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What Would Cheney Say?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 25, 2006; 1:18 PM

Vice President Cheney's testimony in the criminal trial of his chief of staff -- suddenly a distinct possibility -- would appear to be crucial to the case.

The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that Cheney was at the epicenter of a White House campaign to discredit administration critic Joseph Wilson -- a campaign that ultimately included the outing of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame , as a CIA operative.

Cheney is obviously the person in the best position to either confirm or contradict one of the hardest-to-swallow elements of Scooter Libby's defense: That Libby and Cheney specifically discussed Valerie Plame's status as a CIA operative in early June 2003, and then again after columnist Robert Novak publicly outed her on July 14 -- but not in between.

This is a key element of Libby's defense, because in between, Libby has argued, he "forgot" that he knew.

Libby testified to special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's grand jury that "it seemed to me as if I was learning it for the first time" when NBC correspondent Tim Russert told him about Plame's CIA affiliation on July 10. Russert has denied that any such conversation took place.

Fitzgerald didn't buy Libby's story, and this past October charged him with five felony counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice.

And just last week, Fitzgerald released Cheney's handwritten notes scrawled in the margins of Wilson's fateful July 6 New York Times op-ed in which the vice president asked: "[D]id his wife send him on a junket?" (See my May 15 column, The Smoking Pen .)

Fitzgerald, who appears to be sitting on enormous amounts of fascinating information about this case, is dribbling it out only as he finds it necessary to respond to motions by Libby's legal defense team. And in what is turning out to be a signature move, Fitzgerald late last night submitted a legal brief and accompanying exhibits aimed at addressing procedural issues -- and, collaterally, loaded with bombshells.

Here is Fitzgerald's brief , courtesy of the TalkLeft blog.

And here are the highly readable exhibits , courtesy of the Just One Minute blog.

For one, Fitzgerald yesterday made it clear that he may very well call Cheney as a witness.

In one of the brief's footnotes, of all things, he wrote: "Contrary to defendant's assertion, the government has not represented that it does not intend to call the Vice President as a witness at trial. To the best of government's counsel's recollection, the government has not commented on whether it intends to call the Vice President as a witness."

And then, to bolster his argument that notes from Cheney are more relevant to the case than notes from peripheral figures, Fitzgerald released several pages of Libby's hitherto secret grand jury testimony.

According to Libby's own testimony, Cheney was upset for several days about Wilson's op-ed in the New York Times -- and spoke of it frequently during that period.

"I recall that he was very keen to get the truth out," Libby told the grand jury on March 5, 2004. "He wanted to get all the facts out about what he had or hadn't done, what the facts were or were not. He was very keen about that and said it repeatedly. Let's get everything out."

Libby also testified that it is not uncommon for Cheney to get quite hung up about newspaper articles and columns.

Among the many still unanswered questions: What did Cheney say about all this when he was interviewed -- not under oath -- by prosecutors? What would he say under oath? Would he take the Fifth? Does Fitzgerald have any third-party evidence of what Cheney and Libby discussed during that period?

Here's what Fitzgerald wrote in his brief: "As the defendant admitted in his grand jury testimony, he communicated extensively with the Vice President regarding the Wilson Op Ed during the relevant period, and received direction from the Vice President regarding his response to the Wilson Op Ed. The Vice President's handwritten notes on a clipping of the Wilson Op Ed, which reflect his views concerning Mr. Wilson and his wife, are evidence of the views the Vice President communicated during the conversations that the Vice President and his chief of staff had during the period immediately following the publication of the Wilson Op Ed, and corroborate other evidence regarding these communications, which are central to the government's proof that defendant knowingly made false statements to federal agents and the grand jury."

Libby acknowledged in his grand jury testimony that Cheney had told him in early June 2003 that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Flash forward to Libby's testimony about a month after Wilson's op-ed:

"A. I believe by, by this week I no longer remembered that. I had forgotten it. And I believe that because when it was told to me on July 10, a few days after this article, it seemed to me as if I was learning it for the first time."

The Coverage

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney was personally angered by a former U.S. ambassador's newspaper column attacking a key rationale for the war in Iraq and repeatedly directed I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, then his chief of staff, to 'get all the facts out' related to the critique, according to excerpts from Libby's 2004 grand jury testimony released late yesterday by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald. . . .

"In the court filing that included the formerly secret testimony, Fitzgerald did not assert that Cheney instructed Libby to tell reporters the name and role of Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife. But he said Cheney's interactions with Libby on that topic were a key part of the reason Libby allegedly made false statements to the FBI about his conversations with reporters around the time her name was disclosed in news accounts."

Tim Grieve writes in Salon that "in the course of his brief, Fitzgerald makes it clear -- without saying so explicitly -- that he'd like to put Cheney on the stand ... [t]o question him about the conversations he had with Libby about Wilson's column, and in the process to undercut Libby's claim that those conversations didn't involve the identity of Wilson's wife. . . .

