Chapter 1: Under Siege
At Union Station in Washington, D.C., I leaned against a massive white pillar and waited for Linda Tripp, until I saw her van fly by me and stop at the passenger pickup divide. I walked up to her, waving to get her attention. “I’m sorry,” Linda burst out laughing. “I didn’t mean to pass you by. I didn’t recognize you.”
I chuckled back. Linda was in a disguise too. She wore dark glasses and a chin-length black wig. What am I doing? I should run. This is nuts. I thought.
“The FBI got me this wig after they put me into a safe house days after the story broke,” Linda said as she fiddled with it. “Hop in.”
The words “FBI” and “safe house” robbed all the “this is nutty” thoughts from my mind when I climbed into her van. She put her foot to the gas pedal and we took off with the U.S. Capitol’s marble column in our view.
Life before the FBI bought Linda that wig carried us back to January 1998, to when allegations first surfaced that President Clinton was having a sexual relationship with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
At the time, the Pope’s five-day visit to Cuba to call “for freedom” headlined the news.  It was a historical moment because no Pope had visited Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba before. Meanwhile, back in the United States, an American civil servant’s life, and the lives and legacy of Bill and Hillary Clinton, were about to change. I knew what the public knew. I wanted to know what it was like behind the scenes for a person who lived through it.
It was early evening, January 20, 1998, when an unfamiliar white compact car had pulled up onto Cricket Pass, a quiet suburban cul-de-sac in Colombia, Maryland. The car parked across from Linda’s home where she had lived since 1981. Someone hurried out of the car to her van and inserted a handwritten note through her window wipers. Later, a replica of the note was taped to her front door.
“Linda, call. Urgent. Must speak to you! Tomorrow is too late. Sue Schmidt—Washington Post,” read the note.
As dusk dimmed to darkness that brisk snowy night, a virtual brigade of press descended upon Linda’s home. Hordes of cars maneuvered through the dead-end street. Throngs of people elbowed their way closer. Flashbulbs flashed intermittently. In the frenzied urgency to get the next Clinton White House story, press crews unraveled their camera equipment onto the sidewalk. Their lighting kits beamed brightly over the glistening snow, aimed at Linda’s house.
All night long, the press watched, waiting. Some wore night-vision goggles. By early morning, swarms of television crews, topped off with six satellite trucks, lined her narrow cul-de-sac. The media’s vigilance continued for days.
Meanwhile, bedlam ruled inside Linda’s home. The alleged Clinton pursuer was now the pursued. Sneaking peeks outside through the plantation blinds in her family room, panic and compounding fear ripped through her. She stepped away from the window as though knocked back by fire.
With the help of her kids, they frantically and haphazardly hung sheets over any uncovered windows in the house to try to block the media’s gaze. Walking in lost, aimless circles, the Tripp family had nowhere to go. In the background, the family room TV was on, where commentary hissed and longwinded speculation about President Clinton’s sex life provided repetitive, sparse hard-news updates.
“The world exploded on our front lawn,” determined her then twenty-one-year-old son, Ryan, to his mother. He wasn’t kidding. Three days earlier, on January 17, 1998, Matt Drudge’s world exclusive had broken online on his Drudge Report, “Newsweek Kills Story: 23-Year Old, Former White House Intern, Sex Relationship with President,” followed by: “Controversy Swirls Around Tapes of Former White House Intern, as Starr Moves In!!”—Linda’s tapes.
Since the Drudge Report, the intern, Monica Lewinsky, was calling Linda from various pay phones to tell her she was going to sign it—the affidavit in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against President Clinton—denying she had had a sexual relationship with him, and in doing so, commit perjury.
Judge Kenneth Starr’s Office of Independent Counsel (OIC) Report tells us that at that same time President Clinton was calling his personal secretary, Betty Currie, and his pal, Vernon Jordan; two people who knew Lewinsky. Then Currie, on behalf of the president, tried reaching Monica using their established code name, “Kay.” Hillary claimed she was oblivious until her husband woke her up on January 21 and told her, “There’s something in today’s papers you should know about.”
That something was The Washington Post’s bombshell confirming Drudge’s world exclusive: “A former White House aide surreptitiously made tape recordings of conversations she had with the former White House intern describing a relationship with Clinton.”
Allegations of suborning perjury, false statements, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice closely followed. Linda, under a media siege, felt “like a prisoner in her own home.”
Super lawyer Robert Bennett, the president’s personal attorney said, “The president adamantly denies he ever had a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, and she has confirmed the truth of that … and I frankly smell a rat.” Former Clinton Strategist Dick Morris took a poll for the president and found, “They’ll forgive the adultery, but they won’t forgive the lying,” hoping President Clinton would “sort of let the public down gently.” Instead, Clinton responded, “Well, we just have to win, don’t we.”
In 2004, Oprah Winfrey asked President Clinton: “Did anybody know? Did you tell anybody?” President Clinton lied again, “Nobody… I was all alone.”
