This is a transcript of Episode 5 of Season 2 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
A few months ago I was at my desk, working late, going through a list of people I wanted to interview for this podcast. Linda Tripp was one of the first people I had put on the list. I didn’t have high hopes when I dialed her number—I wasn’t even sure I had the right one. But then, after a couple rings, Tripp picked up. I recognized her voice. I remembered it from the 22 hours of tapes she made back in 1997, when she secretly recorded a series of phone calls in which her friend Monica Lewinsky talked about her tumultuous affair with the president.
LINDA TRIPP: You have a crappy personal situation and you have a crappy professional situation.
After I explained who I was and what I was doing, Tripp told me she did not want to be interviewed. She said it had been 20 years since all this stuff happened; she had a whole new life now that had nothing to do with Bill Clinton or Lewinsky. I knew about this new life from stories I’d read about Tripp: She lived on a horse farm in rural Virginia, and she owned a year-round Christmas store with her husband Dieter, whom she spoke German with at home. It made sense that Tripp didn’t want to reignite interest in her past. But I kept pushing, saying I wanted to get her side of the story.
After a few minutes, Tripp said something to the effect of, There’s no way you would ever get it right. And when I asked what she meant, she just started answering me. And suddenly we were talking.
About half an hour into the call, I realized this could be my only shot at interviewing Tripp. And though it was clear to me that Tripp did not think we were in the middle of an interview, she did know that I was a journalist and there had been no discussion of our conversation being off the record. So, without interrupting her, I started recording the call.
We talked for another hour and a half after that—and she was being incredibly forthcoming, telling me about her relationship with Lewinsky, her motivations for taping her, and how she felt about her actions all these years later. I never revealed to Tripp that I was recording everything she was saying, or asked for her permission to start.
At the end of the call, Tripp asked me if I’d consider keeping this conversation between us. Caught off guard, I responded vaguely, telling her that I wanted to sit down and talk properly, in person.
Tripp said she would think about it. After we said good night, I turned off my tape recorder and stared at it. By this point it was nearly 11 o’clock and there was no one else left in the Slate office, which meant there was no one for me to go up to and say, “Guess what: I just secretly taped a phone call with Linda Tripp.”
Over the next couple of weeks, while Tripp weighed the possibility of an interview, I considered my options. Aside from Clinton and Lewinsky, Linda Tripp was probably the most pivotal player in this whole saga—an ordinary person who made extraordinary choices that precipitated the entire impeachment crisis. And she had barely given any interviews in the years since.
Legally, I was fine to use the tape. But was it ethical? Since I hadn’t agreed to go off the record, I wouldn’t be violating any journalistic rules.
Also, this was Linda Tripp. The person who secured her place in history by surreptitiously taping her friend’s desperate confessions and handing them over to federal prosecutors. A person who ensured that a young woman’s most private moments would be described and dissected in newspapers and on TV screens around the world. If I used the tape, could Linda Tripp really object?
And then, in early June, Tripp called me back and she said OK—I could come see her in Virginia, and if she got the sense she could trust me, she would let me ask her whatever questions I wanted. So I went to Linda Tripp’s horse farm. When my producer and I showed up, she offered to make us lunch.
LINDA TRIPP: Do you guys want a sandwich real quick? It’s like right around that time.
When we sat down in Tripp’s living room, she seemed nervous, like she was bracing herself for a root canal. On a shelf in the corner of the room I noticed a row of books about the Clinton scandal—the Jeff Toobin one, the Michael Isikoff one—and almost all of them were brimming with little Post-it notes. Tripp told me that each note corresponded to a factual error. Taken together, they were a testament to how misunderstood Tripp felt and how wrong she thinks we all were about her.
LINDA TRIPP: Central casting couldn’t have cast a better villain. The entire country had decided who I was, and it was evil incarnate. There was no chance to say but wait, you don’t know this, or you don’t know that. There was none of it.
Yes, she had tried to take down the president, Tripp told me. But she didn’t do it for political reasons, or because she wanted to make money. Above all, the thing she wants everyone to understand is that she didn’t set out to betray Monica Lewinsky.
LINDA TRIPP: Sitting here today, I have no clue what I thought was going to happen. It was sort of fuzzy. But there wasn’t an organized master plan of what I was thinking. This was flying by the seat of my pants, terrified, out of my wits, completely guilt-ridden that I was having to manipulate her, but convinced in my soul that in the end it would benefit her. That he would no longer be able to do this to hurt anyone else.
