The sting

Did Kenneth Starr, Linda Tripp and Paula Jones' legal team work hand in hand to set a perjury trap for the president?

By Mollie Dickenson
October 27, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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What did Ken Starr know and when did he know it? This is the question increasingly being asked these days by the media.

New details about the conservative network that has aided and abetted Starr's investigation of the Clinton administration are surfacing daily. Until recently only Salon and a handful of media outlets and independent journalists had reported on the anti-Clinton cabal that has been operating in conjunction with the Starr probe and the Jones legal camp.


But lately, major news institutions such as the New York Times and NPR that had largely ignored Starr's ties to anti-Clinton partisans and his many conflicts of interest have begun to delve into those relationships. New attention is being given to the previously reported fact that Starr had close ties to the Paula Jones case even while he was seeking to replace Robert Fiske as Whitewater independent counsel in August 1994. Before his appointment, Starr had publicly spoken out against presidential immunity from Jones' suit and had even prepared an amicus brief for Jones. As NPR's Nina Totenberg recently reported, Starr also consulted directly with Jones' lawyers about the case, a fact he neglected to tell Attorney General Janet Reno when he sought approval to extend his probe into the fetid waters of Jones-Lewinsky-Tripp.

Perhaps most important, new documents reveal that Starr knew much earlier than he told Reno about Linda Tripp's Monica Lewinsky tapes; and that Tripp herself, not Lewinsky or Clinton, suggested to Lewinsky that she ask Vernon Jordan to help her find a job in exchange for her silence about her affair with the president.

By ensnaring Jordan in the Lewinsky matter, Tripp built the bridge that Starr walked across to move from the Reno-authorized Whitewater probe -- where he was investigating whether Jordan helped Clinton pal Webb Hubbell get a job in exchange for his silence about the Whitewater deal -- into the unrelated, but much more enticing matter of the Lewinsky affair. The shadowy ties between Starr, Tripp and Jones and their right-wing friends allowed the independent counsel's office to create the perjury trap for Clinton in his Jones deposition that would result in the current impeachment crisis.


Having been given a pass by the media for almost five years, Starr apparently felt free to lie to both Attorney General Reno in January, and to Congress in his September impeachment report, about the date he learned of Tripp's secret tapes.

But Starr's apparent lies are serious offenses. If Starr misrepresented those facts, former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste wrote in Friday's New York Times, it is time "to consider his removal" and to "reassess his charges against the president."

Starr's excesses are now the subject of three different federal inquiries. Reno announced she is "reviewing" whether she was misled by Starr in January when he sought her approval to extend his investigation. Federal Judge Norma Holloway Johnson is looking into Clinton lawyers' charge that Starr rampantly leaked grand jury material to the press. And former Justice Department official Michael Shaheen is investigating whether Starr's chief Whitewater witness against the Clintons, David Hale, was paid off by partisans with close links to Starr himself through the American Spectator's Arkansas Project, as revealed by Salon.


On Oct. 5, Clinton lawyer David Kendall wrote Reno for a copy of Starr's letter requesting the expansion of his jurisdiction into the Lewinsky matter -- a letter noticeably absent from Starr's 4,000 pages of documents sent to Congress. Almost three weeks later Starr has not yet made the letter public.

Understanding Tripp's role in setting the perjury trap for Clinton is critical. It was Tripp who suggested to Lewinsky that she enlist Jordan to help her with her job search, and it was Tripp who told Lewinsky not to sign an affidavit in the Jones case before Jordan got her a job. Starr then seized on this to justify his widening probe, telling Reno that he needed to investigate Jordan's alleged pattern of obstruction of justice in helping both Webb Hubbell and Lewinsky with job searches.


In late October, long before Lewinsky was named a potential witness in the Jones case in December, Tripp urged Lewinsky: "There's no reason why he [Jordan] couldn't help a friend anywhere. It's not like the Webb Hubbell thing." This is remarkably savvy of Tripp, to spot the potential link between Lewinsky and Hubbell that Starr later found so useful. But it could also suggest that Tripp and Starr had direct or indirect communication long before Starr admits he learned about the tapes, on Jan. 12, 1998.

