partisan and unfair, and charged Starr with omitting or downplaying exculpatory evidence in his report (such as Lewinsky's statement that she was never asked to lie). Next they will likely focus on Tripp.

If Democrats can make the case that Tripp helped engineer the key obstruction-of-justice charge now leveled against the President--that the job hunt was a setup devised by her--it goes to the heart of the case against Clinton. Since the apparent obstruction was Starr's pretext for investigating the entire affair, the Clintonites say, the basis for the probe was fundamentally illegitimate. The new details, says presidential counselor Doug Sosnik, "only reinforce that this is a 10-month overhyped case highlighted by groundless charges of obstruction of justice." That has long been the White House line, but the new details give the argument added weight.

Starr allies counter that the notion that the independent counsel had no right to investigate the Lewinsky case because he gained jurisdiction on the basis of a false statement is absurd. At the time, they point out, there was no way of knowing the truthfulness of the statement by Monica to Tripp that she would not sign her affidavit until Jordan produced a job. And regardless of what prompts an investigation, facts discovered in the process of proving or disproving the original allegation are fair game. The argument, says a Starr ally, "fits the pattern of trying to politicize a legal case to divert attention from the facts and the law."

How culpable is Tripp? Lewinsky did not need much encouragement to throw herself at Clinton--as Monica admits, she was in love and obsessed--but it was her bad luck that her adult confidant worked so hard to fuel the obsession. As Lewinsky said in her testimony, "obviously there's work that I need to do on myself." But instead of helping Lewinsky do that work--perhaps even talking some sense into her--Tripp went to work on her.

Tripp's lawyers deny she was an agent provocateur. They say she made the tapes to protect herself--if she told the truth about the affair in a Jones deposition, she'd need some evidence--and that she wanted Lewinsky to keep the stained dress as protection against potential White House charges that Monica was a delusional stalker. Far from trying to set Lewinsky up, they say, Tripp was trying to shield her. If she pointed out the storytelling benefits of a presidential affair, she also called the relationship "sick" and urged Monica to end it. And she asked Monica to let Clinton know the secret was out and that Tripp would have no choice but to disclose it under oath.

There is no doubt that Tripp's actions were at times contradictory and that her motives will remain forever murky. Depending on whom you believe, Tripp did what she did in hopes of landing a tell-all book deal, or out of revenge against her own adulterous father, or out of spite for the libertines who took over from the Bush Administration, for which she had worked as a secretary--or all of the above.

Whatever her motives, in the battles raging on Capitol Hill, they matter less than the political ammunition she provides. The Democrats plan to make good use of her, although they will likely find that boiling down what she did into sound bites is more difficult than attacking Newt & Co. for partisan unfairness. (Look for Clinton's more verbally dexterous defenders, such as the Judiciary committee's Barney Frank of Massachusetts, to take the lead on Tripp.)

Helping the Democrats in their case is the fact that Starr himself put distance between himself and Tripp. When Lewinsky agreed to cooperate, he no longer needed Tripp. Her only major appearance in his report to Congress comes when the prosecutor says she is under investigation for duplicating or otherwise tampering with the tapes, something she's testified she has not done. (If that were found to be untrue, she could face perjury charges.) But she would pose a grave danger to Starr if it were proved he had encouraged her to brief the Jones team, something both Starr's allies and Tripp's lawyers deny. His prosecutors were furious, says a source close to Tripp, when they learned of her meeting with the Jones lawyers several hours after the Lewinsky sting.

Sources in the Jones camp have told TIME they always suspected that Starr gave Tripp the go-ahead to brief them, because they believe she was too unnerved by Starr's interrogation to take such a step on her own. But they have no evidence to support their belief.

None of this exonerates Clinton. Tripp cannot be blamed for the sex, or for the President's decision to lie to the public and dodge the truth in sworn testimony. But if her emerging role does not get Clinton off the hook legally, it could help get the case thrown out of the court of public opinion once and for all. A great many Americans have already tossed it out. Public sentiment has been swinging in Clinton's favor since the release last Monday of his videotaped grand jury testimony. Republicans hoped the video would turn the public against Clinton; instead it solidified opinion in his favor. In the new TIME/CNN poll, 61% approve of the job Clinton is doing, and 67% say he should not be impeached. Only 37%, meanwhile, approve of the job the House Judiciary committee is doing in handling the impeachment matter.

Clinton's slippery yet affecting performance was no accident. The President assumed the tape would be made public one day, so he played to the bleachers, not to the grand jury. Sources tell TIME that Clinton and his advisers had practiced a dozen set-pieces--short speeches about the ideological vendetta of the Paula Jones lawyers, appeals to Americans' sense of privacy and fair play--and that he treated the prosecutors like reporters at a press conference, ignoring their questions when it suited him, making sure to get his message out. "He just did it again," says one conservative House Democrat, marveling at a politician who is extremely hard to kill.

