Grand jury hears Tripp testimony Starr's key witness in Clinton inquiry spends day in court

She may return tomorrow

Tripp tells lawyer it is 'very easy to truthfully answer the questions'

July 01, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Making her first official appearance since igniting the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Linda R. Tripp went before a federal grand jury yesterday to discuss what she knows about the president's relationship with Lewinsky -- and to try to begin repair work on her tattered image.

After remaining in semi-seclusion for five months, Tripp, who turned over to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr secret tape-recordings of her conversations with Lewinsky, spent a full day before the grand jury as a cooperating witness for Starr.

She left the courthouse as quietly as she entered it, making no public remarks and keeping as far from the cameras as possible, leaving from a side entrance where she was whisked off with her entourage in a minivan.

Anthony J. Zaccagnini, one of Tripp's lawyers, told reporters that he talked with his client as she emerged from the grand jury room, in which witnesses are questioned without their lawyers present.

"I had an opportunity to ask her how it was going and she told me, and I quote, 'I find it very easy to truthfully answer the questions posed to me by the prosecutor and the grand jury.' And that sums up our first day before the grand jury."

Zaccagnini said that Tripp, Starr's most important witness to date, expects to return tomorrow for another day of testimony. It is likely she will be called back next week.

Tripp's appearance sparked the kind of intense media attention that marked the early days of the Lewinsky scandal, when witnesses such as Clinton's confidant Vernon E. Jordan and Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, testified at the same courthouse.

Satellite trucks lined the streets -- one with a sign telling pesky tourists that no, "Monica is not here" -- and mini-television studios were set up on the courthouse plaza, known these days as "Monica Beach," for all-day coverage.

To ensure a shot of the 48-year-old Tripp, the most mysterious, and certainly most vilified, figure in the White House scandal, banks of photographers were staked out at every entrance way and corner of the courthouse, surrounding the building.

As expected, Tripp arrived at the side entrance of the courthouse shortly past 9 a.m., after leaving her home in Columbia and making a stop at Starr's office. Among those accompanying her were her lawyers; her new media spokesman, Philip Coughter; her son, Ryan, and daughter, Allison, both college age.

Once inside the courthouse, where about two dozen reporters were awaiting her arrival, Tripp removed her sunglasses and walked down the hallway with her arm around her daughter. A much-maligned witness who received death threats early on, Tripp was surrounded by six federal protective service police officers brought in for her appearance, and several U.S. marshals.

Asked by reporters how she was feeling and whether she was nervous, Tripp smiled stiffly but made no comments.

Sporting a far more polished, put-together look than she did in earlier photos that were marked by long, obtrusive hair and big glasses, Tripp wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail, reportedly the work of a professional.

"She's feeling good," Zaccagnini said as the group piled into an elevator heading for the third-floor grand jury room. "She's real strong." Asked if his client was nervous, he said, "Not at all."

Tripp had been preparing for yesterday's activities for months, having spent more than 100 hours discussing her tapes of Lewinsky and other evidence with Starr's office while still working at home in her $88,000-a-year Pentagon job.

On the 20 hours of tapes, already heard by the grand jury, Lewinsky reportedly describes a sexual relationship with Clinton, though in sworn statements both Lewinsky, a former White House intern, and Clinton have denied having had a sexual relationship.

Starr is investigating whether Clinton lied about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky, and whether he encouraged Lewinsky to lie about it, too, in exchange for help in finding a job in New York.

Starr called Tripp to testify at a critical point in his inquiry. He and Lewinsky's new legal team have been struggling to come up with a deal that would give Lewinsky immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony. So far, the talks have stalled.

Tripp's appearance is seen by some as a warning to Lewinsky that the investigation is moving forward, with or without her cooperation. If she fails to cooperate, she could be indicted by Starr on perjury and other charges.

One of Lewinsky's lawyers, Nathaniel Speights, appeared at the courthouse yesterday, but for an unrelated case. "We're working away," Speights said when asked how the negotiations with Starr were going. "Everything is OK."

Those close to Tripp have said she soon will begin a public relations offensive, including network television interviews, to try counter the image of her as a traitor and a snitch.

While she did not speak publicly yesterday, Tripp posted a message on her Web site defending herself.

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