Tripp ends testimony, long public silence Defiantly, she tries to portray herself as victim, not villain

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

WASHINGTON -- With a quivering voice but defiant words, Linda R. Tripp ended her long silence yesterday, saying she wanted people to know that "I'm you . . . an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making."

Standing on the steps of the federal courthouse where she had just completed her eighth and final day of testimony before a grand jury, the woman who secretly taped phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky made her first public statements about the explosive White House sex scandal she helped spark six months ago.

Shaking and stopping occasionally to catch her breath, Tripp provided few details about her role in the case. But with her lawyers, her spokesman and her two college-age children behind her, she tried to shed light on her motives for contacting independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in January, a move that has earned her a worldwide reputation as a snitch and a double-crosser.

Perhaps more than anything, Tripp, a 48-year-old Columbia resident, tried to portray herself as a victim, rather than a villain, in the saga.

"I have been vilified for taking the path of truth," said Tripp, who was Lewinsky's colleague and friend at the White House and, later, the Pentagon. "I've been maligned by people who've chosen not to tell the truth and who know that they are not telling the truth. That's a pretty frightening thing."

Tripp taped 20 hours of her telephone conversations with Lewinsky in which the former White House intern reportedly described having had a sexual relationship with President Clinton. Tripp took the tapes to Starr in mid-January, prompting the independent counsel to open a criminal investigation into the possibility of a presidential affair and cover-up.

Cooperating with Starr, Tripp agreed to wear a body wire to tape Lewinsky one last time while the two met for tea at a hotel near the Pentagon. Prosecutors then confronted Lewinsky with the tape of the conversation.

For months, the public has tried to figure out why Tripp would have taken the bold step of taping intimate conversations with a friend and then betraying the friend's confidence. Some have speculated that, since she once worked on a proposal for an expose on the Clinton administration, she was motivated by the prospect of a book deal. Others have suggested that she harbored political animus toward Clinton.

Her lawyers have denied both allegations. And in written statements issued in the past, Tripp has defended her actions by insisting that Lewinsky had asked her to lie about the president's actions if Tripp was subpoenaed in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case. Tripp said Lewinsky gave her a "talking points" memo that suggested to Tripp how she could tailor her testimony to suit the president.

Tripp's defenders have said she feared that without Lewinsky's own words on tape, no one would believe her if she told the truth, especially since Clinton's lawyer in the Jones case, Robert Bennett, had earlier told Newsweek magazine that Tripp was "not to be believed."

"Because I am just like you, I ask you to imagine how you would feel if someone you thought was a friend urged you to commit a felony that could jeopardize your job, potentially put you in jail and endanger the well-being of your children," Tripp said yesterday.

"Imagine how you would feel if your boss' attorney called you a liar in front of the whole country. And imagine if that boss was the president of the United States," she said.

Tripp, who also worked in the Bush White House but is registered as unaffiliated with a party, denied yesterday that she ever had any political agenda. Yet she had incendiary words for the Clinton administration, saying, without elaborating, that she had witnessed "actions by high government officials that may have been against the law." And she suggested that she feared her knowledge of those actions somehow put her in peril.

"For five years, things I witnessed made me increasingly fearful that this information was dangerous, very dangerous to possess," Tripp said. "On Jan. 12, 1998, the day I approached the office of the independent counsel, I decided that fear would no longer be my master."

'Difficult' eight days

After her statement, Tripp took no questions from reporters but said her eight days of testimony had been "difficult." She said she was "encouraged" that Lewinsky had decided to cooperate with the independent counsel.

"The facts will show that time after time, I urged her to tell the truth right up until the end," Tripp said.

She emphatically denied that she had anything to do with preparing the "talking points." In one news account yesterday, Lewinsky was said to have told Starr that she wrote the memo based on Tripp's ideas.

"I had nothing, let me repeat, nothing to do with preparing the so-called talking points," Tripp said. "Allegations to the effect that I contributed to or assisted in any way with the creation of the talking points are as illogical as they are patently false."

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