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Maryland State Prosecutors Drop Wiretapping Case Against Tripp; Rep. Fattah to Vote Against PNTR

Aired May 24, 2000 - 2:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Our top story just happened a short- time ago. State prosecutors in Maryland dropped the wiretapping case against former White House employee Linda Tripp. Tripp had been charged with violating state law by taping conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky regarding Lewinsky's relationship with President Clinton.

CNN's Bob Franken has been covering this story for months. He joins us now with the conclusion and why this happened today -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as a matter of fact, Natalie, you have hit the nail right on the head. This seems to, in fact, end the saga to some degree. Linda Tripp was such a principle character in the Monica Lewinsky matter. She was the one who secretly recorded her conversations with her then friend and turned those conversation tapes over to the independent counsel, Ken Starr. She was the one who widened the investigation as Monica Lewinsky described on those a relationship with President Clinton.

She was charged subsequently because, in Maryland, both sides of the conversation are supposed to know that they are being recorded during telephone conversations. Now, what happened was that there were a couple of court rulings recently, which sort of made it impossible for the state to prove a key element of the case, which was that she knew that she was violating the law, when she in fact did violate the law in those conversations with Monica Lewinsky.

Today, the prosecutor Steven Montonirelli (ph) put out a statement saying that he was going to drop the case because, quote, "It I was impossible for the state to authenticate that the illegal interceptions, disclosure of the case between Lewinsky and Tripp alleged in the indictment occurred." In other words, they no longer had the ability to make their case.

So Linda Tripp apparently is now a free of any concerns about being charged under a law that, theoretically at least, could have put her in prison. It was a felony in the state of Maryland. Of course, there is still residue from the Monica Lewinsky case and the Paula Jones case which preceded it. President Clinton, now, is facing possible disbarment action in Arkansas. But Linda Tripp, apparently now, is out of the news. She's on her way, she hopes, to starting a new life and putting this part of the case behind her -- Natalie. ALLEN: All right, Bob Franken on Capitol Hill. Bob is there covering the big vote that is going to come today on Capitol Hill on China trade. The president apparently twisting arms to try to get the vote his way.

Bob, what can you expect?

FRANKEN: Well, right now, we are expecting that when the vote comes two or three hours from now, it will be a vote in favor of permanent normal trade relations with China. That will replace the current arrangement where each year Congress will decide whether the normal trade relations should continue. This has been extremely hard- fought. It is still very, very close. And key to this is the undecideds, those who are the holdouts who have not declared their position yet. And for them, life has been very intense.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): For Chaka Fattah, Democratic congressman from Philadelphia, being undecided over permanent normal trade relations for China means that life right now is a series of meetings.

REP. CHAKA FATTAH (D), PENNSYLVANIA: I guess the subject matter is China, right? And something else you wanted me to know, you wanted to share with me?

FRANKEN: In fact, Fattah says, he's heard just about every argument for and against PNTR, over and over. Organized labor was here, once again, to argue against. Fattah's district is heavily unionized.

LEON LYNCH, UNITED STEELWORKERS OF AMERICA: Our estimation is we could lose as many as 800,000 jobs.

FRANKEN: But the constant parade in and out of Fattah's office includes as many PNTR supporters as opponents; some from far away -- Hong Kong, for instance.

JACQUELINE ANN WILLIS, HONG KONG COMMISSION, USA: What happens here in the United States and your relations with China is very important to us in Hong Kong.

FATTAH: It's a very fluid and intense process in which people are coming at you from all different directions, a lot of them making a very strong case even though it contradicts the last case that you just heard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: William Jefferson Clinton.

FRANKEN: One of those people is the president of the United States, who showed up in Fattah's district last Friday. They talked in the car, they talked in Air Force One, they talked on the phone, but Fattah is still decidedly undecided.

FATTAH: Pretty soon, I'll be able to make a decision and be comfortable with it, because the question is, 10 years from now, you know, is this a vote you'll be proud to have on your congressional record?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: Congressman Chaka Fattah said he wanted to sleep on this before he made his decision. Well, he has made his decision. Just a short while ago, he concluded his staff meeting, and now he is going to disclose the position he is going to take on CNN.

Congressman, what have you decided?

FATTAH: Well, I have decided that on this question I am going to vote no. And you know, obviously, I'm torn between my loyalty to the president and I think what my responsibilities are, given everything that I've seen and I have learned about this situation, I think it's a close call. It is the largest country in the world. It is a large consumer market, but I think before we get to the business enterprise, we got think about the ethics of having a relationship with a country that we have -- and even the proponents and the opponents all agree that they have a long way to go in terms of human rights, child labor, prison labor issue, environment issues.

And I think that rather than be reckless with a permanent agreement, I think we should be cautious and stick with the annual review.

FRANKEN: Well, you have been, as a result of your undecided position, the subject of quite of a bit of attention. You have been influenced by a lot of people on both sides, what put you over?

FATTAH: Well, you know, I got a call right here, as we were waiting, from the White House that I had to take over there. Obviously, there's been a lot of interest in what I am going to do.

I think there are a number of factors. One is that there is only one Chinese-American who serves among who will make this decision today out of 435 of us in the House, and 100 in the Senate, there is one. He is voting no on this question. And I think that my intuition suggests that his kinship to this question is very different than the rest of ours. It is not a casual matter. It is a very important matter. And that was important to me.

But moreover, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the concerns about whether there would or would not be job losses in my home state and in Philadelphia, even though there may be a nationwide benefit to this question. All of these lead me to thinking that we should keep an annual review.

Dick Gephardt says: Look, the most export we have is not our products, it is our ideals. And that, we don't have to have a permanent relationship, we have an annual one.

FRANKEN: Chaka Fattah, congressman, Democrat from Philadelphia, who is going to vote against this, by all accounts, about 4:45 or 5:00 Eastern today, the vote is going to go the other way, and we're expecting, now, unless there is a major surprise that the House of Representatives will vote for permanent normal trade relations with China. But those -- among those voting against it is the person we just discussed it with, Representative Chaka Fattah.

Bob Franken, CNN, live, Capitol Hill.

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