Certainly Tripp, as a disgruntled former White House employee, was known to Starr as a potential anti-Clinton mole. Even before the Lewinsky scandal, Tripp had become one of the chief thorns in the side of the Clinton White House. She was the only White House employee to testify she saw Hillary Clinton aide Maggie Williams remove papers from Foster's office -- implying there were Whitewater-related secrets the Clintons were trying to hide. And she was also the source for the story by Newsweek magazine reporter Michael Isikoff that Clinton had made advances on Kathleen Willey. (Isikoff, who has been criticized for his cozy relationship with the Starr camp, didn't report that Tripp also believed Willey was actively seeking attention from Clinton.)

In 1996 conservative journalist Tony Snow introduced his well-placed friend Tripp to another of his friends, Nixon dirty trickster and book agent Lucianne Goldberg, to help Tripp sell her tell-all book about Clinton. Goldberg found Tripp a ghostwriter who penned a draft about the Clinton White House, which Tripp now claims, unbelievably, was too negative.


It was Goldberg who had ties to the get-Clinton network, many of whose orchestrators are now familiar faces on the TV talk circuit. Goldberg had personal ties, for instance, to Richard W. Porter, Kenneth Starr's law partner at the Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Porter was a senior aide in Bush's White House, and later Dan Quayle's counsel and director of "opposition research" for Quayle. Porter had also worked with Starr on the amicus brief that Starr agreed to write, on behalf of Paula Jones, for the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded Independent Women's Forum. Porter finished the brief when Starr left to become Whitewater prosecutor. Goldberg says she told Porter about Tripp's tapes of Lewinsky and asked for a contact with Starr. As reported by the New York Times, Porter's friend, Philadelphia lawyer Jerome M. Marcus, took over Porter's role in putting Tripp in touch with Starr, because such collusion within a law firm could raise questions about a possible conflict of interest. Goldberg has frankly called Marcus "a cutout" to obscure Porter's role in forging the Tripp-Starr connection.

While Starr claims he first heard Tripp's tapes on Jan. 12, they were making the rounds of Clinton foes much earlier. On the Oct. 20 broadcast of "Geraldo," Lucianne Goldberg's son and partner, Jonah, said he had heard some of Tripp's tapes in September 1997 -- even earlier than the Oct. 3 date Tripp has testified she began taping Lewinsky. Jonah Goldberg also said that he personally delivered copies that he and his mother made of two of Tripp's tapes to Starr deputy Robert Bittmann and had earlier "handed the originals to Starr investigator Coy Copeland in New York."

Also on "Geraldo," anti-Clinton activist Ann Coulter revealed that she had heard one of the Lewinsky tapes at least two weeks before Starr has acknowledged knowing about them. And on Jan. 18, as the Lewinsky scandal was breaking, William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, told ABC's "This Week" that he'd heard about the Lewinsky affair from a friend who had heard Tripp's tapes, too.


Starr's connections to the Jones lawsuit might also have been closer than has so far been reported. Even after he became independent counsel, there is evidence suggesting that Starr and the Jones legal camp continued to act in concert. Following the Supreme Court decision to greenlight the Jones trial in May 1997, Starr's investigators were widely reported to be questioning Arkansans about possible Clinton sexual misadventures -- which at that point seemed far afield of the Whitewater real estate deal Starr was authorized to investigate.

Then in October, Jones hired a new legal team, with help from Ann Coulter and John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, which helped underwrite Jones' battle and hired new attorneys for her. Then came the mysterious "anonymous" phone call to Rutherford's office from someone who suggested that Jones' lawyers should look into the relationship between Clinton and a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Goldberg says she believes the caller was Tripp. The Los Angeles Times has revealed that Tripp was put in touch with Jones' lawyers by Goldberg at least by Nov. 21, not Jan. 16, 1998, as had been alleged.