Later that day back at the nation’s Capitol, the then Leader of the Free World, President Clinton, sat down for a TV interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer. Confidently, and with no hesitation, he alerted the nation: “There is no improper relationship. I did not urge anyone to do anything that was untrue.” Back in Linda’s home, she shuddered when she watched. She knew she was in so much trouble because President Clinton was lying.
The coldest chill racked her body when her doorbell blared yet again. Behind her double-bolted locked door stood another flower arrangement from the press, who’d been posing as deliverymen. “I guess they hoped I’d be lured to the front door for a comment,” Linda said. But that night, paralyzed by fright, she could not move from her couch. She didn’t know what to say to anyone.
An hour’s drive away from Linda’s house, a fax machine hummed. Ronald Pearlman’s cosmetic empire, Revlon, rescinded its New York job offer to Monica Lewinsky (whom they met through a friend of the president). Back at the Clinton White House it was damage control time again. In days, First Lady Hillary would serve as her husband’s chief defender.
Meanwhile, back at Cricket Pass, the media stakeout continued outside Linda’s house. Later she’d learn how a savvy fourteen-year-old neighborhood boy had rented out his bathroom for $3 a pop for the immobile press to use. Smart. “He can probably put himself through college—twice.” Linda said to me, joking at the insanity.
That January night, Wake up! Wake up! had screamed in Linda’s thoughts; wake up from this nightmare. But it had only just begun. Now, helicopters were hovering above her house.
Desperate for silence, an hour into the media siege, Linda turned her phone ringer off, but thought she’d better check her voicemail. When she did, she found that it was jammed full. Message after message emptied out from people she recognized from television who called her unlisted number. “Hello, I’m calling on behalf of Barbara Walters,” said one. “Ms. Tripp, please call Larry King at …,” said another, interspersed with frantic calls from her mother, in Morristown, New Jersey, who’d gotten cable TV for the first time in her life a week before.
When Linda heard her name on TV, she plunked down the telephone receiver. Her unsteady legs walked her from the kitchen into her family room. “I couldn’t believe it,” Linda recalled, as she had watched in horror and disbelief with her kids when she was given the wretched title: Chief Conspirator trying to take down President Clinton. “I was Public Enemy Number One.”
As the shock and nausea penetrated her bones, Linda prayed—hard.
“God help me.” She couldn’t catch her breath.
* * *
In Linda’s world time stood still. While the nation’s opinions over the president split in half, Linda stayed indoors. Now a federal witness in a case involving the President of the United States, the once private citizen became a walking target. She and Ken Starr’s Office of Independent Counsel (OIC), tasked to investigate the Clinton White House, were verbally gunned down by threats, fueled by an onslaught of accusations and condemnations. Some threats leveled against her life rivaled threats aimed at serial killers, spies, or terrorists.
“You’re a dead woman, Linda Tripp.” “There’s a bullet with your name on it—you f—ing bitch.” It was such a devastating experience that she wanted to crawl up inside herself, roll away, and disappear. Others detailed her imminent demise. “There’s a bomb in your car.” “If it’s the last thing I do—I’ll kill you.” A number of threats arrived by mail and were delivered addressed to “Linda Tripp, 21044,” using her zip code like Santa Claus’s North Pole.
“It was unreal how the U.S. Postal Service found me despite the lack of a real address,” Linda dryly recalled. “It wasn’t because the papers hadn’t published it.”
The night Linda was placed in protective custody—into a safe house—outside of her home she had watched an ambulance with its lights turned off, sluggishly circling her street, the cul-de-sac where she lived. Never stopping, the ambulance repeatedly passed by her house for hours.
It was that ambulance which prompted the need for her to go into hiding, considering all the threats she had recently received. Linda was terrified of what this ambulance might symbolize, and her frightened thoughts skirted to the letter left on her Pentagon office chair, months earlier, when she was still a private citizen. “That letter was all I could think of,” she remembered, recalling the shock she had felt when she had received it. It said, “Linda, just thought you might find this of interest”—with no signature and handwriting she didn’t recognize. That cryptic letter listed names of dead people who shared an association with the Clintons.
As the ambulance continued its intimidating slow drive outside her home, like a macabre symbol of horror to befall her future, petrified, Linda couldn’t sleep. It was about 2:00 a.m. when she snuck a peak through her blinds to see if the ambulance had left. It had not. If someone were trying to intimidate her it was working. Thank God her kids had been staying with family.
With rising panic, Linda watched the ambulance turn the corner of her street for what seemed like the hundredth time. Then she grabbed her phone and dialed her newly minted conservative attorney for help. He, in turn, notified Starr’s OIC.
Minutes later, Linda’s doorbell jarred her already-frayed nerves; outside stood four OIC agents. As soon as she opened the door, they raced inside. She saw more agents standing guard posted outside, fully armed, and ready to fire.
As most slept peacefully that night, an armed agent told Linda to “Grab a few things quickly. We’ll get the rest later. Hurry.”