As I listened to Tripp talk, I thought about whether I would have used my tape if she had turned down my interview request. Would I really have played it on this show for a million people to hear? Would I have convinced myself that it was the right thing to do?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
LINDA TRIPP: No one wanted to become the sex police.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: She says to me, there’s another story here but it’s not the one you think it is.
ANN COULTER: They call me at 3 a.m. and show up with these tapes.
LINDA TRIPP: Look, I can’t lie under oath.
Episode 5: Tell-All.
Linda Tripp has always been a square. Growing up, she loved the Beatles, but she didn’t care for any of the druggy albums—she preferred the early stuff, when they were still wearing suits. And her favorite band was the Dave Clark Five.
Tripp considered herself one of their groupies.
LINDA TRIPP: And the kind of groupie I was was the kind who would have loved to have gotten a lock of hair. And when we did meet them, I had no idea what to say. At 14, you’re not even aware of what actual groupies might do. It was very, very innocent.
Tripp got a job in the White House at age 41. She considered it an honor to come to work every day, and she admired George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara—she felt they treated the institution of the presidency with the respect it deserved.
Tripp had been working in the White House for a year and a half when Bush lost his re-election bid. When Bill Clinton moved in, Tripp was immediately appalled. She didn’t approve of his power-hungry wife or his young, zippy friends who ate pizza in the Oval Office late at night.
REPORTER 1: Washington is interesting again.
REPORTER 2: Clinton’s personal aide, Andrew Friendly, is 24, which is still older than many White House staffers.
REPORTER 3: All that political power, and they can also program their own VCRs.
Clinton had changed the culture of the White House and Tripp couldn’t stand it.
LINDA TRIPP: I’ve been called a prude and a prig, and in some ways I think that’s probably true. But it wasn’t the attire. It wasn’t the way they comported themselves so much as what they were doing behind the scenes. There was no right or wrong, there was no respect for the rule of law. There was no rule that applied to the Clintons.
I had a hard time getting Tripp to be more specific about what the Clinton people were doing behind the scenes that offended her so much. She mentioned that Hillary once made a comment that Tripp interpreted as disrespectful toward the military, and that she swore too much for a first lady.
But what really solidified Tripp’s suspicious view of the Clintons seems to have been the death of Vince Foster.
As you may remember from Episode 2, Tripp worked with Foster in the White House Counsel’s Office—she happened to bring him his last meal before he shot himself in 1993. Tripp had liked Foster—she saw him as the one of the only members of the Clintons’ inner circle who tried to do everything by the book. When his body was found, Tripp thought it was strange that everyone in the White House accepted, right away, that it was a suicide.
LINDA TRIPP: I remember thinking, “It’s midnight and so he’s only been dead a few hours. How on earth does anyone know?” They know the manner of death. But they don’t know. How could they know that? Maybe I’ve watched too much Law & Order and read too much Agatha Christie. But the point is it just struck me as bizarre that suicide was front and center immediately.
Tripp was disturbed by the aftermath of Foster’s death. The whole investigation seemed rigged. Case in point: When law enforcement officials interviewed Tripp about Foster, she was accompanied by a lawyer who had been assigned to her by the Clinton administration.
LINDA TRIPP: We were not allowed to be interviewed without the presence of a White House attorney, which essentially ensured that none of us would choose to say anything but the party line in their presence. And when the White House assigned me a lawyer from a white-shoe law firm, I realized how deeply entrenched I was becoming in the Clinton cover-ups.
Tripp came to harbor a profound contempt for the Clintons. Eventually she was transferred from the White House to a better-paying job in the Pentagon. It was during her tenure there that she began to feel a responsibility to expose the Clinton administration’s true nature. In 1996, she looked to one of her former colleagues for help in getting that message out.
Tony Snow had gotten to know Tripp while serving as a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush. Since then, he’d become an anchor at the newly launched Fox News Channel. Tripp told him she knew all kinds of stuff about the Clintons, and that she didn’t want to stay silent anymore. Snow, who died in 2008, told Tripp that he knew a literary agent in New York named Lucianne Goldberg.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: Tony Snow was just the most delicious person in the world. Anybody that Tony had sent me I knew was OK. You were automatically vetted if Tony sent [you], because he sent me several other people and they worked out.
