After jurors in the I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby perjury trial on Wednesday heard the defendant–on tape–cite Meet the Press host Tim Russert as his alibi, the alibi, using crutches, hobbled into the Washington courtroom and shot a hole in Libby’s cover story.
For three days, the jury had been listening to audio tapes of Libby’s two appearances before a grand jury in March 2004, when Libby repeatedly claimed that in July 2003, before the leak appeared that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer, he knew nothing about her until Russert told him that “all the reporters knew” she worked at the CIA. Libby acknowledged to the grand jurors that weeks earlier Vice President Dick Cheney had told him that Valerie Wilson was a CIA employee, but he said that he had completely forgotten this and had learned about her “anew” when Russert passed him this gossip during a phone call. It’s an essential part of Libby’s tale. When the FBI and a grand jury were looking for administration officials who had leaked information on Wilson to reporters–and Libby was a potential target–Libby told the Bureau and the grand jury that he had not disclosed any information gathered from official sources; he had only shared with a few reporters a rumor he had picked up from Russert. And you can’t prosecute a guy for spreading gossip. Again and again, during his grand jury testimony, Libby pointed to Russert: he told me, and, boy, was I surprised.
But on the stand, Russert told the trial jurors the opposite. Questioned by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for less than fifteen minutes, Russert said he had uttered no such thing to Libby. Russert also noted that it would have been “impossible” for him to have done so because at the time of the call–July 10 or 11, 2003, and days before Valerie Wilson’s cover was blown in a Robert Novak column–he knew nothing about her. Wilson’s wife never came up in the conversation with Libby, Russert testified. Libby had called him to complain that Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball was being too hard on Cheney’s office (and on Libby) as Hardball covered the controversy sparked by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s charge that the Bush administration had twisted the prewar intelligence.
Once Russert, with little elaboration, had punctured a main element of Libby’s story, Fitzgerald was done with the witness. Then came Ted Wells, a Libby attorney. His mission was clear: destroy the credibility of the fellow whom earlier in the day Libby had described (on the grand jury tape) as “one of the best newsmen, one of the most substantive of the news people.”
Wells took his shots. He grilled Russert about an episode in which the anchor in a 2004 interview had failed to recall a phone call he had made to a Buffalo News columnist who had criticized how Russert had moderated a debate during the New York Senate race in 2000. Wells noted that Russert has often described himself as driven to get the story first. If so, Wells wondered, how could Russert not have taken the opportunity to talk to Libby about the Wilson imbroglio (and possibly about Wilson’s wife) when the vice president’s chief of staff rang him up? Had he forgotten this part of the call? “Frankly, [Libby] wasn’t in the mood to talk,” Russert replied, noting that the Cheney aide was rather agitated about Matthews. Wells pointed out that Russert had no notes on the call and that he had told the FBI that while he believed there had been only one call perhaps there had been two. Wells was doing all he could to question Russert’s powers of recall.