"Libby has admitted that he talked with Cheney after Wilson's article appeared, and that Cheney said then that he wanted to 'get the truth out' about it. Libby has also admitted that his conversations with Cheney immediately after Wilson's article was published touched on all of the topics covered in the handwritten notes -- all except one: While Libby acknowledges that he and Cheney discussed Wilson's wife long before and long after Wilson's op-ed appeared, he says it's the one issue that they didn't discuss in the immediate aftermath of the op-ed. . . .

"It all seems just a little implausible. How is it that Libby forgot about 'the wife' at the very moment, as he admits, that Wilson's column was the subject of 'daily' discussion at the White House? And how is it that Cheney, in the course of directing Libby to 'get the truth out' about Wilson's column, talked with him about everything in the handwritten notes except the question of 'the wife'?

"Fitzgerald clearly believes that Cheney's testimony could set the record straight."

Even more evocative than the Toni Locy story for the Associated Press was the photo that the editors chose to go along with it.

A Little Obsessed?

It's often said that President Bush doesn't read newspapers -- or at least not as much as he should. Now it looks like maybe Cheney reads them a bit too much.

During Libby's grand jury testimony on the morning of March 24, 2004, prosecutors asked him how unusual it was for Cheney to clip and save a newspaper column.

"Q. Did you often see him with the actual newspaper column -- actual physical columns from the newspaper?

"A. Yes, he often will cut out from a newspaper an article using a little pen knife that he has and put it on the edge of his desk or put it in his desk and then pull it out and look at it, think about it. That will often happen. . . .

"Q. How long does the Vice-President keep the columns that he cuts out with a pen knife and puts on the corner of his desk?

"A. Sometimes a long time."

Freudian Slip?

More from the Libby testimony transcripts:

"Q. Do you recall the Vice-President indicating or asking you or anyone in your presence whether or not Ambassador Wilson's wife had arranged to have him sent on a junket?

"A. I think I recall him -- I don't recall him asking me that particular question, but I think I recall him musing about that.

"Q. Okay. And do you recall when it was that he mused about that?

"A. I think it was after the Wilson column.

"Q. Okay. And obviously --

"A. I don't mean the Wilson column. I'm sorry, I misspoke. I think it was after the Novak column. . . . "

The Zinsmeister

Yesterday's column noted the White House announcement that Karl Zinsmeister will replace Claude Allen as Bush's chief domestic policy adviser.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that "it is unclear whether Mr. Zinsmeister will give his new White House job any clout because Karl Rove, the president's powerful political aide, has effectively operated as Mr. Bush's chief domestic policy adviser for the past five and a half years."

And she notes: "Mr. Zinsmeister is not in the mold of many other White House aides who have longtime ties to Mr. Bush or Republican administrations."


Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun: "Mr. Zinsmeister edited the American Enterprise Institute's magazine from upstate Cazenovia and was rarely seen at the conservative think tank's offices in Washington.

"In an e-mail to friends and colleagues yesterday, Mr. Zinsmeister signaled he will try to maintain an outsider's perspective on Washington, even as he takes up his West Wing post. He said he and his family plan to live in Baltimore, some 40 miles away. . . .

"In a 2004 interview with the Syracuse New Times , the future White House aide declared, 'People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings.'"

Constitutional Clash

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "The constitutional clash pitting Congress against the executive branch escalated Wednesday as the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House demanded the immediate return of materials seized by federal agents when they searched the office of a House member who is under investigation in a corruption case. . . .

"The tense conflict is also developing into a potential new problem for President Bush.

"The White House has reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill to allay concerns about the president's low poll numbers and to try to heal deep rifts within the party over a variety of issues, including immigration.

"The constitutional confrontation is doing nothing to help with that effort."

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "The FBI raid on Rep. William Jefferson's congressional office was an aggressive tactic that broke a long-standing political custom. But while it might violate the spirit of the Constitution, it might not violate the letter of the document or subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court, legal analysts say."

There Once Was a Man Named George Dubya...

President Bush paid a visit to the Limerick Generating Station yesterday.

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, the first president to visit a nuclear power plant since Jimmy Carter inspected the stricken Three Mile Island facility in 1979, said Wednesday that the United States 'must aggressively move forward' in the expansion of nuclear power."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "With Democrats seizing the national stage on gasoline prices and the environment, President Bush came here Wednesday to take it back, calling for the construction of more nuclear power plants to help reduce the greenhouse gases believed to contribute to global warming.

"'Let's quit the debate about whether greenhouse gases are caused by mankind or by natural causes; let's just focus on technologies that deal with the issue,' Mr. Bush told workers."

Here's the text of his speech, and video excerpts are here .

Snow's Job

Is the honeymoon souring? Is the press corps starting to feel like they're been played for fools? Maybe, maybe not.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "How different is the shiny new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow compared to his jaded predecessor Scott McClellan?

"After more than two weeks inside the West Wing, Snow has pulled off the unusual coup of improving relations with the press corps while offering, at times, less information than McClellan. He has also managed to win widespread forgiveness for a series of foreign-policy fumbles that would have landed McClellan in deep trouble. . . .

"[T]here's been a lot of smiling and plenty of jokes and laughter during the first two weeks of Snow's tenure as Bush's new press guy. The atmosphere in the briefing room, which only weeks ago seemed poisonous beyond repair, now seems relaxed and different enough to compensate for the fact that reporters don't seem to be getting any more straightforward answers than before."