Among the public, only conservative Republicans seemed to want Clinton impeached, and though the G.O.P. continued to play to them with an eye to mobilizing turnout in the midterm elections, Democrats scoured the horizon for signs of a backlash against the G.O.P. Even in some Republican districts, constituent calls to congressional offices demanding Clinton's resignation or impeachment fell sharply. Gone was talk that leading Senate Democrats would soon be calling for his resignation. In the House more Democrats were willing to follow the White House strategy of blaming Republicans for rubbing America's nose in the mess. Even Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who two weeks ago said Clinton "doesn't have the moral authority to lead a great nation," was softened by a call from Hillary, and toed the party line. The people, he told TIME, are "so sickened by it all that they are starting to focus on the messenger who brought it to them."

And Democrats hope people will also focus on Starr's de facto messenger in Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Attacking Gingrich is a standard Democratic ploy, but in the Lewinsky affair it had been hard to do as long as Gingrich stayed behind the curtain, venturing forth only to make high-minded statements about the need for civility at a moment of this historic magnitude. But on Wednesday he went before the microphones--without Judiciary committee chairman Henry Hyde--and trampled all over the idea of a censure deal that would pre-empt impeachment proceedings. He also ruminated in a closed-door meeting about expanding the hearings to include Clinton's campaign-finance abuses, the Administration's transfer of satellite technology to China, and the many other scandals known as Whitewater. It sure looked as though Newt was in charge and ready to launch an open-ended inquiry into all Clintonian abuse-of-power issues that would amount, as one Clinton aide put it, to "the scandal analog of the 1995 shutdown." For now, Democrats were happy just to label Newt the man pulling Hyde's strings. "The leadership calls the shots," said Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Judiciary committee. "The agenda is coming from above Henry Hyde."

This was toxic for the Republicans, and not altogether true. Gingrich has not been micromanaging Hyde; for example, the Speaker and his lieutenants saw Clinton's videotaped testimony for the first time on Monday, along with the rest of America, G.O.P. leadership sources told TIME. (Had the leaders previewed it, they could have toned down predictions that the tape would be a disaster for Clinton.) Hyde has 23 years of experience on the committee, a reputation for gravitas and fairness, and a Capitol Hill power base of his own; Gingrich has consulted with him but not tried to control him. Yet Gingrich's performance allowed the Democrats to win the war of perceptions. In G.O.P. leadership meetings, members began grousing that the party was being out-spun by the other team. While they were complaining, Clinton moved the battle to a new level, attacking the Republican Congress for neglecting their legislative duties because they are obsessed with scandal. "The Republican majority in Congress has its priorities wrong--partisanship over progress, politics over people," he said Friday. G.O.P. leaders howled at the unfairness of it--Clinton plunged us into this mess, they cried--but there seemed little doubt that his new tactic would strike a chord with the public.

Which may explain why, at week's end, Republicans had decided to say yes to the Democrats for a change. In a closed-door session of the Judiciary committee on Friday, the G.O.P. changed tactics and gave in to some Democrats' demands, particularly those related to the Tripp tapes. Though Hyde had been extremely reluctant to release the actual tapes--they are said to be devastating to Tripp--the chairman acquiesced, allowing edited versions to go out. The gambit worked; Democrats were forced to admit a bipartisan spirit had prevailed. Both sides agreed to redact passages in which Tripp and Lewinsky make racial and ethnic jokes, obsess about their weight and gossip about other women.

Both sides also agreed to withhold an FBI interview with a woman who was known as "Jane Doe No. 5" in the Paula Jones case. Jones' investigators tracked her down because they had heard rumors in Arkansas that in 1978, Clinton, then the state attorney general, had sexually assaulted her in a Little Rock hotel room. But in a January 1998 deposition in the Jones case, the woman denied Clinton had made "unwelcome sexual advances." Yet in last week's document dump, Starr reported that in April the woman "stated to investigators from the Office of the Independent Counsel that this affidavit was false." Washington was buzzing last week about this sentence--if the woman said Clinton had attacked her, would that do the President in?--but the Judiciary committee deemed the interview inconclusive, sources on both sides told TIME, and decided not to release it.

It was a much-needed moment of restraint in a scandal that has been all about excess. By Friday the Democrats had heard, for the first time since Starr's report was released, conciliatory talk from a key member of the Gingrich team. Representative John Linder of Georgia, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told an audience in Washington that "if all Starr has is what we've seen, I don't think the public is ready for [impeachment]." But the glimmer faded when Linder went on to echo Gingrich's call for an open-ended impeachment inquiry. "There is no shortage of scandals," he said. "In some ways, the Starr report has gotten in the way of the investigations that we need to be doing."

Of course, Democratic visions of a preemptive "censure-plus" deal were always delusional, as were Republican dreams of an abrupt resignation. Clinton did try to put one aspect of the scandal behind him last week by moving to settle the Paula Jones suit before an appeals court revives it. Jones demanded $1 million (but no apology), Clinton offered $500,000, and the two sides are still talking, with a resolution possible sometime this week. But impeachment moves still seem unavoidable: the Republican-controlled Judiciary committee is expected to vote in favor of launching such an inquiry by next week, and the full House would then prepare to start hearings sometime after the November elections. In the bloodless trench warfare over the Clinton presidency, it seems to matter little that Americans want a swift outcome. But it is fair to ask: What if they held a war and nobody showed up?

--With reporting by Jay Branegan, John F. Dickerson, Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 5, 1998

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