NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
A Lurid Look Behind the Curtain

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 1:26 PM

There's plenty of exciting White House news today -- not from President Bush's predictable State of the Union speech last night at the Capitol, however, but from the opening arguments at the Scooter Libby trial at the federal courthouse down the street.

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald and Libby defense attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. offered jurors two dramatically different narratives yesterday, both of them luridly fascinating.

Fitzgerald told jurors he can prove that Libby was sent out by his boss, Vice President Cheney, to savage administration critic Joseph Wilson -- and in the process told two reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA.

Once an investigation into the leak began, Fitzgerald said, Libby "made up" a story about learning of Plame's identity from NBC's Tim Russert even though he had heard it from Cheney a month earlier and the two had talked frequently about Wilson since then.

Wells, by contrast, said reporters who will testify against Libby may be mistaken. He said Libby was very busy with much more important matters.

And he said that once the investigation was launched, Libby was convinced that some of Bush's top aides were trying to "scapegoat" him, rather than let top Bush political strategist Karl Rove take the fall.

How that scapegoating might mitigate Libby's alleged crime of perjuring himself to investigators isn't exactly clear -- but it sure gives us a rare and troubling view of the viper pit that apparently lurks beneath the West Wing's placid veneer.

Was Libby a scapegoat or a liar? Was he a victim of White House backstabbing, or a puppet in Cheney's obsessive war against those who dared question the highly questionable case for war in Iraq? Neither would reflect well on the White House. And they're not mutually exclusive.

If nothing else, the Libby defense hints at an answer to what I have long considered one of the great mysteries of this administration: How do Bush's two Svengalis -- Cheney and Rove -- get along? Apparently, not so great.

The Coverage

Kelly O'Donnell reports for NBC that "the trial.. has exposed a tension in the White House not known publicly before."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "I. Lewis Libby Jr., the vice president's former chief of staff, was made a scapegoat by White House officials to protect the president's longtime political adviser, Karl Rove, Mr. Libby's lawyer asserted in his opening statement on Tuesday. . . .

"The statement by the lawyer, Theodore V. Wells Jr., was the first indication that Mr. Libby, who is facing five felony counts of lying to investigators, would seek to deflect some of the blame onto his former White House colleagues.

"Mr. Wells did not, however, fully explain the connection between an effort to protect Mr. Rove and the actions that led to Mr. Libby's indictment. . . .

"Mr. Wells told the jury that White House officials, whom he did not name, wanted to protect Mr. Rove because they believed his survival as President Bush's chief political adviser was crucial to the health of the Republican Party. . . .

"Mr. Libby, Mr. Wells said, complained to Vice President Dick Cheney that he was being set up as a fall guy. Mr. Cheney supported that view, Mr. Wells said, and handwrote a note saying, 'Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy who was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.' . . .

"Interpreting the vice president's note, Mr. Wells said that 'incompetence' was a reference to the fact that the C.I.A. had mistakenly allowed the White House to use inaccurate information in Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech about Iraq's efforts to obtain uranium in Africa. The staff official whom the vice president believed should not be protected, he said, was Mr. Rove. Mr. Libby had been assigned to speak to reporters to straighten out the confusion from Mr. Bush's speech, a chore Mr. Cheney likened to sticking his head in the meat grinder."

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "The lawyer also added that, unlike Libby, Rove was 'out pushing stories' that outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative."

Earlier, however, "Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald accused Libby of being mired in discrediting Plame's husband, ambassador and Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson. . . .

"Fitzgerald described Libby as equal parts manager of Cheney's office, national security adviser and a political hatchet man eager to get back at Wilson. He said Libby told reporters that Wilson's CIA wife sent him to Africa on a 2002 junket to see whether Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had bought uranium for nuclear bombs."

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Libby told investigators that at one point he was surprised to learn from NBC's Tim Russert in July 2003 that Wilson was married to Plame. But Fitzgerald contended that Libby, at Cheney's direction, had been actively telling people about Wilson at the same time.

"He said Libby's claim to a grand jury that he simply had forgotten what he knew was implausible, because he had passed on Plame's name to reporters and then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer days before speaking with Russert.

"'You can't learn something startling on Thursday that you're giving out Monday and Tuesday of the same week,' Fitzgerald said. 'Day after day after day after day, he focused on this controversy.'

"Wells, the defense attorney, countered that 'this is a weak, paper-thin, circumstantial evidence case about he-said, she-said.'"

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The defense suggestion of a high-level conspiracy, made on the opening day of the trial, was the first indication of a breach within the normally secretive White House over the handling of a case that had cast a legal and political cloud over the Bush administration for three years.