Wolffe and Bailey do a bang-up job of chronicling a host of Snow's dodges and flubs.

The Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva is still charmed, at least for now: "At some point, the self-described 'new kid on the block' will have to become conversant in all the fine points. But for the moment, a refreshingly spontaneous attitude prevails in the old press briefing room at the White House, where the pursuit of political spin by administration spokesmen had overtaken the cause of candor."

Candor, as in candidly being forthcoming? Well, maybe not.

Silva acknowledged that Snow "has fostered a conversational exchange with reporters in which candor often leads to an answer as predictable as any McClellan delivered."

The Tony Snow Show

Snow took the admittedly bold step of appearing on CNN with Lou Dobbs last night.

Said Dobbs: "Let me say, if I may at the outset, because I have been particularly critical of this administration's policies over the year there has been a -- I have been blackballed by the White House and -- for about four years now, because I've said things like radical Islamists when referring to the enemies in the war on terror, criticizing many of the president's policies.

"And I just want to compliment you in your early tenure as press secretary for having the fortitude, the intelligence and the class to break that embargo and come on here and talk."

But that was as exciting as it got. Snow didn't really say much.

"The president is trying to get the resources to the border. Rather than sitting around and having the extended debate -- and this is what I like about the plan -- it's devoted to action," Snow said.

Dobbs was aggressive: "I'm trying to get to the point that with -- the fact that three-quarters of the country, just about, as they're surveyed say we're going in the wrong direction; that there is a government that is unable to secure its borders or unwilling; there is a government that is coming to terms with illegal immigration at a time when there are more urgent and immediate priorities, it seems to many people, at a time when we're looking at trade deficits that are overwhelming us, budget deficits. We're spending $6 billion a month alone in Iraq."

Snow deflected: "You also mentioned the fact that poll data show people think the country is going in the wrong direction. Ask a different question: How are you doing? Are you doing better off than you were a year ago? Turns out that we are. . . .

"When people look at their real lives, they understand that there's a war on terror going on out there -- and I understand the vague apprehension that goes on, because we all remember September 11th, we don't want it to happen again.

"But meanwhile, how are people acting? They're taking vacations. They're buying homes. They're buying goods and services. They're acting as if they're living in good times -- because they are."

The Blair Bush Project

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, their images tarnished by public discontent over the war in Iraq, will discuss scaling back U.S. and British troops in the country when they meet at the White House today.

"Officials say the two will not announce any specific withdrawal plans but are expected to highlight the establishment of the new Iraqi government as a turning point that could pave the way for reducing the size of the American and British force. Bush and Blair plan to hold an evening news conference to amplify their upbeat message."

Bush "meets with Bush at a moment of weakness for both men, their popularity and influence sagging amid scandals and party divisions at home. The Times of London branded the meetings a 'lame duck summit,' while The Economist called Bush and Blair an 'Axis of feeble,' a play on the president's 2002 'axis of evil' speech about threats from Iraq, Iran and North Korea."

Hecht of a Job

Blogger Holden found this story by Jim Vertuno for the Associated Press: "Nathan Hecht, the Texas Supreme Court justice who publicly supported the nomination of his close friend Harriet Miers for the U.S. Supreme Court last year, has been admonished by the Commission on Judicial Conduct for using his office to promote her nomination.

"By telling White House staff to send media inquiries about Miers' career to him and discussing her qualifications in about 120 newspaper, radio and television interviews, including her religious background and views on abortion, Hecht improperly used his position, the commission found."

John Council writes for Texas Lawyer: "At that time, Hecht jokingly said to Texas Lawyer that he had been acting as a 'PR office for the White House' and had been filling in gaps about Miers' background to the press, countering some conservatives' skepticism about her qualifications -- statements that were referenced in the commission's admonition."

Rove Watch

For the second week in a row, Karl Rove yesterday tried to work his charm on House Republicans -- and failed. Suzanne Gamboa writes for the Associated Press: "Presidential aide Karl Rove hoped to make inroads with House members who consider the Senate legalization provision 'amnesty.' Asked as he departed the Capitol whether he had made progress, he replied, 'Could be.'"

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "He got a cold reception, according to people who attended. In particular, they said, Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) testily told Rove that he was underestimating Americans' hostility to the notion of 'amnesty' for illegal immigrants, especially if there is not proof that tougher border measures are taking effect. "

Lively Live Online

We had a lively Live Online discussion yesterday.

Among my observations: "What's amazing to me is that the White House's official narrative is that all the carnage we see on TV is what's getting us down on the president.

"But where is that carnage? I don't see it on TV. Sure, I see the occasional bombing-wreckage (ergo, possibly, Bush's focus on those suiciders ) but the day-in-day-out horrors, including the ceaseless killing and mutilating of our troops, the brutal murders of civilians by sectarian death squads, those aren't on TV! Neither, of course, are the returning coffins.

"The American public has gotten severely down on the war and the president in spite of the fact that they are not seeing any visceral images of the cost of war, not because of those images."

Read the full transcript here .

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