What Really Happened During Those 11 Hours at the Ritz-Carlton

<i> Renata Adler is the author of "Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS: Sharon v. Time" and the novels, "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark."</i>

People lie, certainly. People forget. People make mistakes. One difficulty in following the narrative of the past year’s scandal--which is both utterly frivolous and the gravest threat to our constitutional system in living memory--is that the major characters are not, and as it turns out, never have been, President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. They have always been, it is now clear beyond question, Linda Tripp and Kenneth Starr. Tripp, Starr and the office of independent counsel have made every effort to conceal this long, intense connection. Lewinsky, perhaps more than most people, thinks she is the main character in any narrative in which she plays a part. As a result, “Monica’s Story” by Andrew Morton does not add much to our understanding of it. Morton refers constantly, as does Lewinsky, to her “insecurity,” her lack of “self-worth” and “self-esteem,” as an explanation for whatever happens to her. What is more credible, and vastly more interesting, is her astonishing force of will, her single-minded, ineluctable, even imperious, determination to get her way. Someone more easily daunted would never have managed, for example, after 10 months--during which the President, his secretary and virtually everyone else in the White House was trying to ward her off--to make her way to the President again. Her sole argument for returning, for constant meetings, conversations, reproaches and demands, was that in early April 1996, when she was transferred from the White House to the Pentagon, the President had “promised” to bring her back to a White House job “after the election.” (Never before can the breaking of an alleged campaign promise have had consequences of this kind.)

If Lewinsky were more attuned to rejection, less determined to prevail, she would, on the other hand, have detected from Tripp’s bored inflections, her bossy and steering remarks disguised as questions, her tolerance for endless (and somewhat scolding) repetition of details Tripp claimed not to remember, that Tripp was an informer. Which, of course, she was, it now seems fairly obvious, from the first. Neither Lewinsky nor Morton makes a connection between Tripp and the office of the independent counsel quite that early. Since they think what they have is a love story, they cast Tripp as just an envious treacherous rival who betrays Lewinsky in the end. On Starr and his deputies, however, they have it right: They add detail to Lewinsky’s already powerful testimony, before the grand jury, about the circumstances of her 11-hour detention, on Jan. 16, 1998, in Room 1012 of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, by nine prosecutors and FBI agents from the office of the independent counsel. It is the only time the book comes to life.


One major strategy of the office of the independent counsel has always been to generate misinformation and outright falsehood in such confounding mass and lurid detail that by the time any one instance, large or small, has been detected, the discovery seems pedantic. Who cares? The news, as lascivious as the independent counsel manages to keep it, has moved on. Allegations of a rape, for example, once denied under oath, are revived (in response to the now infamous range of inquiries and pressures by the independent counsel) and shown in secret to members of Congress, then made public. The recantation (in every possible forum, in the midst of an impeachment) of the earlier sworn denial is said to be “reluctant” and to “have no motive” other than “ending the lies” or setting the record straight. A new inquiry is called for, and so on.


The story with Starr and Tripp at the center is quite different. On Jan. 12, 1998, Tripp was interviewed, at her request, by prosecutors and FBI agents. Until that week, she testified, under oath, before the grand jury, “I had never even thought of the independent counsel in my wildest dreams.” This, as it happened (and as the prosecutor had every reason to know), was false. By January 1998, Tripp had, in fact, been the independent counsel’s eager and enthusiastic witness in at least four prior investigations, going back four years. If it seemed plausible that Tripp’s testimony on this point was, in some sense, accurate that, having come forward to testify in Filegate, Travelgate, the Vincent Foster suicide and Whitewater investigations (some of which were ongoing throughout the period of her contacts with Lewinsky), she somehow never thought of approaching the special prosecutor with her concerns about what she heard from Lewinsky but set out, rather, for personal reasons, to do the taping on her own, then the prosecutors had a legal obligation to call that discrepancy immediately to the grand jury’s attention. The reason they let this testimony pass is not just that no one (least of all, perhaps, the grand jurors) would have believed it for a moment. It is that any explanation would have revealed the long connection between Tripp and the OIC. It would have led as well to the matter of the tapes. Members of the grand jury asked Tripp, time after time, and in spite of constant interruptions and diversions by the prosecutor, what had prompted her to tape Lewinsky. Tripp’s answers never quite persuaded them. (It was in the course of responding to this line of inquiry that she made the “never,” “in my wildest dreams” reply.) If the prosecutors had disclosed, on the spot, as they were legally obliged to, how long and in how many capacities Tripp had been working for them, the grand jurors would have known, as they seemed to suspect, why and for whom she made her tapes.