"Wells did not identify the officials who might have been involved. But he set the stage for a broad attack on some witnesses the government plans to call, saying they were not credible.

"One of them, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, had initially asserted his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in the case and had agreed to cooperate with federal investigators only after being granted immunity, Wells said."

Fleischer's grant of immunity bears further scrutiny.

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "It was the last thing the White House needed at a time when President Bush is already on the defensive over Iraq: a circular firing squad in a federal courtroom in which the president's men -- and Vice President Dick Cheney's -- are all shooting at each other. . . .

"Libby, it was widely thought by legal experts, was going to be the good soldier. He would play it safe at his trial in order to preserve his options; mainly, if convicted, to seek a presidential pardon before Bush leaves office.

"But no sooner did he start his opening statement Tuesday morning than defense lawyer Ted Wells shocked the courtroom and all but tossed the 'pardon strategy' out the window."

That, Isikoff said, "raised the prospect that the Libby trial will now turn into a horror show for the White House, forcing current and former top aides to testify against each other and revealing an administration that has been in turmoil over the Iraq war for more than three years."

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "The notion that Rove set up a colleague and that other White House officials worked to shield Bush's boy genius is a Democratic revenge fantasy come to life. How will the White House respond to such a charge from Libby, whom both the president and vice president have lauded in the highest terms? White House officials are likely to continue to play peekaboo -- refusing to talk about the case though it's underway, except when it serves administration interests."

Dickerson also writes: "To explain why Libby would be motivated to lie, Fitzgerald offered two main arguments. The first was that White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had told the press that anyone involved in the business would be fired. If Libby was found to be the leaker, he'd lose his job, or at least cause a massive public embarrassment for the administration.

"The second motivation, Fitzgerald explained, was that Libby had promised Vice President Cheney he wasn't involved, and on that promise Cheney had gone to bat for him. In the October 2003 press swarm over the CIA leak, Libby asked Vice President Cheney to help clear his name in the press. Scott McClellan had told reporters Karl Rove was not involved in the leaking but had stopped there. Libby wanted McClellan to say specifically that Libby had also been cleared. He asked Cheney to make that happen. Cheney did, and in a subsequent briefing, McClellan said Libby was not involved in the affair."

Here are summaries of the opening arguments.

It's a real shame no one is buying and Web-publishing the full trial transcripts. In the absence of that, Firedoglake's live-blogging of the trial is becoming essential reading.


Here's Scott McClellan on September 29, 2003 denying Rove was involved.

Here he is on October 7, 2003, saying Libby wasn't involved either.

State of the Union

Here's the text of the speech. Here's a series of White House briefing papers.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush used his State of the Union address last night to try to revive his presidency against what may be the greatest odds any chief executive has faced in a generation."

But, Balz concludes: "Bush may have been speaking into the void."

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Can this presidency be saved?

"That's the question that loomed Tuesday as President Bush gave his State of the Union speech in the most inhospitable climate he has ever faced for his annual address to Congress."

Her conclusion? "Bush's plans may be too modest to accomplish the broader challenge facing him. . . . Bush is trying to regain his footing while Iraq is littered with carnage, Democrats are calling the shots on Capitol Hill, senior members of his own party are openly questioning his Iraq policy, and a vast majority of the public is disenchanted with his leadership. . . .

"Even the parts of the speech that the White House touted as groundbreaking and bold were echoes of past speeches. Last year's State of the Union included plans to end the country's 'addiction to oil.' Bush's 2006 speech also had spotlighted another tax-break approach to improving medical coverage -- through tax-advantaged health savings accounts. Neither of those issues advanced even in a Congress controlled by Bush's own party."

And Bush's health-care proposal "has already been declared dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill because it could hurt many who are now insured."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush acknowledged the change in political order in the opening minute of his State of the Union address Tuesday with a gracious tribute to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seated on the podium behind him.

"He then spent most of the next 49 minutes behaving as if the November election never happened.

"Bush pitched a health care policy he knows stands no chance in a Democratic Congress, an education plan Democrats have already rejected and an energy policy that did little to wow his opponents.

"On Iraq, Bush implored a Congress that is poised to pass a resolution condemning his latest war plan to 'find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.'"

Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post that Bush's "approach contrasted with the last two presidents to address an opposition Congress after their parties lost midterm elections. Ronald Reagan conceded 'serious mistakes' in 1987, as did Bill Clinton in 1995. Clinton moved to the middle so conspicuously that the opposition leader who gave the official response noted that he 'sounded pretty Republican.' Although Bush acknowledged two weeks ago that 'mistakes have been made' in Iraq, he appeared unchastened last night and took no responsibility for his party's defeat or errors in office."

