SCANDALS

The Goldberg-Tripp-Jones Axis

The White House Blames Clinton's Potential Perjury Problem On The Special Prosecutor. But If There Was A Trap, It Was Set By Women Offstage, Not By Starr.
 
 
 

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WHAT INSPIRED LINDA TRIPP TO take the tapes of her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky and present them as evidence to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr last January? In her testimony before the grand jury, Tripp gave the credit to her pal, literary agent- scandal maven Lucianne Goldberg. Goldberg says the two discussed the idea over the phone in late December, but that she can't remember who first suggested it. In any case, Goldberg told NEWSWEEK, ""I probably thought it was a cool idea.''

Starr's heavy-handed tactics have made him easy to demonize. The Democrats will make him a target as the impeachment hearings go forward this month. But, judging from the available evidence, it was not Starr who set the trap in the early days of the scandal. A NEWSWEEK reconstruction shows that the moving force was Tripp, egged on by Goldberg. Tripp at times displayed ambivalence, and seems to have been motivated by a mixture of self-preservation and a desire to reveal Clinton as a sexual user. Goldberg wanted to expose the president--the ""sleaze,'' she calls him--and have some fun.

It was Goldberg who conceived of using Tripp's tapes against Clinton. Sometime in late October or early November 1997, Goldberg told NEWSWEEK, she called her friend the conservative publisher Alfred Regnery, and asked if he knew how to approach the Paula Jones camp. Regnery put Goldberg in touch with a wealthy Chicago businessman and heavy GOP contributor, Peter Smith. (Regnery recalled the conversation but told NEWSWEEK that he doesn't remember any mention of Paula Jones; he says he thought that Goldberg was peddling a book idea.) Smith in turn introduced Goldberg to a circle of right-wing lawyers, most of them members of the Federalist Society, who had been secretly helping write legal briefs for Jones's lawyers. Alerted via this back channel, one of Jones's lawyers called Tripp late last November and asked her if she would be willing to be a witness in the Jones case. At once eager to expose Clinton and fearful of losing her job at the Pentagon, Tripp agreed.

The Jones team slapped Lewinsky with a subpoena in mid-December. At the same time, they were extremely eager to hear Tripp's tapes of her conversations with the former intern. If Lewinsky tried to deny sexual involvement with the president, the Jones team planned to confront her with her own tape-recorded allusions to oral sex and phone sex. Tripp, however, had become leery of turning over the tapes. She had learned from her regular lawyer that she might be prosecuted in Maryland, where it is illegal to record phone conversations without telling the other party. What could she do to insulate herself?

Maybe Starr could help. In her conversations with Tripp that fall, Lewinsky had described the efforts of Clinton's friend the superlawyer Vernon Jordan, to get her a job at the United Nations or in public relations in New York. At the same time, Jordan had helped Lewinsky find a lawyer who could draft an affidavit swearing to the Jones lawyers that she had never had a sexual relationship with the president. Perhaps, Tripp and Goldberg surmised, Starr would look at these facts and see evidence of obstruction of justice. And in return for learning this, he might offer Tripp protection as a federal witness. It was worth finding out.

Dissatisfied with her lawyer, Tripp needed a new one--preferably, she now thought, someone close to Starr. A pair of Reagan Justice Department officials with ties to Starr--Ted Olson and Charles Cooper--were approached. Both said no. Instead, Tripp hired a conservative lawyer, Jim Moody, who had once worked in intelligence and knew about eavesdropping devices. Tripp first met with Moody on Friday, Jan. 9.

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