Clinton accused: President's chief accuser tries to salvage reputation

Linda Tripp, whose secret tape-recordings could yet topple the US President, came out yesterday to defend her reputation and augment her account of events at the Clinton White House. But, as Mary Dejevsky reports, Mr Clinton's position appeared to be strengthening.

"I was present when she received a late-night phone call from the President. I have also seen numerous gifts they exchanged and heard several of her tapes of him. I was also present when Monica made and received numerous phone calls which were of a volatile and contentious nature directly relating to her relationship with the President."

This was the nub of the statement issued yesterday through her lawyer by Linda Tripp. It appears to establish, first, that Monica Lewinsky, the former White House trainee alleged to have had an affair with Mr Clinton, was on the receiving end of at least one phone call from the President. It suggests Ms Lewinsky has, or had, recordings of Mr Clinton's voice on her answer-machine. It confirms Ms Lewinsky's lawyer's statement and that of a former lover of Ms Lewinsky that she and Mr Clinton gave and received gifts. It may also prove that Ms Lewinsky's status and future were sufficiently worrying to the White House to have precipitated "volatile and contentious" discussion with aides.

While one purpose of Ms Tripp's statement was to put on the record her version of events, the other was to try to defend her conduct and salvage her reputation. It was she who propelled the alleged affair with Mr Clinton into the public domain by secretly recording her conversations with Ms Lewinsky and passing the tapes to the prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who was already investigating the Clintons on other charges. Some of the material was leaked to Newsweek, triggering the scandal.

In her statement, Ms Tripp denies that she is, as Hillary Clinton and others claimed, part of a right-wing conspiracy against the President. Politically, she says, she is registered "independent". She says she was proud to work as a political appointee at the White House for Republican and Democrat administrations. She also denies personal motives; she says she was not "a disgruntled White House staffer".

She says she made the recordings and took them to the prosecutor because aspersions had been cast on her truthfulness and she feared being drawn into a cover-up of the Lewinsky affair. She had been summoned to testify under oath in the other sex case against Mr Clinton - the Paula Jones case - in which the prosecution is trying to establish a "pattern of behaviour" that would bolster Ms Jones's charge that she was the object of an unwanted sexual advance from Mr Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas.

Ms Tripp's statement almost eclipsed another disclosure that went some way towards explaining one of the more discussed episodes of Mr Clinton's past - his alleged affair with the Arkansas night-club singer Gennifer Flowers. When campaigning for the presidency in 1992, Mr Clinton, his wife beside him, denied allegations of a 12-year relationship with Ms Flowers. Under a widely leaked aspect of his sworn testimony in the Jones investigation last month, Mr Clinton was said to have admitted to the relationship but not, according to White House spokesman Mike McCurry, to have contradicted his earlier denial.

In excerpts from what it says is Mr Clinton's testimony, Time says he admitted to a brief fling with Ms Flowers but not a long affair. The magazine said lawyers questioned him in detail, "using a definition of sex that included, by name, any touching of the genitals, anus, groin, breasts, inner thigh or buttocks with the purpose to arouse or gratify". They then asked: "Did you have sex with Gennifer Flowers?" Mr Clinton replied: "Yes." On how many occasions? "Once, in 1977." Did she make sexual advances to you after that? "Once." Did you make sexual advances to her after that? "No."

This leaves a big gap between Mr Clinton's version and that of Ms Flowers. But it would explain Mr McCurry's claim that there was no conflict in Mr Clinton's two answers. This leaves open the possibility that this extract from Mr Clinton's sworn testimony - which is subject to a strict gag order - has been deliberately leaked to quell further speculation on the subject.

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