Thunderbolts at the First Real Day of the Libby Trial

Scooter Libby. Click image to expand.
Scooter Libby

Scooter Libby is being sacrificed to protect Karl Rove. That is going to be a key part of Libby’s defense, judging by his lawyer’s opening statements today. Libby attorney Theodore Wells channeled his client, recalling a 2003 conversation between Libby and his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, at the start of the leak investigation. “They’re trying to set me up. They want me to be the sacrificial lamb. … I will not be sacrificed so Karl Rove can be protected.” Cheney then scrawled a note to himself: “Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder.” Libby had stuck his neck (probably his head, too) in the meat grinder by talking to reporters about prewar intelligence. Rove, or, as Wells called him, “the person who was to be protected,” was being shielded because he was “the lifeblood of the Republican party” and “very important if [Republicans] were to stay in office.” If Scooter Libby was sacrificed to save Karl Rove, then Scooter Libby is now returning the favor.

How much this line of argument helps Scooter Libby in the courtroom will be up to the 12 members of the jury to decide, but it will certainly be a political problem for the president and his staff, who are already doing a lot of duck-and-cover drills. Bush has historically low approval ratings, a very unpopular Iraq strategy, and new domestic programs Democrats will ignore. Now they must deal with the fact that Rove, who is still organizing the president’s strategy, engaged with others in the White House to sell out the vice president’s chief of staff.

The notion that Rove set up a colleague and that other White House officials worked to shield Bush’s boy genius is a Democratic revenge fantasy come to life. How will the White House respond to such a charge from Libby, whom both the president and vice president have lauded in the highest terms? White House officials are likely to continue to play peekaboo—refusing to talk about the case though it’s under way, except when it serves administration interests. Cheney said on Fox in early January that Libby was one of the most honest men he knew.

Today marked the real start of the Libby case. After four days of jury selection, each side gave opening statements, and the first witness was called. Patrick Fitzgerald, the Chicago prosecutor, opened like a dime novelist. “It’s Sunday July 2003 just after the Fourth of July. The fireworks are over—but a different kind of fireworks are about to begin.”

Fitzgerald spoke quickly throughout his hour and a half presentation. He wore a sturdy gray suit, white shirt, and sensible blue tie, upon which he had a microphone pinned. He paced before the jury, his fingers often in a steeple. The courtroom audience only saw his back and the pink yarmulke of baldness at the top of his head.

Fitzgerald’s case was linear and clean. Libby told investigators he learned about Valerie Plame from NBC News reporter Tim Russert. But Fitzgerald told jurors that was clearly a lie because Libby had already been discussing the matter inside and outside of the White House. Fitzgerald then went through a careful delineation of the 11 instances in which Scooter Libby discussed Valerie Plame’s identity with administration officials and reporters. “When the FBI and grand jury asked about what the defendant did,” Fitzgerald said, “he made up a story.”

To explain why Libby would be motivated to lie, Fitzgerald offered two main arguments. The first was that White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had told the press that anyone involved in the business would be fired. If Libby was found to be the leaker, he’d lose his job, or at least cause a massive public embarrassment for the administration.

The second motivation, Fitzgerald explained, was that Libby had promised Vice President Cheney he wasn’t involved, and on that promise Cheney had gone to bat for him. In the October 2003 press swarm over the CIA leak, Libby asked Vice President Cheney to help clear his name in the press. Scott McClellan had told reporters Karl Rove was not involved in the leaking but had stopped there. Libby wanted McClellan to say specifically that Libby had also been cleared. He asked Cheney to make that happen. Cheney did, and in a subsequent briefing, McClellan said Libby was not involved in the affair.

The Fitzgerald presentation was like a warm soak. Ted Wells’ defense opening was a Rolfing. He was emotional and emphatic about his client, whom he said was “wrongly, unjustly, and unfairly” charged. Wells only needs to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors, and he did a very good job of it. He was a charismatic fog machine who challenged everything but the very nature of human existence.

He was most effective picking apart the three reporters whose recollections contradict Libby’s. He suggested that Tim Russert had the faulty memory. The host of Meet the Press says he didn’t tell Libby about Wilson’s wife because he didn’t know about her status as a CIA employee, but Wells argued that Russert may have been in a position to have known. David Gregory, the NBC White House reporter who works with Russert, had been told by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Wells argued that Gregory or his colleague Andrea Mitchell, who also claimed to know, would have passed this information on to Russert before he had his conversation with Libby.

Wells pointed out that Matt Cooper, my former Time colleague, had extensive notes about his interview with Karl Rove, who passed along the information about Wilson’s wife, but had no record of Libby’s secondary role in confirming that information. To discredit Judith Miller, Wells relied on the former New York Times reporter’s own testimony, in which she repeatedly referred to her bad memory, tendency to conflate events, and fuzziness about details.

The government’s case suggested Libby had been on the hunt for information about Wilson’s wife after Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming he’d been sent to Niger to answer a question Cheney’s office posed to the CIA about the sale of uranium yellowcake by Niger to Iraq. During that hunt, Libby engaged in eight separate conversations with colleagues about it. Wells didn’t go after all eight conversations, but he picked apart several of them. Two of the people who had said they talked to Libby about Plame only remembered the conversations after prompting from investigators. Ari Fleischer’s account of Libby was suspect because he had asked for immunity from the government. (This immunity deal is news: Presumably, Fleischer asked for it because he had disclosed Plame’s CIA status to Gregory and thought he’d get in trouble.) “All of these witnesses have their own personal recollection problems,” he said.

As his presentation wore on, Wells got his blood flowing. He got chatty and colloquial. “Mr. Libby was a very busy man, but he wasn’t stupid,” he said. He threw around a lot of “doggone” this and “doggone” that. He described a sudden recollection by one witness “like it came out of the sky, like a lightning bolt went into his head.” He did impersonations: At one point, when characterizing the prosecution’s narrative, he lapsed into “white person,” the highly nasal formal patois of the Caucasian diction teacher. He did a little Jewish: “You want to talk about the week this guy was having?” In a debate with Fitzgerald and the judge, he dismissed an opposing view by saying “izzzzzitzzzzit.” It sounded like a dying neon bulb and yet accurately conveyed his view that the argument was absurd.

The case, which picks up again tomorrow with testimony from Mark Grossman, a former State Department official who discussed Plame’s status with Libby, has opened a window into an administration that in 2003 was deeply at war with itself. The White House was at war with the vice president’s office, and the vice president’s office was at war with the CIA. Much of the spat was over 16 words uttered in the 2003 State of the Union address. Four years later tonight, Bush must give that annual speech again.