David E. Sanger and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush got a polite reception, but one far more muted than in previous appearances. He waited until the end of his nearly 50-minute speech to deliver the assessment that typically opens these addresses, that 'the state of our union is strong.'"

Fact Check

Glenn Kessler does some fact-checking for The Washington Post: "In his State of the Union address last night, President Bush presented an arguably misleading and often flawed description of 'the enemy' that the United States faces overseas, lumping together disparate groups with opposing ideologies to suggest that they have a single-minded focus in attacking the United States.

"Under Bush's rubric, a country such as Iran -- which enjoys diplomatic representation and billions of dollars in trade with major European countries -- is lumped together with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 'The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat,' Bush said, referring to the different branches of the Muslim religion. . . .

"[H]is description of the actions of 'the enemy' tried to tie together a series of diplomatic and military setbacks that had virtually no connection to one another, from an attack on a Sunni mosque in Iraq to the assassination of Maronite Lebanese political figure."

Kessler questions Bush's insistence that "free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies" and that "we have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism."

He also finds room for a little domestic fact-checking as well. For instance: "Bush claimed credit for cutting the budget deficit ahead of schedule and proposed to eliminate it over the next five years. He did not mention that he inherited a huge budget surplus -- $236 billion in 2000 -- compared with a $296 billion deficit in the 2006 fiscal year, largely as a result of Bush's tax cuts and spending increases."

The Scene

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Cheney, sitting in the customary place behind President Bush as he addressed the nation from the House chamber last night, resembled nothing so much as a seesaw.

"'First we must balance the federal budget,' Bush said.

"Pelosi shot to her feet, followed slowly by Cheney.

"'We can do so without raising taxes,' Bush continued.

"Cheney leapt up. Pelosi started to stand, then reconsidered and sat down. . . .

"The president demanded a 'prompt up-or-down vote' for his judicial nominees.

"Cheney rose, grinning and applauding. Pelosi sat silently. . . .

"Pelosi's Democrats were, for the most part, well behaved last night, avoiding the noisy interruption they gave Bush when he spoke about Social Security in 2005."

In fact, Milbank notes that "both sides were unusually calm on a night where the yawns nearly equaled the cheers."

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: 'In preparation for the president's address, Ms. Pelosi of California had been coached by her staff to keep a neutral face. They warned that any raised eyebrow or pursed lip would be captured by the cameras trained on the president. . . .

"Democrats had decided it not in their interest to look churlish during the speech. Lawmakers were advised to take their cues on when to stand, sit down and applaud from Ms. Pelosi."

The New York Times has a graphic showing who was in the first lady's box, a chart of applause during the speech compared to past years, and fun with word counts.

KSTP-TV in Minneapolis finds one enthusiastic member of Congress who grabbed the president on his way out and wouldn't let go.


Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush wanted to convince Americans watching on television that he's heard them and that he wants again to work with Democrats....

"Yet the chasm between the parties is wide and deep, the politics between them are poisonous and Bush bears much of the blame.

"After reaching out to Democrats his first year, Bush governed after the 2001 terrorist attacks as the leader of a one-party state.

"In Congress, his party locked Democrats out of negotiations, then hammered votes through without chance of input.

"From the White House, Bush tacked 'signing statements' onto bills he signed and used the threat of terrorism in three successive elections to attack Democrats as weak or, worse, aiding the enemy. Last fall he warned that if the Democrats won control of Congress, 'terrorists win and America loses.'"

Yochi J. Dreazen blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush departed from the prepared text of his State of the Union address to graciously congratulate Nancy Pelosi on her history-making selection as the first female Speaker of the House. Then he departed from the prepared text a second time to take a jab at Pelosi and the rest of the new Democratic majority of Congress.

"In the prepared text of the speech, sent out by the White House some 40 minutes before Bush ascended the House rostrum, the president was to say, 'Some in this Chamber are new to the House and Senate -- and I congratulate the Democratic majority.' When Bush delivered the line, however, he paid tribute to the 'Democrat majority.'

"Dropping the 'ic' from the word 'Democratic' may seem insignificant, but it was almost certainly a deliberate move by Bush, who has used the phrase 'the Democrat Party' for months as a way of needling his opponents. . . .

"For all of Bush's talk tonight about crossing party lines to work with the new Democratic Congress, it is the missing two letters that may offer the clearest indication of whether partisan tensions are really like to fade in the waning years of Bush's presidency."

The Proposals

Jonathan Weisman and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post that "senior Democrats for the most part responded with icy disdain, saying that Bush may be on their turf, but that he continues to clutch his conservative, free-market principles with little regard to the radically changed political terrain he faces.