Another subject the grand jurors tried, in spite of all sorts of diversions by the prosecutor, to explore, was the events of Jan. 16, 1998, at the Ritz-Carlton, where Lewinsky was being detained, for all those hours, at the “invitation”--as one of the prosecutors subsequently put it, in a sworn affidavit--of agents of the FBI. There is no question that the events at the Ritz-Carlton marked a turning point. The stories--of Tripp, and Starr, the tapes and, it turns out, the Paula Jones case--had always overlapped. On that night, the stories openly converged. It became crucial for the independent counsel either to secure--by whatever pressures--Lewinsky’s cooperation, or to dispatch Tripp to a meeting with the Jones attorneys and risk disclosure of the OIC’s long (manifestly illegal and improper) involvement in that case. To understand the events of that night one must begin somewhat earlier and choose among competing narratives.


If the prosecutors are to be believed, Tripp was a loyal and “apolitical” White House employee under both the Bush and Clinton administrations. In August 1994, she was transferred to the Pentagon, where in 1996 she met Lewinsky. In early 1997, she heard Lewinsky’s account of a relationship, nearly a year before, with President Clinton. By Oct. 3, 1997, she had become so disturbed by this account and so certain that she would be called as a witness, to testify about Lewinsky’s relationship, in the Paula Jones case, and so alarmed that a “perjury trap” would await her when she told the truth about that relationship, that she felt she must “arm” herself “to protect my integrity” and tape what Lewinsky said.

Tripp had once testified (before the Alfonse D’Amato Whitewater hearings in 1995) about her “background in undercover operations.” If the prosecutors are to be believed, it was however a New York literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, who introduced her to the whole notion of tape-recording. Goldberg, in fact, seems to appear at every crucial junction of the prosecutor’s narrative. When Tripp decided (as Goldberg advised her to) that she ought not to wait for the Paula Jones attorneys to approach her but to get in touch with them herself, it was Goldberg who called this lawyer or that, who in turn called another lawyer, who was a friend of one of the Jones attorneys, who then made contact with Tripp. In January 1998, it was Goldberg, who, by way of her “elves” (a network of apparently timid but self-important right-wing lawyers), learned how to get in touch with the office of the independent counsel and imparted this important information to Tripp. In this version of the story, Goldberg appears at times to be running not just Tripp, but the Jones case, the OIC and the press.

If the prosecutors are to believed, Tripp first got in touch with them on the evening of Jan. 12, 1998. Four prosecutors and agents immediately raced to Tripp’s house, where within two hours (between 11:15 p.m. and 1:15 a.m.), they not only learned the contents of an unsorted 24 hours’ worth of tape recordings but appraised their reliability and knew precisely what information was missing from them. They were thus able, on the spot, to grant Tripp immunity, to equip her (without any apparent legal authorization) with a body wire and to suggest a line of questioning, to fill in the gaps, in time for a lunch Tripp would have with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton later that day. They had providently rented a room to monitor the conversation. On the basis of their tape of this conversation, the prosecutors were able within hours to assure both the attorney general and a three-judge appellate court that they had evidence of a pattern of bribery and obstruction of justice on the President’s behalf by Vernon Jordan, similar to a pattern that they thought they had detected but failed to prove in a matter related to Webster Hubbell and Whitewater. The urgency of their request (for expanded jurisdiction to include Lewinsky and the Jones case) consisted, they said, in the fact that (essentially because of Goldberg) a reporter, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, had the story. The attorney general, fearful of Newsweek and aware that the three-judge appellate court had in any case appointed Starr and remained remarkably supportive of him, yielded. The appellate court granted jurisdiction readily.

