Politics & Policy

“Did You Tell Mr. Libby That Wilson’s Wife Worked at the CIA?” “No.”

Tim Russert testifies at the Libby trial.

Tim Russert’s testimony at the perjury and obstruction of justice trial of Lewis Libby presented a dilemma for the left-wing netroots critics of the Bush administration who have come to the federal courthouse in Washington to watch the proceedings. On the one hand, they can’t stand Libby and, even more, Libby’s old boss, Vice President Dick Cheney. But on the other hand, they can’t stand Tim Russert, either. Whose side to take?

Neither, of course. But what became clear by the close of court yesterday was this: Yes, the netroots types hate Cheney and Libby. But they really hate Tim Russert.

“Tim Russert hobbled into the courtroom this afternoon on crutches,” noted Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post. (He broke his ankle several weeks ago.) “When he left the stand at the end of the day…his credibility had been so hobbled it needed a pair of crutches of its own.” Jane Hamsher, proprietor of the website Firedoglake, which has made a specialty of the CIA-leak case in recent years, called Russert’s testimony “inconsistent and shot full of holes.”

But wait. If Russert’s credibility was shot, wouldn’t that help Libby? No one wanted to explore that possibility, even as they picked away at Russert’s performance.

In truth, Russert had an up-and-down day on the witness stand. In a brief examination by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Russert recounted the moment in July 2003 when Libby called to complain about remarks by Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball. It was a few days after former ambassador Joseph Wilson had gone public with his broadside against the Bush administration on the Iraq-Niger uranium story, and Matthews was saying a lot of things about Cheney and Libby, none of it positive. Libby had had enough and called Russert. He was quite agitated, Russert testified.

“How did you know he was agitated?” Fitzgerald asked.

“Well, you can tell agitation in a voice, his use of words,” Russert answered. “He was very firm and very direct that he did not like some of the things he’d heard.”

“What the hell is going on with Hardball?“ Libby asked, according to Russert. “Dammit, I’m tired of hearing my name over and over again. What is being said is not true.”

A short time earlier, jurors had heard an audiotape of Libby’s grand-jury testimony in which he testified that during their conversation, Russert brought up the subject of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson. “He, Mr. Russert, said to me, did you know that ambassador Wilson’s wife, or his wife, works at the CIA?” Libby said on the tape. “And I said, no, I don’t know that. And then he said, yeah — yes, all the reporters know it.”

On the stand, Russert denied that there was any discussion of Valerie Plame Wilson. “No, that would be impossible because I didn’t know who that person was until several days later,” he said. By that, Russert meant July 14, when Robert Novak wrote about Mrs. Wilson in a column published in the Washington Post.

“Did you tell Mr. Libby that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA?” Fitzgerald asked.

“No,” Russert said.

Russert clearly remembered first reading about Mrs. Wilson in the Novak column. “I said, Wow, look at this, this is really significant, this is big,” he testified. “I went to work and began to ask people I was working with what we knew about what, why we didn’t have the story, because to me it was a significant development in the story.”

Russert’s account was short and clear; Fitzgerald’s questioning of him took all of 11 minutes. When it was Libby’s turn to cross-examine, attorney Ted Wells tried to suggest to the jury that it just wasn’t believable that Russert and Libby didn’t discuss Joseph Wilson and the then-raging CIA-leak story. “It was your testimony that you have no recollection of asking Mr. Libby any questions concerning the Wilson trip during your telephone call with him?” Wells asked.

That’s right, Russert answered.

Well, you’re a newsman, Wells told Russert, and you pride yourself on getting the big story. And at that moment, the big story involved Dick Cheney and Lewis Libby. “I mean, you find yourself on the telephone during the week of July 6 with the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States,” Wells said to Russert. “There is a story of great national import going on where the office of the vice president is involved, and you are Tim Russert, the person who takes every opportunity he can to uncover the news. And you didn’t ask him one question about the Wilson issue?”

“It was very much a listening mode,” Russert answered. “He was very agitated and quick with his words. He wanted action on MSNBC and frankly wasn’t in the mood to talk.”

“You had the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone, and you don’t ask him one question about it?”

“I didn’t have the opportunity,” Russert answered.

“Well, why didn’t you have the opportunity?”

“Because he was focused on complaining about a program I had not seen,” Russert said.

“But when he finished describing what he was upset about, wouldn’t it have been natural for you to say, ‘In addition, I want to ask you a question about this Wilson matter?’“

“It was not a natural phone call,” Russert answered. “He was very agitated about the use of his name, and he wanted action.”

Wells was having no luck, so he moved on to the issue of Russert’s memory. He walked Russert through an episode from the 2000 campaign in which a columnist from Russert’s hometown of Buffalo, New York blasted Russert’s performance moderating the Senate debate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio. Interviewed about the criticism a few years later, Russert said he never called the columnist to complain, when in fact he had made such a call. Russert later corrected his recollection.

Wells seemed to bring the story up out of left field, and Russert at first had a hard time remembering what had happened. “You’ll have to refresh my memory on that,” he said. But Wells didn’t want to refresh Russert’s memory; he wanted to see what Russert could remember without any notes or articles to remind him of what had happened.

“I’d like to review it if I could,” Russert said of an article about the matter.

“I’m not going to give it to you right now,” Wells said. “I just want to test your memory now.”

As Wells went on, the point became clear. In 2000, Russert had been the target of media criticism. He called a writer to complain. And then, interviewed about it later, without reviewing any notes or articles about the matter, he forgot that he had called. Wells made the obvious link. “Do you have any notes or memoranda with Mr. Libby?” he asked.

“I have nothing,” Russert answered.

Wells had made his point, but it wasn’t clear whether he had connected with the jury. Yes, Russert had once forgotten something in a matter with some superficial similarities to the Libby call. But on the other hand, Russert’s memory of his conversation with Libby seemed quite clear and simple. He never wavered from it. It appeared that Wells had again had no luck, so he again moved on.

In November, 2003, Wells told the jury, Russert received a phone call from an FBI agent named Jack Eckenrode, who was investigating the CIA leak affair. Eckenrode told Russert that they had met a few years earlier when Eckenrode brought a church group to see Meet the Press. Russert testified that Eckenrode told him, “I’m working on this CIA leak case you may have heard about” and then asked questions about Russert’s phone conversation with Libby.

Russert testified that he described the call to Eckenrode. “I told him that the call was a call of complaint about what had been on Hardball,“ Russert said. He went on to tell Eckenrode that he had explained to Libby that there wasn’t much that he could do about ‘Hardball,’ which was not under his control.

“You talked freely to the FBI agent when he telephoned you?” Wells asked.

“This was after Mr. Libby had talked to him and made allegations about what I had said,” Russert answered, “and my first reaction was that of course, this was not true.”

As the questioning went on, Wells pointed out that a few months later, while resisting a demand to testify in the CIA leak case, Russert and NBC News had argued that his conversation with Libby — the one he had discussed with FBI agent Eckenrode — was confidential and could not be divulged. Top government officials “provide information to me based on our shared understanding that we are speaking in confidence and that I will not disclose publicly either their identities or the information they provide,” Russert wrote in an affidavit dated June 4, 2004.

I cannot provide such testimony without violating the understanding that I share with my sources that our communications, including the fact that we have communicated at all, will be held in confidence. As a result, I can neither confirm that I had any substantive communications with the public official at issue during the relevant time period nor can I describe the nature of any discussions that we may have had.

Wells zeroed in. How could you argue that your conversation with Libby was confidential, when several months earlier you had discussed that very conversation with an FBI agent investigating the case?

“When I discussed it with the agent, the focus was on my words, not Mr. Libby’s words,” Russert answered, “and Mr. Libby’s viewer complaint, as I have said over and over again, was not in any way words from a confidential source or words that I had to keep in confidence.”

Wells pressed for a while longer before the judge adjourned for the evening. Would the jury care about any of it, beyond Russert’s flat denial that he had told Libby about Valerie Plame Wilson? It’s not clear. But the netroots bloggers, the ones who had focused their ire on Russert for years now, loved it. “Why wasn’t the fact that Russert had already unloaded to the FBI included in his sworn declaration?” asked Huffington. “And why, since Russert had already told the FBI, didn’t he deem it his journalistic duty to also tell the public?” For the anti-Russert blogosphere, Wednesday was a very good day.

There was a wry moment in the courtroom when Russert seemed to acknowledge what a lightning rod he has become these days. As Wells was taking him through the whole Buffalo newspaper controversy, he asked whether the blast from the columnist was “one of the more personal attacks you’ve experienced.”

“Probably not anymore,” Russert answered.

  Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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