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Tripp's Turn to Talk

The woman whose tapes launched the scandal is called to testify. Is it a ploy to pressure Monica?

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 6) -- The message was couched in the cold, metallic language of the law: "You are commanded to appear and testify" before Kenneth Starr's grand jury on Tuesday, June 30, at 9:15 a.m. Not exactly a Hallmark hug, but to its recipient, Linda Tripp, the subpoena was a welcome invitation--one she in effect had been preparing for since August 1997, when she began secretly tape-recording her long, strange telephone conversations with Monica Lewinsky.

Through five grueling months of scandal, Tripp has been cast in at least three unflattering, even cartoonish roles. First, she was the Betrayer, who secretly taped the phone conversations of a love-struck friend. Next, according to a New Yorker reporter who dug into her background, she was the Vengeful Woman, an insecure gossip who had become embittered about the opposite sex because of a philandering father and her own failed marriage. Then, according to an account by media watchdog Steven Brill, she was the Set-Up Artist, a conniver who teamed up with literary agent Lucianne Goldberg to expose Clinton's alleged misdeeds primarily because she wanted a book deal. In a report last week on previously undisclosed Tripp tapes in U.S. News & World Report, she appeared to be egging on Lewinsky's confessions (or fantasies) for the benefit of her tape recorder.

After the beating Tripp has taken in the press, Starr's grand-jury chamber must seem downright inviting. There, at least, she will be in control of her story, telling it for the first time in a friendly forum--a room free of opposition lawyers, pesky reporters or late-night comedians. To prepare for the moment, people close to the case tell TIME, Tripp has spent more than 100 hours going over her tapes and other evidence with Starr's deputies, lending context and details to what Lewinsky said.

Calling Tripp to testify now is an indication of where Starr's probe stands. Earlier this month, when Lewinsky dumped the loquacious California medical-malpractice lawyer William Ginsburg and hired a pair of Washington sharpies, Plato Cacheris and Jake Stein, many observers assumed it meant she was getting ready to cooperate. If Lewinsky were to testify, Tripp would then be relegated to a mere corroborating witness, appearing only after Monica had spilled to the grand jury. But Starr's decision to bring Tripp to the stand before Lewinsky signals a standoff, at least for now, in the negotiations between the Starr and Lewinsky camps. The talks have snagged, sources tell TIME, over the prosecutors' well-known demand to interview Lewinsky before any immunity deal is struck. Starr's team has spent months attempting to corroborate the stories she told Tripp; now they want to walk her through it all, judging her credibility. They may even want to hook her up to a polygraph machine--particularly if she asserts that Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan never obstructed justice by asking her to lie about the relationship. Lewinsky's lawyers don't want to subject her to questioning unless she is first given immunity; Starr doesn't want to grant immunity unless she talks first.

One sign of trouble was what some saw as a bout of negotiating through the media, a favorite Ginsburg tactic. On June 21 the Washington Post ran a story that appeared to reflect the Lewinsky camp's thinking, though Cacheris denies he or Stein was the source. The article set out her offer to acknowledge a sexual relationship with the President while refusing to say that anyone asked her to lie about it or otherwise cover it up. As a kind of warning to Starr, the article reported that Lewinsky's lawyers had told "people who have spoken with them" that they would win an acquittal if Starr prosecuted their client. Starr apparently wasn't impressed; four days later he upped the ante by issuing the subpoena to Tripp.

Her testimony could reverse a series of setbacks for Starr that began when Brill quoted him as saying his office had been leaking to reporters. As Starr was recovering from that gaffe, last week a federal judge freed the Whitewater convict Susan McDougal on medical grounds, and the Supreme Court refused to allow Starr to obtain notes taken by the lawyer for the late Vincent Foster, ruling that attorney-client privilege continues after the client's death.

Calling Tripp could be a signal to Lewinsky's lawyers to get serious about a deal or have their client face charges. "At a minimum, it's a shot across the bow," Tripp's lawyer, Anthony Zaccagnini, told TIME. A scenario being floated: Tripp testifies for a day or two, then is sent home for a break while Starr takes the temperature of Monica's team. If there's no change, Starr could complete Tripp's testimony and indict Lewinsky. Her lawyers may be confident of acquittal, but Lewinsky might not want to take the chance. Says a private attorney involved in the case: "The person being squeezed here is Monica."

--Reported by Viveca Novak, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 6, 1998

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Tripp's Turn to Talk
Mission Impossible
The Notebook: No Rest For The Prez

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