Stalking the president

Linda Tripp could help Julie Hiatt Steele -- and President Clinton -- refute Kathleen Willey's charges.


Mollie Dickenson
January 23, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

As House Republican impeachment managers ponder whether their trial-witness wish list should include Kathleen Willey, the former White House volunteer who accused President Clinton of sexually harassing her, they should look closely at what Clinton-basher Linda Tripp told Kenneth Starr's grand jury about Willey's relationship with Clinton.

That Tripp disputed Willey's story of presidential harassment, and insisted that Willey was happy about Clinton's alleged attentions, has been widely reported. But her deposition and grand jury testimony details the extent to which Willey schemed to receive those attentions. Tripp's testimony depicts a woman infatuated with Clinton, who regularly plotted with Tripp -- shades of Monica Lewinsky -- about how to get him to return her affection. Tripp describes scheming with Willey to help her find ways to run into Clinton in the White House, to be alone with him there and even to find a place to have a tryst. Maybe most remarkable, the testimony shows how, once again, Tripp was at the center of a plot to sexually ensnare the president.

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With this testimony, however, Tripp is at odds with her ally in legally ensnaring Clinton, Starr. He has indicted Willey's former friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, for changing her story and refusing to corroborate Willey's account of sexual harassment. Willey has sworn that she told Steele about an unwelcome pass Clinton made at her at the time it allegedly happened in 1993. Steele originally confirmed Willey's story to Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, but almost immediately recanted, saying that Willey had asked her to lie about the alleged encounter, and that Willey had never told her about any such incident. Steele was arraigned on Starr's four charges against her earlier this week.

Tripp's sworn and unsworn accounts don't necessarily exonerate Steele. And it's not entirely good news for Clinton, who has repeatedly denied Willey's charge, including before the grand jury. Once again, he's depicted as on the make while on the job. But returning a woman's affections, as Tripp's account depicts, is a far cry from sexually harassing her. On balance, Tripp's story is a boon to the White House as it tries to defend Clinton from Starr's crusade against him.

According to Tripp's sworn testimony, she first met Willey, a volunteer in the White House Comments Office, in the first days of the Clinton presidency in January 1993. Willey and her husband, Edward Willey Jr., were contributors to Clinton's campaign from Richmond, Va., and after the election Willey traveled from Richmond two days a week to volunteer at the White House. Tripp, who worked in the White House at the time, says she was struck by Willey's polish and good looks and suggested she instead volunteer in the more vital Social Office, where her attributes could be used to better advantage.

Once established in the Social Office in the East Wing, Willey often visited Tripp at her desk in the West Wing, near the Oval Office, hoping to get a glimpse of Clinton. By early spring 1993, Willey admitted to Tripp that "she was flirting with the president, and that he appeared interested" in her. Much like Lewinsky, "Willey would arrange to cover evening social functions" the president attended, Tripp testified, and Willey "would wear a particular black dress which accentuated her cleavage" and high heels "to enhance her legs." She sent personal notes to Clinton through an acquaintance, Clinton aide Nancy Hernreich, some of which Tripp saw. Tripp helped edit those she thought were "a tad too flirtatious" so Hernreich wouldn't "become suspicious." They weren't seductive, Tripp had said in her earlier deposition, "merely friendly."

"Willey would meet with Hernreich to be closer to the president," and would call Tripp frequently at home at night to get Clinton's "closely held" schedule so she could position herself at strategic places and times "to be seen by the president," Tripp said in her deposition. Her calls to Tripp were "always about the flirtation." Willey's marriage was shaky, said Tripp, and she was asking for a divorce. Tripp and Willey talked about where Willey and Clinton could go to have a tryst, and Tripp suggested several times to her that the Annapolis, Md., home of a Willey friend would work. They talked about how to handle the Secret Service in such a case.

"In late summer 1993," testified Tripp, Willey started talking about needing a paid position. She was regularly calling Tripp at home by then, and on Nov. 28, 1993 -- the night before Willey's husband committed suicide -- Willey phoned Tripp to tell her that her husband had confessed to her and their children that he had embezzled money, and that after a fight with her he left the house. Coincidentally, after many notes to Clinton requesting a meeting, Willey had finally succeeded in getting an interview with him to talk about a job, slated for the next day.

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Tripp testified she saw Willey "a lot" the day of her meeting with Clinton. "A lot," she repeated. And she met Willey after the meeting, as planned, and described her as being "very excited, happy, but flustered and completely overwhelmed by the event." Tripp said her face was "flushed," and she "smiled from ear to ear." Tripp said Willey related that she told Clinton "something to the effect that she was throwing herself" on his mercy, when he suddenly kissed her forcefully. "'His tongue was down my throat'" and "'I think I kissed him back,'" Tripp quoted Willey as saying. "His hands were all over her backside," and "he put her hand on his penis," Tripp claimed Willey told her. That night Willey and Tripp "discussed whether Willey would be a girlfriend of the president," said Tripp. Unknown to all involved, Edward Willey Jr. had committed suicide that day, Nov. 29, the day a $274,000 note was due. His body was found the following day. Kathleen Willey has been fighting lawsuits from his creditors ever since.

