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9 January 1999

The Daily Howler exegesis: Tripping, somewhat lightly

Synopsis: Susan Schmidt and the Post deserve credit. But the public has a right to know exactly what Linda Tripp said.

Woman Who Disputed Willey Is Indicted
Susan Schmidt, The Washington Post, 1/8/99

Counsel Indicts a Witness On 3 Obstruction Counts
Jill Abramson, The New York Times, 1/8/99

Kudos to Susan Schmidt and the Washington Post for actually reporting What Linda Tripp Said. In her report on the indictment of Julie Hiatt Steele, Schmidt gave this account of Tripp’s grand jury testimony:

SCHMIDT [three paragraphs]: But a second witness, Linda R. Tripp, has testified that Willey told her Clinton made a pass at her that day, but that it was not an unwanted advance--that Willey in fact was happy about it.

Tripp...was working in the White House counsel’s office when the Nov. 19, 1993 incident occurred. She said she encountered Willey in a hallway after she emerged from the Oval Office, her blouse untucked and her makeup smeared. Willey told her, Tripp has testified, that the president had made a pass at her but seemed excited rather than upset.

Tripp told the grand jury last summer that Willey had flirted with Clinton in previous encounters, and the Nov. 29 event seemed to have occurred between “consenting adults.” Willey, Tripp testified, “was very excited, very flustered” as she told Tripp what happened and “she smiled from ear to ear the entire time. She seemed almost shocked, but happy shocked.”

With this reporting, the Post remains the only paper on which we report to inform its readers of Tripp’s startling testimony. Schmidt, you’ll recall, had reported Tripp’s account in the Post on October 3, the day after Ken Starr’s “document dump” made her testimony available to the public (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/5/98).

But while Schmidt and the Post deserve high marks for telling readers about Tripp’s testimony, it should be noted that Schmidt’s retelling significantly understates what Linda Tripp said. Several elements in Schmidt’s narration misrepresent Tripp’s account:

Paragraph one: According to Schmidt, Tripp testified that Clinton’s pass “was not an unwanted advance--that Willey was in fact happy about it.” This may suggest that, in Tripp’s view, Willey was surprised by Clinton’s advance. In fact, Tripp testified that Willey had arranged the meeting expressly hoping to advance her “ongoing flirtation” with Clinton. The pass was not only “not unwanted,” it was one of Willey’s objectives in requesting the Oval confab:

QUESTION: Did [Willey] describe for you...what her expectations were for the meeting?

TRIPP: She was excited. She was glad to be getting in there. She definitely wanted a job. It was also the culmination of--you know, she was finally getting in and the flirtation was out there, too...I think the secondary [reason] but not necessarily secondary in priority to her was that this was sort of maybe her opportunity to get closer. By that I don’t mean that she was looking for a demonstrative--I think she just wanted to see what kind of dialogue they would have. [Our emphasis]

For the record: in Tripp’s account, Willey had been seeking a way to arrange an assignation long before this meeting. Keep reading.

Paragraph two: Tripp met with Willey after the Oval Office encounter; Schmidt’s account here seems to suggest that the meeting was accidental. In fact, Tripp testified that she and Willey planned to meet after the Oval Office encounter, so Willey could relate what had happened.

According to her narration, Tripp was not surprised, in meeting Willey, when she saw that Willey had been kissed (missing lipstick):

QUESTION: Did she tell you anything?

TRIPP: Well, I said it to her first, actually...I said, “It happened, didn’t it?”

Tripp was not surprised by the signs of romance; she and Willey had long discussed the “ongoing flirtation” between Clinton and Willey.

Paragraph three: Schmidt seems to suggest that Tripp surmised that the encounter was between “consenting adults.” In fact, by the time that the Oval Office encounter occurred, Tripp knew perfectly well that Willey was seeking romance with Clinton. According to Tripp, they had discussed the situation many times, even discussing an Annapolis house where Willey and Clinton could escape Secret Service interference. Schmidt takes the phrase “consenting adults” from a different part of Tripp’s testimony. The phrase was used when Tripp described her reaction, early in 1993, upon learning of the flirtation between Clinton and Willey:

TRIPP: Remember--I mean, I think it’s kind of important to point out that, in my opinion anyway, the flirtation seemed completely okay because they both had--appeared to have not very good marriages, and it just seemed to be as consenting adults.

It is clear from context that Tripp is discussing her perception in the late spring of 1993. She nowhere uses the term “consenting adults” as she describes her reactions in November. By then, it was completely clear, in Tripp’s account, that Willey was actively seeking romance with Clinton.

In the context of this laggard press corps, Schmidt and the Post deserve real credit for reporting Tripp’s grand jury testimony. But given the seriousness of Willey’s charges, and given the wide attention they have received in the press, it is essential that Tripp’s striking account be reported in an accurate manner. Tripp testified that Willey had long pursued Clinton, and met with him hoping to advance their flirtation. She said that Willey, by pre-arrangement, came to tell her what happened in the meeting. In Tripp’s account, Willey’s Oval Office encounter was part of an “ongoing flirtation” that Kathleen Willey had long pursued, quite actively. If Linda Tripp is to be believed, Willey was lying on Sixty Minutes. The public should know that Tripp gave this account, under oath, to the Starr grand jury. And, if there is any fairness left in our press corps, the public has a right to be told precisely what Linda Tripp said.

All the news that fits a bias: The pitifully laggard New York Times just won’t tell you what Linda Tripp said. In a lengthy story on the indictment of Julie Hiatt Steele, Jill Abramson mentions not a word about Linda Tripp’s contradiction of Kathleen Willey. You’re right--there is no reason why a story on Steele has to mention what Linda Tripp said. But Steele is now facing thirty-five years for contradicting Willey’s story. Might readers imaginably want to know that Tripp has also contradicted Willey--that Willey’s story has been severely challenged in detailed, sworn grand jury testimony?

The Hotline asked it on Friday morning: if Starr has indicted Julie Steele for contradicting Kathleen Willey, why hasn’t he indicted Linda Tripp too? The question is an obvious one; it would surely occur to many readers. But don’t expect the laggard Times to worry readers’ little heads about that.