Tripp to appear before federal grand jury today Her testimony is key in investigation of White House scandal

June 30, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Linda R. Tripp has remained at once at the heart of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and in its darkest corners, keeping a distance from an unforgiving public that has come to view her as a national villainess.

But today, Tripp is scheduled finally to step into the spotlight, appearing before a federal grand jury here to discuss the hours of private conversations with her one-time friend that she secretly taped and gave to the independent counsel.

Tripp, whose actions sparked the sprawling White House scandal, is a pivotal and cooperating witness for Kenneth W. Starr as the independent counsel investigates whether President Clinton had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky -- as the former White House intern reportedly maintains on Tripp's tapes -- and whether he lied about it under oath and encouraged Lewinsky to lie about it. In sworn statements, both Lewinsky and Clinton have denied having had a sexual relationship.

Tripp, 48, likely will be questioned about the tapes and the origin of another key piece of evidence -- the "talking points" given to her by Lewinsky. That memo instructed Tripp to deny knowledge of sexual misconduct by the president if subpoenaed in the now-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones case against Clinton.

Some lawyers close to the case suspect that Starr has called such a key witness now to increase pressure on Lewinsky to cooperate with his investigation in exchange for immunity from prosecution. If Starr and Lewinsky's new legal team cannot reach a deal -- as has been true so far -- Lewinsky could be charged by Starr with perjury, with some of the most damaging evidence against her coming from Tripp.

For her part, Tripp has remained virtually silent since the scandal erupted in January after Tripp, wired by Starr with a hidden recording device, taped Lewinsky when the two friends met at a hotel outside Washington.

Tripp issued one public statement in January to explain her actions. But she has remained one of the most elusive and mysterious -- and unsympathetic -- figures in the Lewinsky saga.

Notoriety, not normality

Except for a brief period in which she stayed at an FBI safe house because of threats to her life, Tripp has been keeping to herself and her small circle of friends at her home in Columbia.

Working from home, Tripp, a divorced mother of two college-age children, has retained her $88,000-a-year Pentagon job as a public affairs specialist. And for the past five months, she has spent more than 100 hours going over the tapes and other evidence with Starr's office.

Through it all, Tripp has striven to live a normal life -- staining her backyard deck with her son, gardening, getting her hair done (albeit under a false name). But because of her notoriety -- she has been the butt of jokes on the Academy Awards show and "Saturday Night Live," and her name has even entered the lexicon as a verb ("to be Tripped") -- it is hard for her to go to the grocery store without a commotion.

"She does get out," said Philip Coughter, a friend and former Pentagon colleague who is acting as a Tripp spokesman these days. "But the whole situation has made it a bit difficult for her to keep up the daily rhythm of life."

Venomous hate mail

Indeed, aside from putting her in danger of prosecution in Maryland for wiretap violations, Tripp's secret taping of a friend has earned her few champions. Donations to a legal defense fund she set up on a Web site in April have been negligible, and her lawyers are working pro bono.

What's more, her Web site receives messages at a rate of three or four an hour, most of them negative, reported Bruce Fisher, a co-owner of a Web design company who manages Tripp's Web site.

"The venom is just amazing to me," Fisher said. "I've never seen or experienced any kind of hate mail like this. People just don't understand why she did it."

Tripp is expected to use her appearance before the grand jury as the beginning of a public relations offensive to try to explain herself and turn around the public's image of her as a double-crosser and a snitch. She is unlikely to speak publicly until completing her grand jury testimony -- which is expected to take several days.

'Eager' to tell her side

"She has no butterflies," said Tony Snow, a TV news host, columnist and Tripp friend. "She is eager to get out and tell her side. She's approaching this [appearance before the grand jury] more with relief than apprehension."

And she appears to be scouting options for a more extensive public debut. Tripp hired Coughter last week as a spokesman (without pay for now, he says) and has met with influential media figures. Last Thursday night, for instance, Tripp and Coughter had dinner with ABC News executives.

"She makes a very compelling, sympathetic presentation," Coughter said. "A lot of minds are going to change."

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