Tripp wasn't the only person to whom Willey gave a happy description of her meeting with Clinton. The Boston Globe reports that Willey, in a cell-phone call the same day, also told fellow Social Office volunteer Harolyn Cardozo that she was "pleased and anxious to see the president as much as she could," and was "actively plotting over the phone about how she could find ways to see him, including ways of obtaining Mrs. Clinton's schedule in order to learn when she would be away from Washington." Cardozo quoted Willey as saying "that if she played her cards right, she could be the Judith Campbell Exner of the 1990s," a JFK-era reference.

Tripp and Willey continued to have frequent phone conversations following the suicide, and "Willey continued to verbalize the desire" to have a relationship with Clinton, "almost obsessively," testified Tripp, as well as to discuss her financial status and her late husband's will. In December, Tripp helped Willey get a job in the White House counsel's office that lasted until October 1994. When Tripp moved to the Pentagon in August 1994, their friendship ended.

Three years later, in March 1997, Newsweek's Isikoff tracked Tripp down at her job in the Pentagon and asked about Willey's encounter with Clinton. Tripp told Isikoff "that whatever happened was not sexual harassment." When she called Willey to protest that Willey had Isikoff call her, Willey told her, according to Tripp, that she "had a faulty memory and that the incident with the president was clearly sexual harassment." Tripp phoned Clinton lawyer Bruce Lindsey about the Newsweek encounter and told him that Willey had "aggressively" pushed for an affair with the president, and that she and Willey had continued to discuss locations for a possible rendezvous spot. Lindsey and Isikoff believe Willey was mentally unstable, testified Tripp, and she said she described Willey to Lindsey as "used, abused and penniless."

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In a "60 Minutes" interview in March 1998, Willey grimly went public with her charges against Clinton. The White House countered with the release of numerous warm, laudatory and respectful notes Willey sent to Clinton both before and after the alleged groping, her only meeting with Clinton.

Willey herself originally fought to stay out of the Paula Jones case, but she was subpoenaed, she testified and she's now cooperating with Starr in his investigation of Clinton. Starr has given her limited immunity from prosecution, which may allow her to continue protecting her late husband's assets from seizure by his creditors, including more than $500,000 in tax liens.

U.S. News and World Report revealed last March that Ed Willey had admitted to his wife and two grown children that the Virginia Bar was investigating him just before committing suicide in November 1993. Kathleen Willey's lawyer then used complicated legal moves to put most of her assets into her two children's names, including, according to U.S. News, "the bulk of a $1 million life insurance policy settlement on Ed Willey." The magazine reported that Willey's children send her monthly support checks of up to $4,500, and she works occasionally at a bakery and as receptionist in a hair salon.

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During last month's House impeachment hearings, there were reports that Starr would add the Willey charges of sexual harassment to his referral against Clinton. Steele's lawyer, Nancy Luque, says that "Starr was squeezing Julie mercilessly during that time, threatening to indict her if she wouldn't change her story to conform with Willey's. And Julie would not. That's why Republicans were unable to make those charges at that time." If tried and convicted, Steele could be imprisoned for 35 years and fined $1 million.

For what it's worth, Tripp backs Steele's denial that Willey ever told her about harassment by Clinton. Tripp passionately attacked Willey's story, including her attempt to use Steele to corroborate it, in a taped conversation with Lewinsky on Oct. 19, 1997 . "I fought [Isikoff] on that tooth and nail and said, '[Willey's] lying. You'd better be careful what you print because she's lying.'" Isikoff asked Tripp if Willey was lying about Steele's corroboration, and she replied: 'If [Willey] said it happened that night, and that this story was given to [Steele] that night, I promise you that's a lie. Her version has been she went home to Richmond and immediately either went to see or called [Steele] ... and she didn't."

Whatever her motives, Tripp has found a way to be at the center of every major Clinton White House scandal, though usually she is making charges that are harmful to the administration. Her taped recordings of her young "friend" Lewinsky led directly to Starr's charges of impeachable offenses against Clinton. She was the only Clinton employee to testify that Maggie Williams removed files from Vincent Foster's office the night he committed suicide. She has alleged wrongdoing by Clinton employees in the FBI "filegate" controversy. A former Bush employee who was urged by the incoming Clinton people to stay on, Tripp has repeatedly acted more as a Republican mole. Her best friends in the Bush administration were Tony Snow, now a conservative journalist and Clinton detractor, and Gary Aldrich, a former White House Secret Service agent who wrote a tell-all book about the Clinton White House that has been discredited. Snow introduced Tripp to Lucianne Goldberg earlier in the administration because Tripp was thinking about writing a book even then.

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Democrats say that if Republicans insist on calling witnesses in the Senate trial, they will call Tripp, Starr and others whom Republicans would rather the country not hear from again. Of course, Tripp could also be a witness in Starr's prosecution of Julie Hiatt Steele -- for the defense. Says Nancy Luque: "My star witness on Julie's behalf in this case may be Linda Tripp, of all people!"


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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