Goldberg’s specialty was conservative nonfiction with a salacious edge. She had sold a book about what really happened at Chappaquiddick, and she also represented Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD detective who found the bloody glove behind O. J. Simpson’s house, and was once described by Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran as a “lying, perjuring, genocidal racist.” Earlier in her career, Goldberg had worked for Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign. Her job was to spy on his opponent, George McGovern, by posing as a journalist and writing down bits of gossip she heard on the press plane.
As Goldberg remembers it, Tripp wanted to write a book about Vince Foster as well as the broader pattern of disgraceful behavior she had observed in the Clinton White House.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: She was a worker bee and she was polite and she was pleasant and, you know, I had no reason not to believe her.
Goldberg arranged for Tripp to start working with a ghostwriter, a conservative newspaper columnist who interviewed her for 20 hours before putting together a book proposal. But Tripp got cold feet when she read what the ghostwriter had come up with.
LINDA TRIPP: I realized in looking at this that there was no way for me to prove anything I was alleging. I would lose everything, gain nothing, and become public for the rest of my life.
Tripp remembers Goldberg being furious that she was pulling out of the book. But Goldberg told me she didn’t think much of the material anyhow.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: She sent me a few pages on it and I could see this was a project that wasn’t going to fly. There wasn’t enough stuff there. So I called Tony and thanked him for referring him and blah blah. Did all those good agent stuff.
Goldberg didn’t expect to talk to Linda Tripp ever again. But then, about a year later, she got another call from Tony Snow.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: He called me and said, “Remember that woman I sent you that used to work for Vince Foster? Well she’s got an even bigger story.” And I said, “Do you want to share?” And he said, “Not on these phones.”
Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky first met in the spring of 1996, when Lewinsky was transferred against her will from the White House to the Pentagon.
It was Lewinsky who first approached Tripp. She did so after noticing a collection of poster-size photographs of Bill Clinton that Tripp had at her desk. These photos were known as “jumbos,” and they hung from the walls all over the White House. Lewinsky told her official biographer that Tripp had the jumbos because she wanted to appear loyal to the administration. Tripp told me she was planning to use them for a presentation. In any event, the photos of Clinton caught Lewinsky’s eye.
LINDA TRIPP: On this particular day, she came back to my area and saw the jumbos and immediately gushed over President Clinton and I said, “Oh you know him?” and she said, ‘Yeah I was at the White House.’ And I mean, it became groupielike from day one. Groupielike.
Lewinsky reminded Tripp of herself as a teenager, obsessing over the Dave Clark Five.
LINDA TRIPP: Absolutely 100 percent infatuated. She wasn’t screaming as I did in front of the TV screen, but it was as close to that as could be without actually screaming, almost jumping up and down with glee that he was this, he was so wonderful, oh my gosh he’s so handsome.
There was a big age difference between Tripp and Lewinsky. Not quite as big as the one between Lewinsky and Clinton, but still substantial: One woman was in her early 20s, the other was in her late 40s. Tripp felt this difference acutely. She told me she thought of Lewinsky as a child.
LINDA TRIPP: You couldn’t spend 10 minutes with Monica at that time in her life and not see a 14- to 15-year-old and young girl. Before I knew anything about Bill Clinton, she was just very young.
Lewinsky didn’t tell Tripp right away that she was romantically involved with the president. In the beginning, she just said that she was seeing a married man. According to Lewinsky’s biography, it was only after Clinton’s win in the 1996 election that Lewinsky let Tripp all the way in on the secret. Remember, when Lewinsky was transferred out of the White House, Clinton had promised he would bring her back as soon as he was re-elected. Lewinsky held onto this promise and counted down the days until they would be reunited. Though Clinton called her on the phone during this period, he never made it possible for them to see each other. By Election Day, it had been more than six months since the two of them had been alone together.
Lewinsky, who declined to be interviewed for this podcast, would later recall getting a haircut and picking out the clothes she would wear when she went to see Clinton after his victory. But that meeting didn’t happen. “I was crying uncontrollably,” Lewinsky said later in an interview. “I felt I had left the White House like a good girl, I hadn’t made a fuss. A lot of women may not have been so compliant. I felt so betrayed and so disappointed.”
Lewinsky and Tripp were in the Pentagon cafeteria when Lewinsky confided in her friend that the married man she’d been having an affair with was the president himself. According to Lewinsky, Tripp said, “I knew it! I knew you were the type of girl he would like. Now, tell me what happened.”
Tripp disputes this account. She told me she was disgusted when she learned about the affair and didn’t express any enthusiasm about it.
