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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Pentagon Aide No Stranger to Controversy

Presidency: Woman who recorded talks with White House intern made previous claim about Clinton and was key figure in Foster investigation.

January 22, 1998|EDWIN CHEN and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — She reportedly loves to gossip and is quick to express opinions of others. Linda Tripp once mocked her bosses at the White House counsel's office behind their backs as "the three stooges."

Now Tripp has ignited new and serious allegations of sexual improprieties by President Clinton by secretly taping her conversations with a friend, former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

But this is not Tripp's first brush with controversy.

Now a Pentagon public affairs specialist, Tripp last made news in August, when she told Newsweek that she had seen Kathleen E. Willey, another White House aide, in a hallway just outside the Oval Office after an encounter with the president.

"Her face was red, and her lipstick was off. She was flustered, happy and joyful," Tripp said.

Tripp further told the magazine that Willey had said Clinton had taken her from the Oval Office to his private study, where he kissed and fondled her.

After the article's publication, Robert S. Bennett, the president's personal lawyer, rebutted Tripp's account, saying she was "not to be believed."

It was after that, according to various accounts, that an angry Tripp began taping conversations in which Lewinsky reportedly talked about having an affair with Clinton and said he tried to get her to lie about it.

Tripp turned over the tapes to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who sought and received authorization to investigate the matter. Starr's office and FBI agents, sources said, assisted Tripp in recording a recent conversation that they said corroborated information contained in the earlier exchanges Tripp had taped on her own.

Tripp left the White House for a Pentagon job in August 1994; Lewinsky took a public relations post at the Pentagon in April 1996.

In light of the new controversy, Tripp received a supervisor's approval to work from home Wednesday, Pentagon officials said. She could not be reached, and her attorneys did not return telephone calls.

At the White House, Tripp was an executive assistant, one of only two Clinton holdovers from the Bush White House. She became a key figure in the 1995 Senate investigation of the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, who had been a friend of the Clintons.

Tripp's private comments to co-workers in the days after Foster's death were preserved in e-mail form and helped fuel Republican suspicions that Foster's death involved foul play.

Tripp, 48, was among the last persons to have seen Foster alive--having brought him a hamburger with onions, along with some candy, from the White House cafeteria on July 20, 1994.

In a subsequent interview with FBI agents, Tripp recalled that Foster ate his lunch on a couch in his office while reading a newspaper. The agents later wrote in their report: "He removed the onions from his hamburger, which struck Tripp as odd in retrospect. She couldn't understand why he would do that if he was planning to commit suicide."

Shortly after that lunch, Foster told Tripp, "I'll be back," and then drove to a Northern Virginia park overlooking the Potomac River, where he shot himself.

At the time, Tripp was executive assistant to Bernard Nussbaum, chief White House counsel and Foster's boss. In the days after Foster's suicide, Tripp had a firsthand view of the internal investigation.

She made her "three stooges" remark to a colleague via office e-mail after White House lawyers belatedly discovered shreds of a note written by Foster in which he expressed his disillusionment with Washington.

"A lot of us in the White House wondered why Bernie kept her," one now-departed top White House official said Wednesday. "There was a great deal of mystery why he kept her in that job. She was hostile to the Clinton administration."

In fact, the White House later "stashed" Tripp in her Pentagon job, in the view of one former Defense Department official.

A former Bush White House official who knows Tripp described her as "a career employee who was known as a floating secretary" and "the kind of person who always had a lot of information and was a big talker. . . . But I never knew her to say anything that was false."

Among others, Tripp worked for Samuel Skinner when he was Bush's chief of staff.

She left the White House a month after Foster's suicide and went to work at the Pentagon as a public affairs specialist with a "top secret" security clearance. The Pentagon said her arrival was "by direct appointment" of the White House.

As a part of her $88,173-a-year job, Tripp conducts conferences designed to engender greater public support for the Defense Department from civilian opinion leaders.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus, Chief Washington Correspondent Jack Nelson and staff writers Paul Richter and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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