Recordings Reveal a Confidant Who Betrayed Confidences
“I know you’re going to hate me, Monica, but I want you the [redacted] out of there. I want you with a life. . . . I know you want to protect him. Of course, I know that. I just don’t want you to be savaged in the process.
”. . . Anyone who cares about you, Monica, wants you out of this mess.”
With such words of seemingly heartfelt concern did Linda Tripp spin a web for her distraught young friend Monica S. Lewinsky--and build the record of secretly tape-recorded admissions that ultimately brought not only Lewinsky but also the president of the United States to the brink of ruin.
Tripp’s own view of events, which emerged in her testimony to the grand jury investigating Clinton, was no less complicated--and only somewhat more flattering--than the tale spun on the tapes. In her testimony, as in her soothing words to Lewinsky, the older woman held herself out as a worldly confidant, wise advisor, caring friend. But she also spelled out the seething bitterness she already felt toward the Clinton White House.
Ever since the relationship between President Clinton and Lewinsky burst into headlines Jan. 21, one of its strangest elements has been the role of Tripp, Lewinsky’s onetime co-worker at the Defense Department.
It was Tripp who single-handedly precipitated the scandal with what appeared to be a stunning act of personal betrayal. It was Tripp, an obscure government worker, who befriended a desperate and none-too-savvy Lewinsky, then voluntarily delivered the incriminating tapes to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
How could Tripp have done it? What were her motives? How could Lewinsky have walked so blindly into the trap?
The answer that appears to emerge from transcripts of the tapes, plus grand jury testimony and other documents released Friday, is that resentment over what Tripp saw as her own mistreatment by the White House turned her into an implacable, self-commissioned secret agent bent on revenge.
Like a police detective building a bond of friendship with a suspect, Tripp made herself more than Lewinsky’s confidant. She became her counselor, her surrogate mother, her lifeline in a sea of troubles.
“I think I look at you as a mom,” a tearful Lewinsky declared in one conversation.
“I know that,” Tripp answered.
In another, Lewinsky told Tripp, “We have a really unique relationship, you know.”
“There’s a lot of mother-daughter there,” Tripp suggested, offering to help Lewinsky find a therapist.
“You’re a victim,” the older woman said. “I think you should see someone simply because I think--(sigh)--it would help you cope. Because until this comes to a head one way or another, you aren’t going to be Monica. Do you know what I mean?”
So deep into her role was Tripp that she apparently became deaf to the thundering ironies of her own words. Time and again, she assured Lewinsky that her only goal was to see her out of the affair unharmed--even though it was Tripp herself who was preparing to pull the pin on the grenade.
“Who you are, Monica, is not what I give a [redacted] about right now,” Tripp said in a conversation in which Lewinsky was trying to explain the seriousness of her feelings for Clinton. “You’re a wonderful person, but please let some self-preservation enter into this. . . . I know you’re going to hate me, Monica, but I want you the [redacted] out of there. I want you with a life.”
And Tripp repeatedly offered counsel that echoed with double entendres:
“I’d be careful what I said on the phone,” she warned Lewinsky about an impending conversation with a White House aide--even as Tripp herself recorded the conversation with Lewinsky.
Minutes later, discussing another co-worker whom both she and Lewinsky knew, Tripp declared that “she would respect a confidence the same way I would.”
In the same conversation, she blandly passed on a comment about Lewinsky by a former White House co-worker.
“With friends like that, who needs enemies,” the friend had said. The reference was to Clinton’s political loyalists, but they applied equally to Tripp herself--if Lewinsky had only known.
Tripp quickly led the conversation back to a meeting Lewinsky was seeking with presidential secretary Betty Currie. Tripp urged Lewinsky to try to get Currie to spell out exactly what the president would and would not do to get a good job in New York City for the former White House intern, at this point exiled to the Pentagon with Tripp.
Ostensibly, Tripp’s goal was to rescue Lewinsky from agonizing uncertainty about her future. But such specifics from Currie would also buttress the idea that Clinton was trying to buy Lewinsky’s silence about their affair.
After Lewinsky had learned that Tripp had secretly taped their conversations, she told the grand jury: “I hate Linda Tripp.”
Tripp, by contrast, told the grand jury: “I felt very sorry for Monica Lewinsky. And I was very fond of Monica Lewinsky.”
Tripp did not disguise her resentment of the way the Clinton administration had pruned the White House staff after taking office. In her telling, the firings were abrupt and uncaring.
“They took a lot of the older women and a lot of the older guys who had worked, some for almost 30 years, and said, ‘Leave by 5, don’t come back,’ ” she told grand jurors.
Closer to home, she was incensed by the events leading to her own departure from the White House. After her boss, White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, resigned, Tripp was told to look for something else.
At the same time, she strongly denied trying to compile a case against Clinton out of revenge for these perceived wrongs.