LINDA TRIPP: I didn’t believe or didn’t allow myself to believe at that point in time that he could have stooped this low, because as I said, if had you spent any time with her alone, you would feel like you were dealing with a child in a woman’s body.
In the months that followed, Tripp says she started to feel like her young friend’s caretaker, as Lewinsky became increasingly consumed by her quest to win back Clinton’s attention.
LINDA TRIPP: There was nothing else in life, everything else had ceased to exist. This was her 100 percent, 24/7 obsession. She lived for the encounters or any acknowledgement at all. And there came a point in time when even negative attention was acceptable, because at least it was attention.
Though Clinton didn’t bring Lewinsky back to the White House after the election, he did continue calling her. Lewinsky’s biography describes periodic phone calls when Clinton would tell her that they had to put an end to their affair. But then he would just call her again. This kept Lewinsky going.
In February of 1997, Lewinsky told Clinton to look in the personals section of the Washington Post—she had taken out an ad, addressed discreetly to “Handsome,” in which she had quoted a few lines from Romeo and Juliet, and signed it, “Happy Valentine’s Day, M.”
Lewinsky thought Clinton appreciated the gesture, but then he started talking again about how they needed to break things off. Lewinsky remembers him saying, “I don’t want to hurt you like all the other men in your life have.” But after that, they had phone sex, and he promised to be in touch again soon.
Later that month, Clinton’s personal secretary, Betty Currie, invited Lewinsky to come to the White House to watch the president record his weekly radio address. Lewinsky arrived wearing a blue dress from the Gap, and Currie led her to a study off the Oval Office once Clinton was done taping.
In that study, Lewinsky was alone with the president for the first time in nearly a year. During this visit, Clinton gave her a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—the same book he’d given Hillary Rodham at the start of their relationship 26 years earlier. Then Clinton took Lewinsky into a bathroom, where she performed oral sex on him. Clinton broke his old rule, and allowed her to bring the process to its natural conclusion. When Lewinsky came home that night, she tossed her blue dress in the closet without noticing it had a stain on it.
By the spring of 1997, Lewinsky was giving Linda Tripp near-constant updates on the state of her relationship with Clinton. Tripp says that what she heard during these conversations gave her the unmistakable impression that Lewinsky was being abused by a predator.
LINDA TRIPP: I mean, how it was presented to the country initially is how it continues to be referred to today, which is an affair, the Lewinsky affair. But by virtue of using that word, one assumes it was in some way an actual relationship of sorts—romantic, physical, whatever, it was a relationship—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. What it was was a series of encounters to address a physical need, a use of a young girl, and then the sort of cold hard dismissal of her on any human level.
Just as she’d been in the years after Vince Foster’s suicide, Tripp was seized with the feeling that she needed to intervene and expose the president. This desire intensified, Tripp says, after an incident that took place around the Fourth of July.
LINDA TRIPP: She had told Clinton the weekend of July Fourth of ’97 that I knew everything. That was a big deal. She didn’t realize how big a deal that was, but knowing the Clintons, I knew that from that day forward, it was very possible that a Mack Truck was in her future and my future. That is going to sound completely melodramatic to anyone who wasn’t there, but I can tell you it was not melodramatic and it was a real fear.
NEYFAKH: That you would be killed?
LINDA TRIPP: I think I would have had an accident. I think, yes.
I couldn’t find any independent confirmation that Lewinsky told Clinton in July of 1997 that Tripp knew about their relationship. In fact, I found a transcript of a conversation between Tripp and Lewinsky that took place the following winter, in which Tripp specifically asserts, in reference to Clinton, “He doesn’t know I know about you.”
Regardless, Tripp told me she remembers becoming scared for her life and thinking that she had to go public before something terrible happened. Once again, Tripp asked her friend Tony Snow to arrange a call with the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: She proceeded to tell me about this girl that she worked with then at the Pentagon, and that she was 23 years old and she started giving me all the details. I said, “You know an awful lot about this girl. I mean how do you know all these like snapping a thong and that stuff?” For Linda to know a tiny detail like that, I thought you know, how are you getting this information? So she told me, “Well I talked to her, you know, three or four times a day. If I don’t talk to her in the office, I talk to her on the phone at night.”
Goldberg knew this was explosive material, but she wanted more.
LUCIANNE GOLDBGER: “Do you a way to prove this? I mean this all sounds great, but do you have any way to prove that this is a romance or this is you know bigger than just a mild flirtation?” And she said, “Well no I don’t.” And I said, “Well you talk to her on the phone right?” And she said yeah and I said, “OK, go down the RadioShack and buy a tape recorder. It costs about 50 bucks and plug it into your phone.”
