Viewers may be surprised to find that the first episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story isn’t chiefly about Beanie Feldstein’s Monica Lewinsky and barely features Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton at all. Instead, the series premiere focuses on establishing Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp, an American civil servant who finds herself unceremoniously demoted about a year into Clinton’s administration.
So why is she such a key player? In short, Linda Tripp was the whistleblower responsible for exposing President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. She did this by secretly recording her conversations with Lewinsky, and as such, she’s a morally complicated figure. Here are a few key things to know about Tripp.
She first served in the George H.W. Bush administration.
Tripp had worked in the White House under President George H.W. Bush and stayed on to work briefly in the Clinton administration. In the summer of 1994, she was transferred to the Pentagon and its public affairs office.
She befriended, and later betrayed, Monica Lewinsky.
A couple of years after Tripp’s job transfer, Lewinsky followed in her footsteps—but for very different reasons. According to documents cited by the New York Daily News, White House officials scrambled to transfer Lewinsky in 1996, because they were concerned that Clinton was spending too much time with her, and hoped to avoid a scandal.
That plan backfired disastrously, because soon after starting at the Pentagon, Lewinsky befriended Tripp. Despite the 24-year age difference between them, the two soon became close, and Lewinsky, then 23, saw Tripp as a confidante she could trust. And so, she revealed to Tripp that she was sexually involved with President Clinton. In the 2018 documentary The Clinton Affair, Lewinsky said that Clinton played hot and cold with her, sometimes showering her with compliments and other times ignoring her for weeks. “I felt so deflated, and so desperate,” she said. “And those were the conditions, along with some other things, that led to me confiding in Linda Tripp.”
Per The New York Times, Tripp then contacted a literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, in the hopes of selling a book on the subject. Goldberg suggested that she tape her conversations with Lewinsky, and Tripp took her advice.
Tripp’s illegally recorded conversations with Lewinsky played a key role in Clinton’s impeachment.
By the start of 1998, Tripp had collected more than 20 hours of secretly recorded conversations with Lewinsky, detailing her affair with Clinton. Since Tripp was living in Maryland, a state that requires both parties to consent before a conversation can be recorded, this was illegal. (Criminal wiretapping charges against Tripp were ultimately dropped.)
Per The LA Times, the tapes “revealed Tripp as a duplicitous friend, coaxing and manipulating Lewinsky to build a body of evidence against Clinton.” The New York Times had a similar take, noting that “Ms. Lewinsky seemed grateful to be able to confide in the older woman, talking with her regularly and for hours at a time about everything from their diets and exercise routines to Ms. Lewinsky’s secret romance with the president — all while Ms. Tripp was milking her young friend for incriminating information against him.” You can read excerpts from the transcripts of Tripp and Lewinsky’s conversations online.
In January of 1998, Tripp turned her tapes over to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor in charge of the Clinton investigation. This bombshell piece of evidence set into motion a chain of events that ultimately led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House in December of 1998. He was acquitted by the Senate three months later.
At the end of Lewinsky’s testimony about the scandal, according to CNN, she was reportedly asked if she had any final comments. Tearfully, she answered: “I hate Linda Tripp.”
Tripp claimed that she was acting out of “patriotic duty”
Despite being condemned in many circles for her duplicity, and narrowly avoiding criminal charges, Tripp always maintained that she had no regrets about secretly recording Lewinsky.
“It was worth it to me to do what I considered to be my patriotic duty,” Tripp told NBC News’s Today show, per The New York Post. She added that if someone did to her 23-year-old daughter what she’d done to Lewinsky, she would thank them. Tripp largely disappeared from the public eye after that.
In 2018, Tripp gave her first public statement in almost two decades, speaking to reporters to mark National Whistleblower Day. According to The Washington Post, she said that her only regret about revealing the affair was “not having the guts to do it sooner,” and added that she’d been the victim of “a real high-tech lynching” in the wake of the trial.
Also in 2018, Tripp gave a rare interview to Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, and discussed her role in the scandal. She told host Leon Neyfakh that she saw Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky as a horrific abuse of power. “How it was presented to the country initially is how it continues to be referred to today, which is an affair, the Lewinsky affair,” she said. “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.”
Tripp died last year at the age of 70.
On April 7, 2020, news reports began to claim that Tripp was on her deathbed. Her daughter, Allison Tripp Foley, confirmed the news on Facebook, writing: “My mommy is leaving this earth. I don’t know myself if I can survive this heartache. Please pray for a painless process for the strongest woman I will ever know in my entire lifetime.
In response to the news, Lewinsky tweeted: “No matter the past, upon hearing that Linda Tripp is very seriously ill, I hope for her recovery. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for her family.”
The following day, Tripp’s former attorney Joseph Murtha confirmed that she had died at the age of 70. No cause of death was given, though the AP noted that Tripp had been treated for breast cancer in 2001.
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