The Libby Trial: Tim Russert Takes the Stand

The NBC newsman reiterates that he didn't tell Libby about Valerie Plame: "That would be impossible because I didn't know who that person was until several days later."

| Wed Feb. 7, 2007 3:00 AM EST

When he reached NBC's Tim Russert at his office on July 10, 2003, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., then the vice president's chief of staff, got right to the point. "What the hell's going on with 'Hardball'?" he fumed, referring to the news show hosted by Russert's NBC colleague Chris Matthews. "Dammit, I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again."

According to Russert, who was the prosecution's final witness in Libby's perjury and obstruction of justice trial, Libby was calling to complain about a recent episode of "Hardball," during which Matthews discussed Ambassador Joseph Wilson's explosive July 6 op-ed, debunking the administration's claim that Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. "Why would the vice president's office, Scooter Libby or whoever is running that office — why would they send a CIA effort down in Niger to verify something, find out there wasn't a uranium sale, and then not follow-up by putting that information—or correcting that information—in the president's State of the Union?" Matthews said during the July 8 episode. "If they went to the trouble to sending Joe Wilson all the way to Africa to find out whether that country had ever sold uranium to Saddam Hussein, why wouldn't they follow-up on that?" Wilson's op-ed, suggesting as it did that the White House had manipulated pre-war intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, had sent the administration into full damage control mode. Libby had called Russert to set the record straight. The vice president's office, he said, had no involvement in Wilson's mission to Niger.

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Up to this point, Libby and Russert agree on the details of their conversation. It's what happened next that forms the backbone of the prosecution's case against Libby.

Appearing twice before a federal grand jury in March 2004, Libby claimed that Russert told him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. "I remember being taken aback by it," Libby told the grand jury, in testimony replayed in its entirety over the past three days at the trial. Libby was surprised, he said, because at that point he'd forgotten that the vice president had conveyed the same information to him close to a month earlier. "No, I don't know that," Libby said he told Russert. "And I said, 'no, I don't know that' intentionally because I didn't want him to take anything I was saying as in any way confirming what he said, because at that point in time I did not recall that I had ever known, and I thought this is something that he was telling me that I was first learning. And so I said, 'no, I don't know that' because I want to be very careful not to confirm it for him, so that he didn't take my statement as confirmation for him." According to Libby, Russert then replied that Plame's identity was common knowledge among reporters, saying "yes, all the reporters know it." Based on this recollection, Libby also said that when he discussed Plame with the New York Times' Judith Miller and Time's Matt Cooper two days later, on July 12, he made sure to let them know that he'd heard about her role at the CIA from members of the press and that he wasn't sure whether it was true. (Miller and Cooper's testimony contradicted Libby's account.)

On the stand today, Russert maintained, as he has done previously, that Plame never even came up during his talk with Libby. "That would be impossible because I didn't know who that person was until several days later" when he read Robert Novak's July 14 column outing Plame as a CIA operative, he said. Russert's account, like those of the prosecution witnesses who appeared before him, dealt a blow to Libby's memory lapse defense, supporting the prosecution's contention that Libby knowingly lied to FBI investigators and the grand jury in order to cover up his role in the leak.

But the day was not a complete success for Patrick Fitzgerald and the prosecution. Employing the strategy he has used throughout the trial, defense lawyer Ted Wells hammered Russert on the reliability of his memory, aiming to impeach his credibility in the eyes of the jury. To this end, Wells spent a good 20 minutes questioning Russert about an episode in 2004 when, during an interview with Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, he denied calling a Buffalo News reporter to demand an apology about a critical column. After the Buffalo News ran an item about Russert's "public memory lapse," noting "that's not how several News staffers remember it," Russert acknowledged he had in fact called the reporter. "I just plain didn't remember it," he said at the time.

Whether or not the defense will be able to create enough doubt in the minds of the jury to secure an acquittal remains to be seen. But, as the prosecution winds down its case against Libby, Wells and his team are only getting started. Wells, for his part, certainly seems confident. During a break in the proceedings this afternoon, he remarked, to no one in particular, "I'm in the zone."

For a transcript of Libby's grand jury testimony, click here.