This was a dramatic step, the moment when Tripp made the decision to unequivocally betray her friend’s trust. When I asked Goldberg why she thought Tripp went along with her plan, she said it was obvious: Tripp was “fond of Monica” and wanted to protect her.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: She was just a bighearted woman, that’s all. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that. And I don’t think it was political.
NEYFAKH: You don’t think she was wanted the world to sort of the see who this guy was?
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: Oh sure, we all did. I know I did. I wanted people to see what a rat fang Clinton was. I mean he was terrible about women.
NEYFAKH: Did you say “rat fang”?
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: Rat fang.
NEYFAKH: I don’t even know that phrase.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: A rodent-type creature. [laughs]
Goldberg told me she has no regrets about telling Tripp to start taping.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: I think the thing that most people have asked me is “Why did you do it?” And the answer is, why the hell not? Here you got these good-looking charismatic president having an affair on the rug that has the Great Seal of the United States in his office, a room that is they said Reagan wouldn’t walk into without a jacket. And it was overwhelming. It was appalling. You know, we nobody ever heard—at least I hadn’t—heard anything like that.
MONICA LEWINSKY: Hi!
LINDA TRIPP: How’d you know it was me?
MONICA LEWINSKY: Because I have caller ID!
LINDA TRIPP: Oh what’s it say?
MONICA LEWINSKY: Linda Tripp!
LINDA TRIPP: It does?
MONICA LEWINSKY: Yeah!
LINDA TRIPP: I have an unpublished phones, the idiots. How was your dinner? I just got back to the gym.
MONICA LEWINSKY: Oh my god you good girl.
Tripp installed her voice-activated recorder in early October of 1997. In the conversations that followed, many of which were later made public by the House Judiciary Committee, Tripp steered Lewinsky very deliberately into areas that might yield details about her affair with Clinton.
LINDA TRIPP: Do you think he’ll call when he gets back?
While Tripp expressed some exasperation with Clinton during these calls, she consistently and deliberately encouraged Lewinsky’s obsession with him.
MONICA LEWINSKY: I mean, when this first happened, I mean, I said to my mom, I said, “Well, I think he just fooled around with me because his girlfriend was probably furloughed.”
LINDA TRIPP: You idiot.
MONICA LEWINSKY: I’m not kidding you. That’s what I thought.
Arguably the most consequential thing Tripp did during the recorded phone calls was give Lewinsky professional advice. Lewinsky had decided she wanted a new job outside of government, and that she would enlist the president’s help in her effort to find one. When Lewinsky talked about these plans, telling her Clinton owed her something for the pain he had caused her and urging her to be clear with him about her demands.
LINDA TRIPP: Well, I’m just saying, you know, you can also hold his feet to the fire just a little bit if what he comes up with doesn’t appeal to you.
MONICA LEWINSKY: Yeah.
LINDA TRIPP: The ultimate thing is if this is your last hurrah, you’d better get something out of it that’s, you know, that you can stick with. Because this is a good steppingstone. It’s not many times that you’re going to have someone of that stature opening a door for you.
MONICA LEWINSKY: Yeah. No, I know.
Later, Tripp helped Lewinsky compose a letter to the president.
MONICA LEWINSKY: OK, the first line: “It’s been made clear to me that there’s no way I’m going to be able to come back to the White House.” Is that OK?
LINDA TRIPP: I would say, “Despite your best effort.”
MONICA LEWINSKY: Yeah, that’s good. “While I understand why it’s not possible for me to return, I need you to understand that I am extremely underchallenged and unhappy in my current position.”
LINDA TRIPP: And then you might say, “I need to be focusing elsewhere.” Let him know that this is truly time-sensitive.
Clinton did try to help Lewinsky find a job, by putting her in touch with his close friend Vernon Jordan, a power broker with the kinds of connections that come in handy in a job hunt. Jordan met with Lewinsky and arranged for her to be interviewed for positions at several companies, including Revlon, where he was a board member. These job interviews would later become central to Ken Starr’s investigation into whether Clinton and his protectors had tried to buy Lewinsky’s silence.
When I asked Tripp about the three months she spent secretly taping her calls with Lewinsky, she didn’t deny that she had engaged in a truly villainous form of deception. But she insisted it was a means to an end, and that she hated every second of it.
LINDA TRIPP: There wasn’t a thing about those three months that were authentic. Everything prior to that was, but I needed everything to be recreated and it was beyond manipulative. Did I want to do that? Not necessarily, but I felt like I had no choice.
Within a few weeks of installing her recording device, Tripp visited Lewinsky at her apartment in the Watergate. There, Lewinsky showed Tripp the stained blue dress hanging in her closet. By this point, Lewinsky had noticed the stain and pieced together its origins.
After this visit, Tripp told Lucianne Goldberg about the dress. Goldberg wanted to know whether Clinton’s DNA could be recovered from the fabric. She put the question to her client, Mark Fuhrman, the former LAPD detective from the O. J. Simpson trial. Fuhrman assured Goldberg that getting a DNA sample would be no problem.
LUCIANNE GOLDBERG: I had originally heard it was a cocktail dress and then later I heard it was from the Gap. Much less glamorous. I wanted it to be, you know, full of marabou feathers and that kind of thing. But nah, just the Gap.
By this point, Goldberg was not the only person Linda Tripp was sharing such tidbits with. The other was Michael Isikoff, the reporter who had written the first major story about Paula Jones for the Washington Post three years earlier. Isikoff worked at Newsweek now, and he was still very much on the Clinton-scandal beat.
Tripp had started talking to Isikoff in the spring of 1997. Back then, Isikoff had been trying to nail down a story about yet another woman with whom Clinton was alleged to have behaved inappropriately. Isikoff had heard about this woman from one of Paula Jones’ lawyers, and Tripp was said to be a potential witness.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I knew the particular office that Linda Tripp worked at and wandered down and just approached her at her desk and told her who I was. I told her there was a matter I wish to talk to her in some confidence. She looked at me suspiciously and a bit wearily and said, “Why don’t you wait out there? I’m going to have a cigarette break in a few minutes and I’ll come talk to you then.”
So, they talked. And Isikoff didn’t find the exchange to be particularly useful. But then, at the end of their conversation, Tripp got Isikoff’s attention.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: As I was leaving, she says to me, “I should tell you, you’re barking up the wrong tree. There’s another story here but it’s not the one you think it is.” Which, needless to say—say what? And she said, “That’s all I’m going to tell you now.” But there it was: There’s another story here, but it’s not the one you’re thinking of.
After that Isikoff started cultivating Tripp as a source, eager to learn more about her “other story.” Eventually, Tripp revealed everything: that the president was having an affair with a former intern, that her name was Monica Lewinsky, and that for the past several months, she’d been telling Tripp all kinds of details while a tape recorder captured her every word.
Not long after, Tripp told Isikoff about Lewinsky’s stained blue dress. Tripp even offered to steal it for him so he could get it tested, but Isikoff declined.
Tripp understood the importance of the dress, and in conversations with Lewinsky, she made every effort to prevent her from spoiling its integrity.
LINDA TRIPP: The navy-blue dress. Now, all I would say to you is I know how you feel today and I know why you feel the way you do today. But you have a very long life ahead of you, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Neither do you. I would rather you had that in your possession if you need it years from now. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m telling you, I would say this to my own daughter.
MONICA LEWINSKY: Well I’ll think about it.
LINDA TRIPP: OK.
Toward the end of 1997, Linda Tripp introduced another element into her plot to bring down Bill Clinton. Tripp understood that what she knew about Monica Lewinsky could bolster Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case, by showing that Clinton had repeatedly engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with his subordinates.
LINDA TRIPP: Because it establishes a pattern of behavior that otherwise I believe wouldn’t have had credibility. So he was still doing in the midst of a sexual harassment lawsuit, still doing essentially the same thing that he was being accused of and charged with. And the arrogance of that decision showed me that he was never ever going to stop. I would bet to this day he hasn’t stopped. But I was eager for this information to fall into the hands of the Paula Jones attorneys.
Tripp desperately wanted Jones’ legal team to subpoena her so she would be legally obligated to go public with what she knew. To make this happen, Tripp turned, as usual, to Lucianne Goldberg, who brokered an introduction to the Jones lawyers and even helped Tripp find a lawyer of her own who was close with them.
Jim Moody became Tripp’s lawyer during the very first days of 1998. Moody was a fixture in conservative circles in Washington, and among his friends was a group of high-powered attorneys who had secretly been helping with the Jones lawsuit as it made its way to the Supreme Court. These attorneys have come to be known in Clinton lore as the “elves.” One of them, George Conway, is now better known as the insubordinate husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Another was Ann Coulter. She and Tripp’s new lawyer Jim Moody had become friends through a shared love of music.
ANN COULTER: We were both Deadheads. And so I met him. I think it was my internship at Department of Justice and somebody said, “Oh I know another other conservative Deadhead!” And by the way there are scores of us, but that’s how I met him. And so we started going to Dead shows together.
One night, Moody got together with George Conway shortly after taking possession of the audio cassettes that Tripp had been making for the previous three months. The two men were eager to listen to them. But before they did, they called Coulter at home and invited themselves over.
ANN COULTER: So they called me and it was like 3 in the morning. And he said—and Moody is brilliant, he’s MIT, helped design the cruise missile system, he skis, he’s legally blind—so he’s sitting with his 1950s tape recorder with the most valuable evidence anyone will ever have in the history of the world. And he’s like randomly pushing buttons, and Conway lunges at him and says, “You can hit the record button! We’re going to Coulter’s house.”
Why Coulter’s house? Because Coulter had an incredible stereo system with a tape deck, which she used to listen to the Grateful Dead.
ANN COULTER: So they call me at 3 a.m. and show up with these tapes and we sat by my speakers and listened to a few of the smoking-gun tapes and then we had Walkmans and listened to a few more individually.
Once the Paula Jones elves joined forces with Linda Tripp, everything escalated extremely quickly. First, the Jones team served both Tripp and Lewinsky with subpoenas, which meant both women would have to testify under oath. Lewinsky was blindsided by this, and she began to strategize with Tripp about what the two of them might say.
MONICA LEWINSKY: They can’t have anything. Even if they bring someone, they can bring somebody up and all I have to do and say it didn’t happen, this person is politically motivated. Nobody thought anything, so nobody can know.
LINDA TRIPP: Monica, someone has told them something. Now, do we think that that’s a little something or a lot something? Do they have specifics to ask us? We don’t know this.
Lewinsky went into a panic when she received the subpoena, and she told Clinton’s friend Vernon Jordan about it. Though it did not exactly fall under Jordan’s mandate of helping Lewinsky find work, he arranged for her to speak to a lawyer and even drove her to the lawyer’s office. There, Lewinsky prepared an affidavit stating, “I have never had a sexual relationship with the president.”
Three days after Christmas, Lewinsky visited Clinton in the Oval Office and talked to him about the Jones case. According to Lewinsky, she mentioned that her subpoena specifically requested she turn over any gifts the president had given her. That afternoon, Betty Currie drove to Lewinsky’s apartment and picked up a cardboard box. As the Office of the Independent Counsel would later detail, the box contained souvenirs Clinton had brought Lewinsky from the Black Dog store in Martha’s Vineyard, as well as a hatpin and a framed photograph of Clinton and Lewinsky bearing the president’s autograph. Across the top of the cardboard box, Lewinsky had written, “Please do not throw away.”
It was around this same time that one of Paula Jones’ elves reached out to a law-school buddy of his who worked in Ken Starr’s office as a prosecutor. In a carefully planned conversation, the elf revealed to his friend that the president was having an affair with a former intern. Clinton was trying to buy her silence, the elf said. And best of all, there was a witness who had everything on tape.
The Starr team quickly put out word that Linda Tripp should get in touch with them. And on Monday, Jan. 12, 1998, Tripp called one of the prosecutors at his office and told him her story.
NEYFAKH: And what did you think was going to happen after you told them?
LINDA TRIPP: I had no idea. I had hoped that they would take this on. I thought of them as the white hats who would come and save me from the black hats. I really thought that they represented law enforcement that could actually do something, because in my quandary earlier I remember thinking well, I can’t go to the FBI and I can’t go to the Justice Department because essentially they’re owned by Bill Clinton. So where do I go? Never thinking of the independent counsel. But now that I was told that they would be receptive, should I decide to call, I was hoping they would take it and run with it.
NEYFAKH: With what aspect of it, though?
LINDA TRIPP: All of it. All of it.
That night, three of the prosecutors and an FBI agent drove to Tripp’s house and interviewed her. They were there for hours, sitting on a couch in her living room, grilling her about what she knew and what she had.
LINDA TRIPP: I had just taken down my Christmas tree; the house was just sort of back to being non-Christmas. And here I have FBI special agents and prosecutors sitting in my living room. And while I still believe they were the white hats at that point, I had no illusion that they were my buddy. I was nothing but a witness, and I was there to be vetted.
