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THE CLINTON INVESTIGATION

Recordings Reveal a Confidant Who Betrayed Confidences

October 03, 1998|RICHARD T. COOPER and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — "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."

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