Pair Discussed Sensitive Matters
Adding a surreal quality to Tripp’s tapes is the way homey details of the two women’s lives are woven through conversations about the most sensitive matters.
Tripp sometimes put down the telephone to rescue her dinner from the oven, shoo away her dog or greet her cat. Indeed, Tripp told the grand jury that suspicious interruptions detected by Starr’s investigators on some of the tapes were caused not by human tampering but by a cat stepping on the recorder’s pause button.
Repeatedly, the two digress into details of their lives that echo those of single people everywhere. Tripp worked out alone at the gym on Friday nights, she remarked, a time when “people who have a life aren’t there.”
Late one night, Tripp suddenly digressed in the midst of helping Lewinsky draft a letter asking Clinton to meet with her on the job search. “How did your hair come out?” she asked, adding, “I love that salon. . . . It’s very cheery.”
“Uh-huh,” Lewinsky answered, clearly yawning.
Above all, the tapes reveal how achingly unguarded Lewinsky was and how unabashedly Tripp counseled her as a friend while logging the evidence that would get her into deep trouble.
“I think I just need to start over,” Lewinsky said in one conversation. “But what’s hard for me is that, and I know this is so stupid, but, Linda, I don’t know why I have these feelings for him. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I don’t really have these feelings. Maybe I’m pretending it. I don’t know. . . . I, I never expected to feel this way about him and I am not kidding you.”
“You protect him,” Tripp interjected.
“Every inch of the way.”
“I didn’t. I never--and the first time I ever looked into his eyes close up and was with him alone, I saw somebody totally different than I had expected to see,” Lewinsky said. “And that’s the person I fell in love with. . . . And that’s the person that’s been there at tender moments. And he’s been distant and vacant for me for the past few months.”
“On purpose,” Tripp said.
“And I don’t know why,” Lewinsky exclaimed.
At another point, Lewinsky blurted: “Linda, if I ever want to have an affair with a married man again--especially if he’s president--please shoot me.”
Ever in character, Tripp laughed. “I promise you,” she said, “if you get out of this one alive and unharmed and--sane and healthy--(sigh) . . .”
What Lewinsky needed to do, Tripp had been insisting all along, was to give up her hopes of returning to the White House and offer the president a way out: getting her a high-level job at the United Nations or elsewhere in New York.
“I think it’s something they’d jump on in a heartbeat,” she assured Lewinsky. “Favors like that are done every day.”
In another conversation, Lewinsky, pining for calls from Clinton, suggested she was clinically depressed and needed psychiatric help. She called Tripp a good friend, different from friends her own age.
“We have a really unique relationship, you know,” Lewinsky told her.
“There’s a lot of mother-daughter there,” Tripp agreed, offering to help find a counselor.
“You’re a victim,” Tripp told Lewinsky. “I think you should see someone [a counselor], simply because I think--(sigh)--it would help you cope.”
One day Lewinsky stole some personnel notes about herself from her boss’s desk at the Pentagon. She and Tripp discussed the complaints others had made about her: that she was unfocused, took too many personal calls and e-mails, spent too much time reading the newspaper and kept a messy desk.
Tripp said they made Lewinsky sound like a “severely learning-disabled pet rock.”
At another point, Tripp said: “Wouldn’t they all die if they knew . . . “
A Dependency Develops
As danger crowded closer to Lewinsky, she seemed to become more emotionally dependent on her confidant. Tripp expressed concern about the prospect of testifying in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case, and the unsuspecting Lewinsky was abashed at putting her friend on the spot.
“I wish I’d never told you,” said Lewinsky.
Tripp, her tape recorder turning silently, was instantly reassuring.
“You know what, Monica, it’s going to work out,” she said. “I have true faith that you’re going to go up to New York, you’re going to get a wonderful job, and this is all going to go away. Even if they get me, I’ll either plead the 5th or they’ll be stupid enough and ask really dumb questions that . . . will be a cakewalk.”
Lewinsky confided that after her mother, Tripp and her aunt were the most trusted people in her life.
“I am not ever going to allow myself to be responsible for any pain for you after what I have watched you go through,” Tripp responded.
At another moment, Lewinsky became upset and cried because Tripp had hung up on her during an argument. Tripp said that was nothing; she had hung up because otherwise she would have yelled at her.
“I have a lot of pride in you,” Tripp said.
“I don’t have enough,” Lewinsky responded.
“I don’t know where it is with you,” said Tripp. “It’s your father’s fault. I mean, you--you have everything to offer the world.”
Later, Tripp assured Lewinsky that she only scolded her out of love.
“The problem I have with you, frankly, is I feel entirely too maternal toward you. . . . It’s like me yelling at my kids--not that that ever has any effect. When I yell at you, it’s out of love.”
Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this story.