It didn’t take long for reporter Michael Isikoff to find out that Starr’s team was looking at Lewinsky. On Thursday, Jan. 15, he called them to ask about it, and started preparing to write a story that he hoped would appear in the upcoming issue of Newsweek.
It was the following day that Starr’s prosecutors arranged for Linda Tripp to meet Monica Lewinsky at the Pentagon City Mall for lunch. There, FBI agents confronted Lewinsky and told her she was facing prison time unless she did as they asked. Linda Tripp stood a few feet away as all this happened and assured Lewinsky that the agents had done the same thing to her.
LINDA TRIPP: I remember lying to her because I couldn’t be honest. I just couldn’t face her and say, I did this to you. Even though I believed it was the right thing, I couldn’t, I couldn’t face her because I knew she would never in a million years understand. I kept holding on to thinking that had that been my daughter, I would want to have had someone stop it and kind of like ripping a Band-Aid off a wound. It has to be done. It’s not something you enjoy, but you do what you have to do. But there was no enjoyment in it, none.
A few months after my interview with Tripp, I called her to do some fact-checking and to come clean about the fact that I’d secretly recorded our first conversation.
NEYFAKH: I was asking you questions, you were answering them, and I was like, this might be it—this might be my interview. I don’t know if she’s ever gonna pick up the phone again after I call her. So I started recording the call.
LINDA TRIPP: Uh-huh. That’s fine! I assume, to be honest, I assume that any time I speak to any member of the press that it’s being recorded.
NEYFAKH: Wow, OK. I was so nervous to tell you that, Linda.
LINDA TRIPP: No, you’ve got to do your job. And I told you that it doesn’t really matter to me how this comes across in terms of how I’m perceived, because somehow, I’m more concerned that you understand what I’m saying than your listeners. Mine’s a small world. So what the great vast majority out there believe, in the end, isn’t necessarily such a big deal for me.
NEYFAKH: Well I’m really relieved that you don’t feel angry that I recorded the call, because—
LINDA TRIPP: And tell me, who deserves that more anyway?
I told Tripp about how I had gone back-and-forth about using the tape.
NEYFAKH: Because remember, we left it at, you’re gonna think about it, and you thought about it for two weeks or so, three weeks? And during that time, I was like, well what if she says no—do I use this tape? Do I use the tape? We hadn’t said off the record.
LINDA TRIPP: Yeah. I would have! I look at it this way: You have to assume that that’s being done. You have to own your own words, no matter under what circumstances you’re speaking them.
I’d thought taping Linda Tripp without her knowledge was a violation of her trust. She seemed to think it had brought us closer together.
LINDA TRIPP: Well see now you have a little piece of understanding of what my dilemma was. Because I knew I could use what I had to give to—whether it was to Lucianne, to publish this and get it out; whether it was Isikoff; whether it was the FBI. I didn’t know where it was gonna end up. But to say it was distasteful, to this day I have enormous guilt about doing that. And of all the people I care about understanding, she’s the one I wish I could convince. And that’ll never happen, so. And the rest is all kind of white noise. So listen, send me that link, and how I listen, and I don’t even know how to do iTunes so I’ll figure it out. I’m assuming you need Wi-Fi.
Next week on Slow Burn, the scandal erupts into public consciousness, the Christian right mobilizes in response, and a war breaks out in the media between Clinton’s supporters, and those who saw the scandal as a reason—or perhaps just an opportunity—to finally bring down Clinton’s presidency.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: He has disgraced himself, he’s disgraced the office, and he should resign.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear bonus episodes of the show. In this week’s bonus episode, more with Linda Tripp, including Tripp’s feelings about the Bushes, why she disliked the Clintons, and how she feels about her role in history.
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This episode of Slow Burn was produced by me and Andrew Parsons, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Our researcher is Madeline Kaplan. Our theme song is by Spatial Relations, and this episode featured music by Nick Sylvester of Godmode. Our artwork is by Teddy Blanks at Chips NY. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts. T.J. Raphael is the senior producer for the Slate Podcast Network.
Thanks to the NBC news archives and C-SPAN for the archival audio you heard in this episode. For a full bibliography of all the works we consulted while making this episode, check out our show page.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank to Ava Lubell, Shirley Chan, Jonathan Zuckerman, Max Abelson, Lisa Larson-Walker, Jeff Friedrich, Benjamin Frisch, Mary Wilson, Andrew Kahn, Joe Coscarelli, Pierre Bienaimé, and Camilla Hammer.
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