"Democratic displeasure stemmed from both the substance of the proposals Bush laid out and the way he did it: Fully formed, without prior consultation and without an acknowledgment of who controls Capitol Hill. If White House officials want to work with Democrats to reach a compromise, then take credit, that would be fine, Democrats said yesterday, before the speech. But they blanched at being dictated to on policies vital to their constituents."

Robin Toner and Robert Pear write in the New York Times: "President Bush delivered a domestic agenda to Congressional Democrats on Tuesday that was, in large part, modest and a reiteration of past proposals. Where he did break ground -- on health care -- his initiative was quickly dismissed by leading Democrats and seemed unlikely to form the basis of bipartisan action."

On Energy

Edmund L. Andrews and Felicity Barringer write in the New York Times: "It was the second year in a row that Mr. Bush made 'energy security' a focal point of his State of the Union address, but his proposals on Tuesday were modest, and perhaps less achievable, than those he made a year ago when he said the nation was 'addicted to oil.'"

Richard Simon, Elizabeth Douglass and John O'Dell write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's proposals to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years include more specific and ambitious new goals than in previous White House statements, but they also appear to rely on assumptions about energy markets, politics and technology that some experts say are debatable, and include some apparent contradictions."

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post about the fine print of Bush's energy proposals.


June Kronholz and Sarah Lueck write in the Wall Street Journal that Bush and Democrats are closer together on immigration than Bush and Republicans -- but that doesn't mean they're in agreement.

"Mr. Bush and congressional Democrats agree on the outlines of a bill, but they are far apart on details. Both agree on helping employers fill jobs with temporary workers. Without that, they say, the U.S. economy will remain a magnet for illegals. But the president insists those workers must eventually leave, a key demand of conservatives who fear the growing Hispanic population is undermining American culture. Generally, Democrats want to let them stay and eventually become citizens."

That strikes me as a pretty huge difference.

The TV Critics

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post that "the speech was workmanlike and the presentation presentable."

James Poniewozik blogs for Time: "Much of the punditry leading up to the speech had said President Bush would not be delivering a 'laundry list' of proposals. It sure sounded like one to me. Ethanol, health care, Social Security, balancing the budget, school choice, energy independence, earmark reform, Hizballah, climate change, the surge. (No mention of 'New Orleans' or 'Katrina,' though. Glad that's all fixed!) That's not a laundry list? Maybe I don't have a big enough wardrobe."

Poniewozik also asked what was up with Bush calling attention to Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of the Baby Einstein company? "Huh? . . . Clearly she's a canny businesswoman and believes in her product. But what did Baby Einstein do, other than convince nervous yuppie parents that it was educational to buy mesmerizing video-crack-for-babies--replete with product placements--by vaguely linking them to art, literature and questionable research on the brain-building benefits of classical music for infants?"

Spin Zone

Among the vignettes from William Douglas, Ron Hutcheson and Maria Recio of McClatchy Newspapers: "The White House spin machine cranks up hours before President Bush appears before Congress on State of the Union night. A human traffic jam formed at the White House gate Tuesday afternoon as journalists lined up for briefings on the president's address.

"The A List: network anchors and Sunday talk show hosts, including Brian Williams of NBC, Bob Schieffer of CBS, Brit Hume of Fox and Tim Russert of NBC. They got to see a 'very senior administration official' - also known as President Bush.

"The B List: columnists William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and other opinion writers. They sat down with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten.

"The C List: the White House press corps. They spent time with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, press secretary Tony Snow, domestic adviser Joel Kaplan and White House counselor Dan Bartlett."

Webb Watch

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post that in his Democratic response, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) "accused the president of taking the country into Iraq 'recklessly' and forcing it to endure 'a mismanaged war for nearly four years.'

"'Many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary; that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war against terrorism; and that invading and occupying Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable,' Webb said. . . .

"On the economy, he described a growing divide between rich and poor during the Bush presidency. 'In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table,' he said."

Here's the text of Webb's address.

Jonathan Alter blogs for MSNBC: "Something unprecedented happened tonight, beyond the doorkeeper announcing, 'Madame Speaker.' For the first time ever, the response to the State of the Union overshadowed the president's big speech. Virginia Sen. James Webb, in office only three weeks, managed to convey a muscular liberalism-with personal touches-that left President Bush's ordinary address in the dust."

Lame Duck Watch

MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell yesterday asked White House spokeswoman Dana Perino if Bush is a lame duck. Perino's response: "The president is never going to be a lame duck -- he's commander in chief at a time of war."

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive