What I Didn’t Learn at the Urinal

Scooter Libby

9:23 a.m.: Scooter Libby arrives, walks up the courtroom aisle, and, before taking his seat at the defense table, gives a quick smile and nod to his wife in the front row. As we’re waiting for the judge to arrive and call us to order, I glance around. This is a modest little room with a broken clock on the wall. The public seating section isn’t full: Aside from the press, there’s just a handful of spectators here—including a vaguely syphilitic-looking older fellow, in jeans and a sweatshirt, who carries a stack of newspapers and constantly jots notes on a tiny memo pad.

The last time I covered a trial, the defendant was Michael Jackson, and there was a lottery every morning for these public seats. Fans lined up by the hundreds sometimes for a chance to be in the same room as the King of Pop. Scooter Libby is apparently not quite the same draw.

9:30 a.m.: Judge Reggie Walton enters, we all rise, and at this point I notice a three-ring binder sitting on the prosecution table. Its spine reads: “Ari FLEISCHER.” Perhaps today will bring our first semi-celebrity witness?

9:33 a.m.: The defense continues its cross of Wednesday’s witness, Craig Schmall, Libby’s CIA intelligence briefer. They’re mostly clearing up odds and ends. After a few questions, there is some sort of technical dispute between the lawyers, and they approach the judge to confer out of earshot of the courtroom. For nearly half an hour, we patiently wait for them to wrap up. All I can think about is how many thousands of dollars this dead airtime is costing Libby (and the friends and supporters helping him to pay). Scooter’s sitting idly at his defense table, surrounded by a legal team of at least seven people in suits. The clock is ticking. (Actually, it’s not, because it’s broken. But metaphorically, it is.)

11:23 a.m.: The government calls witness Cathie Martin, a blond Harvard Law School graduate (Class of ‘93) who succeeded Mary Matalin as the top press liaison for Vice President Cheney. Martin gives a behind-the-scenes account of how the whole Joe Wilson-yellowcake-Valerie Plame incident unfolded within Cheney’s office.

Martin’s story begins with the Nicholas Kristof column that appeared in the New York Times in spring 2003—and kicked off this whole sordid mess. The column alleged that Cheney’s office had asked for an envoy to be sent to Niger (that envoy being Joe Wilson, though Kristof didn’t name him) with the specific mission to hunt down evidence that Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear materials from Africa. This assertion threw Cheney’s office into a tizzy because (according to Martin) it just wasn’t true. Cheney had no idea who Wilson was, hadn’t asked for any mission to Niger, and hadn’t heard peep about the whole affair until he read Kristof.

The story didn’t go away, and Cheney and Libby became increasingly irritated. They determined that Wilson had in fact been sent to Niger by the CIA. So, Libby asked Martin to talk to an official at the agency, who in turn told Martin that Wilson’s wife was a CIA employee. Martin says she soon after relayed this information to Libby and Cheney.

And that, for the government, is the key detail of Martin’s testimony. Here’s someone in Libby’s office (who worked with him every day and knew him well), saying she told Libby that Wilson’s wife was a CIA worker. This directly contradicts Libby’s assertion that he learned the information later, and from reporters.

1:14 p.m.: There’s a break for lunch, and I stop by the men’s room. On my way out, I pass prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who’s walking in. It occurs to me that he’s alone in there, maybe at the urinal, and that this could be my chance to accost him. I consider going back into the bathroom on some sort of ruse (I forgot to wash my hands?) but decide that the chance Fitzgerald will tell me something interesting is slightly outweighed by the risk that he’ll call security.

2:31 p.m.: The defense begins cross-examining Martin. I can’t see how it’s helping them. Everything Martin says reinforces the notion that Libby (and Cheney) was deeply involved in the effort to rebut Joe Wilson. Cheney sat down with Martin and personally dictated talking points (he didn’t know Wilson, he didn’t ask for the mission to Niger, etc.) that he wanted emphasized to the press. Libby himself called at least one reporter to set the story straight. (“I was aggravated that he was talking to the press, and I wasn’t,” says Martin, drawing a chuckle from the media representatives in the courtroom.) All of which casts doubt on the Libby defense team’s contention that their man was too distracted by matters of great import to remember these piddling events.

At one point the defense switches tacks and claims Libby was also distracted by matters of the heart. As the vice president’s plane was landing at Andrews Air Force Base one Saturday, Cathie Martin asked Libby to stay at the base and make some quick phone calls before ending his workday. (Martin felt it was somewhat urgent that he reach out to Time’s Matt Cooper and Newsweek’s Evan Thomas.) In response to questioning by the defense, though, Martin acknowledges that Libby was irritated by the request—because he was eager to get home for his son’s birthday.

3:42 p.m.: A short break in the action. For the second time today, Libby leans back in his chair, turns around, and winks at his wife.

4:07 p.m.: Martin says she felt Hardball’s Chris Matthews was saying things about Cheney that were “somewhat outrageous.”

4:46 p.m.: The jury—and Martin—has been dismissed for the day. It’s time for a highly entertaining lawyer slap fight. It turns out Ari Fleischer will be the next witness, once court resumes Monday. (Damn, just missed him!) The defense team wants to note—for the jury’s benefit—that Fleischer demanded immunity before he would agree to testify, because this might cast Fleischer’s testimony in a different light.

And here Fitzgerald makes a nice little chess move: Fine, he says, we can acknowledge that Fleischer sought immunity. As long as we explain why. Turns out Fleischer saw a story in the Washington Post suggesting that anyone who revealed Valerie Plame’s identity might be subject to the death penalty. And he freaked. Of course, if Fleischer was this worked up about it during the time period in question, that suggests Libby would have been, too. (Which again undermines the notion that Libby had much bigger fish to fry.)

Cue 20 minutes of lawyers whining about each other’s conduct. Finally, the judge tells them to cool it. “This is why I quit practicing,” he says. “Other lawyers kept accusing me of doing things I hadn’t done.”