It was in the closing months of 1997 that the links between Starr, Jones and Tripp began to come together. As she began to talk with Jones' attorneys, Tripp began worrying about whether her tapes, which were becoming more known to an ever-growing circle of people, put her in legal jeopardy. Tripp testified to the grand jury that her first lawyer told her that secret taping was illegal in Maryland, but she still taped Lewinsky twice after that warning. Goldberg later consulted conservative Washington attorney Theodore Olson, a longtime friend and political ally of Starr, for advice about Tripp's legal vulnerability.

On Jan. 9, Tripp met with lawyer James Moody, a friend of Ann Coulter's with ties to the Scaife-funded Landmark Legal Fund, which had also advised Paula Jones. Moody advised Tripp to take the tapes to Starr, who could immunize her from prosecution, instead of to the Jones lawyers. But Tripp managed to work with both Starr and the Jones team.


Tripp called Starr's office on Jan. 12 and agreed to wear a wire to an already scheduled lunch with Lewinsky the next day. (Given the new revelations that Tripp had been in touch with Starr's office at least a week earlier, it's hard to believe he didn't have a hand in scheduling the lunch in the first place.) The cooperation paid off: Tripp wound up an immunized witness in three of Starr's ongoing investigations, which may also have the effect of immunizing her against prosecution in Maryland's investigation of her illegal taping of Lewinsky. Starr also managed to keep Tripp from being formally deposed in the Jones case, which prevented Clinton's lawyers from having a chance to question the woman who would be central to the impeachment crisis he now faces.

Finally, that busy weekend before Clinton's deposition in the Jones case, Tripp was meeting with both Starr and the Jones lawyers. In fact, the Sunday night before the president's deposition, Tripp met first with Starr, and then one of his deputies drove her to meet with Jones lawyer Wesley Holmes. The next day, with Tripp's help, Jones' lawyers would ask Clinton their fateful 95 questions about Monica Lewinsky -- some of which were suggested by Tripp -- that would lay the perjury trap Starr would use to make his case for impeachment. Significantly, the Los Angeles Times has reported, Starr did not instruct Tripp to keep her work for him secret, contrary to Justice Department rules.

Although the media is getting more aggressive about tracking the Starr-Tripp-Jones connections, some leading reporters are still giving Starr the benefit of the doubt. In a recent Washington Post story, for instance, Susan Schmidt -- another reporter accused of being the credulous recipient of Starr leaks -- wrote that Tripp met with a Jones lawyer on Jan. 16, "unbeknownst to Starr." Since Starr's own deputy drove Tripp home for that meeting, it strains credulity to insist that Starr himself didn't know about it.

Maybe the best proof of collusion between Starr, Tripp and the Jones lawyers is the fact that Starr's deputies already knew about her false affidavit in the Jones case when they questioned Lewinsky Jan. 16 -- which, according to the Starr report, was a full day before Judge Susan Webber Wright received it. Both Ben-Veniste and Lars-Erik Nelson, writing in the New York Review of Books, have seized on this inconsistency. How could Starr have gotten the affidavit, which he used to threaten Lewinsky with a perjury charge, without help from the Jones legal team?


Given all the evidence, it's impossible to believe Starr's friends Porter and Olson, as well as the Jones lawyers and strategists, knew about the Tripp tapes for months without telling Starr. As Ben-Veniste asked in the Times, "Why would these lawyers have kept this information from Mr. Starr?"

Despite their artful plotting, Tripp, Starr and Clinton's right-wing enemies were unsuccessful in accomplishing what they wanted most: getting Lewinsky to say Vernon Jordan told her to lie, or got her a job as a quid pro quo for her discretion. Starr's report fails to point to any obstruction of justice by Jordan or any evidence that he urged Lewinsky to lie.

In her final statement to the grand jury, Lewinsky testified under oath that "Nobody ever told me to lie. And nobody ever offered me a job in exchange for my silence." Despite his awesome attention to detail, that's one statement that Kenneth Starr somehow left out of his 445-page report to Congress. That -- and the full story of his relationship with Linda Tripp.

Mollie Dickenson

Mollie Dickenson's articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and other publications. She is the author of "Thumbs Up," a biography of Reagan Press Secretary James Brady.

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