The result was Lewinsky’s ordeal and her finest hour. Starr testified under oath before the House Judiciary Committee and assured the attorney general, the three-judge appellate court and the press that he had, before Jan. 15, 1998, no contacts with the Paula Jones case. Goldberg herself made similar remarks that caused journalists to pore over minor discrepancies (whether Goldberg called this particular lawyer or that, perhaps a few days earlier) as though there were any degree of separation between the OIC and the Jones case. As it turns out, there was none. Starr also said, under oath before the House Judiciary Committee, that “it never crossed our minds” that, on the night of Jan. 16, 1998 (while his deputies and agents were detaining Lewinsky), Tripp would go straight to a meeting with the Jones attorneys to brief them about the contents of her tapes. One of Starr’s deputies, Michael Emmick, even elicited from Tripp (on her last day before the grand jury, when he was trying to clean up his record and his case) testimony that the prosecutors could have had “no inkling” that she would go to such a meeting.


Not only had it not remotely crossed their minds where Tripp might go or what she might do there, Starr said that nothing occurred, on Jan. 16, 1998, at the Ritz-Carlton that was not sound, lawful, prosecutorial practice. The hotel’s rooms, he said, were pleasant and “commodious.” Lewinsky was free to call her lawyer. There was no violation of any constitutional right or statute, no intent to “overbear the will.” One of the prosecutors who filed affidavits in a related matter said that both Lewinsky and her mother had even thanked him for their treatment of Lewinsky. Several of these affidavits by prosecutors and FBI agents contain the sentence, “Because I have prepared this affidavit for a limited purpose, I have not included everything I know about matters concerning Monica S. Lewinsky,” which suggests a certain unease. Basically, however, that is the prosecutors’ version: If the prosecutors can be believed, however, their behavior with Lewinsky was routine and proper; their case and the Jones case were distinct. Near midnight, Lewinsky left the Ritz-Carlton, as according to Starr she had been free to do since 11 a.m., when the FBI agents first issued their “invitation” to her. The OIC had simply caught Lewinsky, Starr testified, in the middle of a “serious crime.”


In fact, the prosecutors’ predicament, on Jan. 16, 1998, when Tripp lured Lewinsky into their midst and they detained her, was this: They had nothing and they knew it. The matter had become extremely urgent. Lewinsky had, it is true, signed an affidavit in the Jones case; her attorney, Francis Carter, had mailed it. It had not yet arrived, however, and had therefore not yet been filed with the court. She could still withdraw, amend or change it. Carter, if she were permitted to speak to him, would doubtless have seen to it that she did. Lewinsky, in other words, had not committed any felony. Unless they isolated, misinformed, threatened and intimidated her, she would not commit one. The President, moreover, had not yet testified in the Jones case. His deposition was scheduled for Jan. 17, 1998, the following day. If he were alerted, it was clear he would be especially careful about what he said. So the prosecutors from the OIC were left with the alarming possibility that none of their targets would commit even an arguable crime. They kept telling Lewinsky that she and her mother faced jail if Lewinsky did not agree to become their agent, and agree to be wired, for recording conversations with Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie and the President. They told her, as they had told the attorney general and the three-judge appellate court, that the matter was an emergency, “time sensitive”, “a window of opportunity” was closing. When she was not “sobbing” or “staring off into space,” Lewinsky kept asking to speak with her attorney. They did not let her call him. They suggested other attorneys. She must make her decision. Their deadline, as it happened, was truly urgent; contrary to what they had told the attorney general and the appellate court, however, it had nothing to do with Isikoff. It was imposed by a deal Tripp had made with the Jones attorneys, which required that she brief them “before the President’s deposition”--in other words, within the next few hours.

If Tripp, by then undeniably their agent, had not told them about that deal, they had another utterly reliable source: the Jones attorneys. Of course, Tripp did tell them: The source of their urgency was in fact the deadline in Tripp’s deal. Among other things the officers and agents of the OIC do not mention, in their affidavits about the events of that night at the Ritz-Carlton, is that they had rented a room for Tripp in that same hotel. As she waited for the outcome of their session with Lewinsky, she had stayed in touch by phone with the Jones attorneys. When Starr said it “never crossed their minds” that Tripp would brief those attorneys (and Emmick said they had “no inkling” she would do so), they were trying to conceal not just that Tripp’s arrangement with the Jones attorneys was dictating their schedule but how close their contacts with that case already were. There is the question for instance how they even knew that Lewinsky had signed her affidavit. They could not have learned it from the court, since the affidavit had not yet arrived. They could not have learned it from Tripp either. Lewinsky, as it happened, had lied to Tripp--to the effect that taking Tripp’s advice, she had not yet signed an affidavit in the Jones case and would not sign it, until the President, through Vernon Jordan, had found her a satisfactory job. Tripp, in other words, did not know that the affidavit was already signed. How, then, did the prosecutors know--not just whether it was true or false but that Lewinsky had signed it? The answer is this: Carter, Lewinsky’s attorney, had five days earlier informed the Jones attorneys, as a courtesy, of the contents of the affidavit and sent them a copy of it. The Jones people told the office of the independent counsel, with whom they had been working all along.

