WASHINGTON — NBC's Tim Russert deflected criticism of his ethics and credibility as he completed a heated second day of cross-examination today in the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Russert, who testified that he never discussed outed CIA operative Valerie Plame with Libby, was the final prosecution witness before Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald rested his three-week perjury and obstruction case. Libby's attorneys will begin calling witnesses on Feb. 12.
The journalist was subjected to the kind of interrogation he usually gives guests on his Sunday television show "Meet the Press," as attorneys flashed excerpts of his previous statements on a video monitor and asked him to explain inconsistencies.
A law-school graduate, Russert avoided several traps defense attorneys laid before him. He seemed uncomfortable at times, however, as they asked him to explain why he willingly told an FBI agent about a July 2003 conversation with Libby, then gave a sworn statement saying he would not testify about that conversation because it was confidential.
"Did you disclose in the affidavit to the court that you had already disclosed the contents of your conversation with Mr. Libby," asked Theodore Wells, one of Libby's attorneys.
"As I've said, sir —" Russert began.
"It's a yes-or-no question," Wells interrupted.
"I'd like to answer it to the best of my ability," Russert said.
"This is a very simple question. Either it's in the affidavit or it's not," Wells said. "Did you disclose to the court that you had already communicated to the FBI the fact that you had communicated with Mr. Libby?"
"No," Russert said.
Wells wants to cast Russert as someone who cannot be believed, who publicly championed the sanctity of off-the-record conversations but privately revealed that information to investigators. Russert said he viewed the FBI conversation and his testimony to prosecutors differently.
Russert's credibility is under fire because he and Libby tell very different stories about a July 2003 phone call that is at the heart of the case. The question of which to believe could be a critical jury-room issue.
Libby has said that, at the end of the call, Russert brought up war critic Joseph Wilson and mentioned that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.
"That would be impossible," Russert testified yesterday. "I didn't know who that person was until several days later."
During Libby's 2004 grand jury testimony, he said Russert told him "all the reporters know" that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby now acknowledges he had learned about Plame a month earlier from Vice President Dick Cheney, but says he had forgotten about it and learned it again from Russert as if new.
Libby subsequently repeated the information about Plame to other journalists, always with the caveat that he had heard it from reporters, he has said. Prosecutors say Libby concocted the Russert conversation to shield him from prosecution for revealing information from government sources.
Defense attorney Theodore Wells spent more than two hours cross-examining Russert. Wells questioned him about other phone conversations he couldn't remember, inconsistencies between his current account and FBI notes of an agent's original interview with him, and the likelihood that he would have let such a high-ranking official off the phone without fishing for some news.
Wells also pressed Russert to explain why he fought a government subpoena to give a deposition in the investigation, even though he had already willingly told his version of events to an FBI agent. Either Russert must have either betrayed his journalism principles with that FBI conversation, Wells said, or overstated their importance when he challenged his subpoena.
Libby's attorneys say Russert knew about Plame from colleagues David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell. Mitchell said in an interview that she and other reporters knew Plame worked for the CIA but she later recanted that statement. Wells had hoped to play clips of Mitchell discussing her statements on the Don Imus morning show on MSNBC.
Fitzgerald successfully argued that the Imus tapes not be played.
"We might as well take 'Wigmore on Evidence' and replace it with 'Imus on Evidence,'" Fitzgerald said, referencing the classic treatise on evidentiary law. "There's no Imus exception to the hearsay rule. This has no business in a federal court."
Suggesting that Russert was eager to see Libby face charges, Wells played a video of Russert discussing the impending indictment with Imus. Russert sounded giddy at times in the discussion, laughing and describing the anticipation as "like Christmas Eve."
Russert said he was eager for the story to unfold like any big event.
"Did you take joy in Mr. Libby's indictment?" Fitzgerald asked during follow-up questioning.
"No, not at all," Russert said. "And I don't take joy in being here."
Among the first witnesses defense attorneys want to call is Mitchell.
Libby's attorneys will take a similar approach to undercut the credibility of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who testified that Libby revealed Plame's identity to her. Defense attorney William Jeffress said he would call Miller's former boss, Times managing editor Jill Abramson, to try to refute Miller and question her credibility.