Tim Russert, Utterly Unflappable

Tim Russert

Click here  and here  to listen to the March 2004 grand jury testimony of Scooter Libby.

2:29 p.m.: All morning, we listened to audio tapes of Scooter Libby’s grand jury testimony. Along with yesterday, that makes eight hours of tapes in all. Toward the end of this droning saga, the courtroom gallery was becoming rather sparsely populated.

But now these tapes are, mercifully, over. We’ve had our lunch break, and the judge and jury are seated. And for some reason, the courtroom is packed. Some reporters can’t even get in. Why?

Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald steps up to the podium. “The government calls Tim Russert,” he says.

And there’s the man, walking to the witness stand. Or rather, limping to it. Russert is on crutches—the result of a broken ankle. He takes his seat, spells out his name, and describes his job: host of Meet the Press and Washington bureau chief for NBC News.

Fitzgerald launches into questions about a July 2003 phone call Russert received from Scooter Libby. Russert tells us that Libby called him to complain about something Chris Matthews said on his TV show, Hardball. Libby was “agitated,” and his voice was “very firm and direct,” Russert recounts.

“What the hell’s going on with Hardball?” he asked Russert. “Damn it, I’m tired of hearing my name over and over again.”

Fitzgerald asks if Russert had ever before, or since, received a call like that from a vice president’s chief of staff. Russert says he has not. The call was really just a “viewer complaint.” Besides, there was nothing Russert could do about Hardball, since it wasn’t his show. He suggested other NBC people that Libby could complain to. And that was the end of the conversation.

Did Russert tell Libby that Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA? Did they discuss Valerie Plame in any way? “No,” says Russert, calmly and evenly. “That would be impossible, because I didn’t know who that was until several days later.”

Russert says it was not until the following Monday, when he read Robert Novak’s cover-blowing column in the Washington Post, that he first learned about Plame’s identity. He has a clear memory of reading the column: “I said, ‘Wow, look at this. This is really significant. This is big.’” Then he went into work and started asking colleagues if they’d known about Plame’s identity before. None had.

That’s all Fitzgerald needs to hear. Twelve minutes after calling Russert to the stand, the prosecutor has no more questions for him. Russert’s testimony is clean and simple: He never talked about Valerie Plame with Scooter Libby. Ever.

And with that, Russert—a compelling, likable witness if there ever was one—may have buried Libby. Libby has said in his testimony, again and again, that Russert mentioned during this call that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and that “all the reporters” knew it. Now Russert is testifying, with obvious conviction, that Libby invented this part of the conversation. The jurors will have to decide who to believe. This is the most pointed he said/he said dispute of the case.

Let’s assume for a moment that Libby made up his story. Why on earth would he have done so? Here’s the prosecution’s theory: Libby really learned about Valerie Plame from Vice President Dick Cheney (and other government sources). And he then passed Cheney’s information on to various reporters (including Matt Cooper of Time and Judy Miller of the New York Times). Libby worried that this leak constituted a crime (revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent), and that both he and Cheney might face criminal charges for it. So, when the FBI questioned him about it, he said he was simply passing on a tidbit that he’d learned from Tim Russert. If it came from Russert, and not Cheney, there would be no problem. (Fitzgerald describes this as Libby switching the story from “an official to a non-official source.”)

Why did Libby think he could concoct a fake conversation with Russert, yet never have Russert contradict him? Because Libby assumed that Russert, as a member of the press, would protect Libby as a source. And in fact Russert did try to get out of testifying—fighting his subpoena on the grounds that testifying would have a “chilling effect” on his ability to get sources to talk to him. Unfortunately for Scooter, Russert lost this battle. And now he’s here in court, calling Libby a liar.

But now let’s imagine Libby’s telling the truth—that he did talk about Plame with Russert, and that Russert is just misremembering their phone call. Can you imagine how nightmarish today must be for Libby, if this is the case? He’s watching Russert throw him under the bus as the result of nothing more than a faulty memory. Russert is stubbornly standing by his hazy recollection of one three-year-old phone call. And Scooter might go to jail over it.

2:41 p.m.: Defense attorney Ted Wells begins cross-examining Russert. “Is it fair to say you’re a valuable asset to the NBC network?” he asks. Russert, stone-faced, says, “I hope so.” Next Wells asks if it’s true that Meet the Press brings in more than $50 million in profits to NBC each year. (Russert isn’t sure, but it sounds plausible.) Then Wells asks if it’s true that Russert’s salary is more than $5 million a year. This meets with an instant objection from Fitzgerald, and Russert doesn’t have to answer. (The figure, true or not, certainly has a “chilling effect” on the lesser-paid reporters filling the courtroom.)

Wells starts hitting Russert with a flurry of questions, hoping to impugn his memory. But Russert is utterly unflappable. I’ve never seen a better witness at a trial. He never gets flustered, always stays on message. No matter how complex Wells makes his inquiries, Russert’s answers remain supremely straightforward. After one string of jumbly gobbledygook from Wells (implying that Russert might have known about Valerie Plame earlier than he’s claiming that he did), Russert ignores all the nooks and crannies and keeps things blunt: “I did not know that she worked at the CIA. That’s the simple fact. I did not know who she was, what her name was, or where she worked.” I suppose appearing on national television for years, verbally jousting with pundits and presidents, is good practice for parrying a lawyer’s tricky questions.

There’s one place I think Wells might get some traction with the jury, though. He notes that, at the time of the phone call, the Joe Wilson trip was a “story of great national import,” with the vice president’s office deeply involved. And in the middle of this, Cheney’s chief of staff serendipitously called up Tim Russert. Yet Russert—dogged reporter and experienced journalist that he is—didn’t think to ask Libby a single question about Wilson while he had Libby on the line, one on one?

Libby “was not in the mood to talk,” responds Russert, so there was never an “opportunity” to ask him anything. Wells isn’t buying this. Wouldn’t it be natural to ask Libby a question? “It was not a natural phone call,” says Russert.

5 p.m.: We break for the day. For scheduling purposes, the lawyers want to figure out how much longer Russert will be on the stand. Russert leans on his crutch next to the witness booth. “I’m gonna be a while,” Wells says with gusto. Russert doesn’t smile.