On the whole, the prosecutors would have much preferred not to rely that night on Tripp. The risk that their contacts with the Jones case would come to light was just too great. So they must bully, taunt, threaten and, not least, crowd Lewinsky. At least four prosecutors and three FBI agents, over a period of 11 hours, in and out, and sometimes standing in the doorway, of two hotel bedrooms, does reduce the degree to which Lewinsky’s accommodations can be described as “commodious.” (One wonders why there had to be so many prosecutors and agents if they did not intend, as Starr said they did not, to overbear her will.) They tried, in terrorem, to coerce her into becoming (like Tripp) their agent; they pressured her to record conversations in hopes of gathering evidence against the President. All this, Starr has publicly, indignantly and under oath, denied--unaware perhaps that some of his deputies, in sworn affidavits in a sealed court proceeding, had confirmed it. Lewinsky refused to be wired. They had to use Tripp after all. As the deadline of the President’s deposition approached, they sent Tripp off to her rendezvous with the Jones attorneys. It did not have to cross their minds “remotely”: One of their agents drove her there.


Why does it matter? “You never, ever, ever commit perjury,” Starr said in an interview with Diane Sawyer. He spoke at length to her, as he had to the Judiciary Committee, of his devotion to the law and to the truth. Tripp, under oath before the grand jury, spoke repeatedly of her “integrity” and her inability to bring herself to lie. Such is their dedication to the truth. By the time any particular element of their story comes apart, however, there is already another story. In her testimony before the grand jury, for example, Tripp discussed at length her friendship, in 1993, with another employee at the White House, Kathleen Willey. She makes it very clear that she was Willey’s confidante, that they plotted together to promote Willey’s relationship with the President, that they composed notes and selected gifts for him, that Willey solicited and welcomed the President’s embrace, and that they later consulted about where it might be safe for Willey and the President to conduct an affair. In short, the relationship Tripp described was very like her relationship with Lewinsky. (For all we know, Tripp was taping even then.) But this version does not comport with what Starr’s office now wants to present as Willey’s story: a coarse and unwelcome embrace, virtually a sexual assault, which Willey, astonished and appalled, resisted. So Starr has indicted for perjury a witness who does not confirm Willey’s testimony. When Tripp was asked, in an interview by Larry King, whether Willey’s present story is true, she replied, “Absolutely.”

The OIC, apparently ready to threaten even Tripp herself, has announced an investigation of what it chooses to characterize as signs of “duplication” in her tapes. In fact, the tapes show signs of extensive doctoring; it is by no means clear by whom. Their integrity in virtually every respect--their content, their sequence, their presentation in the independent counsel’s own report--is extremely doubtful. But the likelihood is that the prosecutors want to keep Tripp under control. They had always tried to conceal, from the grand jury and from the volumes of their Communication and Referral, not just her prior work for the OIC but her real motives and ideological affinities. At one point, when the grand jurors asked again about her motives for taping, Tripp said that she had felt “physically threatened,” that there were already “40 bodies,” victims of the Clinton Administration: “I have seen the list.” One might have thought such a list would have led the prosecutors to inquire further. Certainly, it was in their jurisdiction. Perhaps not surprisingly, they let it pass.

The virtual eradication, however, of traces of the OIC’s real relationship with Tripp lies elsewhere. In the documents of the Senate Whitewater Hearings of 1995, for example, there is an FBI report of an interview with Tripp, on April 12, 1994, in the offices of the OIC. In all the volumes of the Communication and Referral, however, including its extensive FBI reports (which cover in considerable detail both her biography and her intended testimony), there is no mention whatever of this, or any other previous OIC report. It is inconceivable that the April 12, 1994 report does not exist in the files both of the independent counsel and the FBI. In the whole Starr report, however, there is no mention of any such prior report, interview or file. The almost inescapable inference is either that the report’s 1998 FBI reports were laundered to expunge any mention of the 1994 interview, or the FBI agents interviewing Tripp were instructed to omit any reference to it. (An investigation of what became of these files, and why they were concealed from the grand jury, the House and the Senate, is surely overdue.)