“What about my dog?” she asked the agents.
“Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it. Please, you’ve got to come with us now, Mrs. Tripp. You’re not safe here. Let’s go.” A heavy blanket covered her when the agents skirted her into an unmarked car, admonishing her to stay low.
That night, Linda was moved twice before federal agents finally settled her into the St. James Hotel, a residence hotel in Washington, which served as her safe house. Her handsome room juxtaposed the ugliness she felt outside. Isolated, she was unable to leave for her own protection, and seeing danger everywhere she was climbing the walls. Every footstep in the corridors put her on edge. With nothing to do but worry, Linda ate with two hands and spent frustrated hours yelling “No!” at the non-stop television speculation coverage.
She later described her experience that night as surreal; living in a heightened sense of paranoia. There wasn’t a lot of room for extraneous thoughts of mundane things—“like for banking or paying bills,” she explained. Instead, a churning vacuum of disbelief ruled her. All she could do was obsess that if the Clintons, their aides, and Monica would tell the truth she could go home, and revert to a footnote. But that was wishful thinking. From her days serving in the Clinton White House, she knew how the Clintons operated to stay in power.
Meanwhile, inside the grand hotel people went about their business, oblivious that upstairs the Clintons’ Enemy Number One was holed up. From the St. James Hotel’s rooftop, one can see the Watergate Apartments where Lewinsky was secluded with her mother, Marcia Lewis. If you turned around, the White House focuses into view. Linda was in the middle, between the intern and the president the entire time.
The Clintons couldn’t kill her, as their latest scandal grabbed the world’s attention, so they did the next best thing—discredited her.
Did Linda really believe that Bill and Hillary would have her killed? I asked her.
Linda hesitated. She could not be sure, but she knew that nothing the Clintons did to hold onto power would surprise her. “I don’t think the president or one of his henchmen is going to be behind a bush with an Uzi,” she said. “Do I think it’s possible that, down the road, I may walk in front of a Mack truck and have an unfortunate ‘accident?’ It’s possible.”
For Linda, the repercussions of the fear she suffered through during the latest Clinton investigation were still visible, and kept her living in disguise. How long does it take to feel secure after being targeted by death threats? Does that fear ever go away?
No one in the world, and especially in America, should be afraid of their government the way Linda was afraid of the Clinton White House. As much as people may personally dislike her for tape recording Monica Lewinsky, she hadn’t committed a heinous crime. The question that needed to be answered was why Linda felt she needed an insurance policy to protect herself from the Clintons. I brushed aside the reservations that had bugged me earlier on meeting with Linda Tripp.
The Whistleblower: How the Clinton White House Stayed in Power is available in paperback and multiple ebook formats.
Chapter 1: Under Siege
8. Dispatches, BBC News, January 6, 1998.
9. Matt Drudge, “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern. Blockbuster Report: 23-Year Old, Former White House Intern, Sex Relationship with President,” Drudge Report, January 17, 1998.
10. Matt Drudge, “Controversy Swirls Around Tapes of Former White House Intern, as Starr Moves In!!” Drudge Report, January 20, 1998.
11. “Clinton Accused. Key Player: Paula Jones,” Washington Post, October 2, 1998.
12. “Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title 28, United States Code 595(c), Submitted by the Office of the Independent Counsel,” Starr Report, September 9, 1998.
13. Betty Currie deposition, Starr Report, January 27, 1998, p. 560, see p. 78.
14. Hillary Clinton, Living History, (First Scribner Trade paperback edition, 2004), p. 440.
15. Susan Schmidt, Peter Baker and Toni Locy, “Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie,” Washington Post, January 21, 1998; p. A1.
16. Susan Schmidt, Peter Baker and Toni Locy, “Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie,” Washington Post, January 21, 1998; p. A1.
17. Dick Morris, “The Clinton Years,” ABC News Nightline/ PBS Frontline, January 16, 2001.
18. Bill Clinton, The Oprah Winfrey Show, June 22, 2004.
19. President Clinton with Jim Lehrer, PBS News Hour Interview, January 21, 1998.
20. R.W. Apple Jr., “The President Under Fire: The Power Broker; Jordan Trades Stories with Clinton, and Offers Counsel,” New York Times, January 25, 1998.
21. “A Chronology: Key Moments in the Clinton-Lewinsky Saga,” CNN.
22. List of deceased persons reportedly associated with the Clinton Administration, (left on Linda Tripp’s chair by Monica Lewinsky, according to Tripp), Judicial Watch.
23. “Tripp’s Life Threatened, attorney says,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, May 27, 1998; p. 12a. “Asked whether Tripp was taken to a safe house after the allegations surfaced, Zaccagnini said, “Linda Tripp … was the subject of a lot of press scrutiny and there were some threats made against her life. As a result, the FBI, in conjunction with Starr’s office, decided to move her to a secure location.”
24. “Mrs. Tripp says she is thinking about doing a book,” Associated Press, February 16, 1999.