There was never, there is not now (as Sidney Zion, among others, has pointed out), a credible legal case against Lewinsky. She never required immunity. She never, in other words, needed to give those volumes of detailed testimony to the grand jury--or even to turn over that dress. Without Lewinsky, the special prosecutor had nothing whatsoever. Tripp’s tapes proved only that it was Tripp who encouraged Lewinsky to think she could resume her affair with the President and who worked hard on strategies to get her there; Tripp, who suggested that she contact Vernon Jordan for help in finding a New York job (when Lewinsky already had an offer for a job at the United Nations); Tripp, who urged her to hold out for a higher position, higher pay and to refuse to sign an affidavit unless the grade and job were high--Tripp, in short, who did everything to promote relations between Lewinsky and the President and to construct what might, if Lewinsky had taken her advice, have been a genuine obstruction of justice. In one particularly malevolent communication near the end, Tripp told Lewinsky that she had learned, from “Kate,” a friend at the National Security Council, that Lewinsky was blacklisted at the White House and would never get a job there; Lewinsky had better renew and raise her demands for employment in New York. The “Kate” in question denied, under oath, that she had ever heard or said anything of the kind. Before the scandal became public, she said, she had never heard of Monica Lewinsky.

But here one begins to see what is pernicious. One pattern in the office of the independent counsel has been to summon witnesses and compel their testimony on matters--like the emotional and sexual lives of other people--of which they can have no personal knowledge and about which prosecutors have no right, under our system, to inquire; then, to threaten these witnesses with charges of perjury if their testimony does not meet prosecutors’ needs. Some people are eager to oblige, with endless gossip about friends, neighbors and associates. Others would resist but do not know how. The legal costs of resistance are very high. In addition, there is sometimes the threat--for which the office of the independent counsel is now notorious--to open inquiry on some other front: the legality of an adoption, say, or possible anomalies in billing a partnership or paying income tax. Even the administration of nursing homes has not, after all, in the past, been altogether scandal-free. Everyone, in short, is vulnerable to inquiries and pressures of this sort.

To get any sense of the independent counsel, who has made so many millions in his private capacity, spent so many millions more in his public capacity and incurred such enormous expenses for any witnesses he indicts, you have to look at the written record. To get a sense of Tripp, her motives and her contribution to the plot, you need to hear the actual tapes. (It was precisely to conceal from the grand jurors almost everything about Tripp that the prosecutors did not present the tapes themselves but only read, in their own voice, excerpts from them. It must have been extremely odd, perhaps somewhat comic, to hear Tripp’s lines and Lewinsky’s in the voices of Michael Emmick and Stephen Binhak.) To get a sense of Lewinsky, one has to see her--on television or elsewhere. Her personality, her charm, her occasional savviness either come through or not. One learns nothing about her from the book.

In a story with, so far, no heroes, Lewinsky’s signal vindication was to refuse to be wired. The volumes of testimony in the independent counsel’s disgraceful Communication and Referral to the House Judiciary Committee documents the gross prosecutorial abuses and deliberate violations of statutory and constitutional limits in those 11 hours at the Ritz-Carlton. Morton’s book adds to our understanding of that night. When Lewinsky speaks of the “fear” she and her mother experienced, one tends at first to doubt her--particularly since she seems unmistakably to take a certain pleasure, both in the limelight and in the story that she tells. Then it becomes clear that, however melodramatic the expression of that fear may have been, its basis was absolutely genuine. The pernicious aftermath of the entire affair has been this: not just the obvious undermining of trust, in the Presidency, elected officials and, for that matter, judges. Not even just, through the relentless generation of sensational, and therefore “interesting,” misinformation, the subversion of sanity and of caring whether anything is true or not. But this: The notion that it is the business of government to inquire into people’s intimate lives, and of citizens to go (whether out of fear or malice or exuberance or for any other reason) to the government with testimony about the intimate lives of other people--even to wire themselves to record conversation for testimony of that kind--has never been the way, in this or in any other free country. People have had, in the past, no reason to fear that their friends or family or intimates or former intimates will, or even can, betray their confidences to prosecutors. The scandal and the danger is that until the Starr ethic is emphatically repudiated, people now have ample reason for that fear.