Tim Russert appeared on Wednesday’s Today to discuss the Libby verdict. Unsurprisingly, anchor Meredith Vieira asked her co-worker no tough questions about his controversial role in the case. The NBC duo underscored how historic and how damaging the verdict was, with Russert asserting it will "connect with people in a large way." Then, in the strangest line in the interview, after blowing Libby’s conviction into the Trial of the Century, when asked about the verdict Russert said he "took no joy in it."
On Wednesday, attorney Victoria Toensing wrote an article for National Review Online suggesting Russert’s pretense that he didn’t know what lawyers did was a good reason for appeal: "The court prevented the defense from impeaching Tim Russert: The NBC anchorman, who has a law degree, testified he did not know a lawyer could not accompany a witness before the grand jury. The defense then exhumed three clips where Russert had said on the air that a lawyer cannot go into the grand jury with his client. The judge would not allow the jury to hear that other honorable people sometimes forget or misspeak when being grilled on the witness stand."
There’s also the charge that Russert filed a false affidavit claiming it was wrong to disclose details of his conversations with Libby, but even The New York Times reported on February 8 that’s not what he told the FBI:
Mr. Russert had said in an affidavit that it was a matter of journalistic principle to refuse to divulge his conversation with Mr. Libby. But Mr. Wells, who also displayed this affidavit on-screen, noted that when Mr. Russert was first reached by telephone by an F.B.I. investigator, weeks before the affidavit, he spoke freely about it.
But NBC viewers only saw Russert in his comfort zone, attacking the Bush administration, and then suggesting Karl Rove and Richard Armitage should be fired for leaking Plame's role in assigning her husband to Niger. MRC's Geoff Dickens made the transcript:
Vieira: "NBC's Tim Russert was the key witness for the prosecution in the Libby case. Tim, good morning to you."
Tim Russert: "Good morning, Meredith."
Vieira: "Let's start with political fallout. Libby is highest-ranking government official to be convicted of a felony since Iran-Contra back in the Eighties. How damaging is this politically for the White House, do you think, Tim?"
Russert: "Well it is significant for the reasons you just mentioned. It's been more than 130 years since a sitting White House official had been indicted. So it is quite an extraordinary event in that regard. The President and the Vice President both have said they will remain quiet until the appeals have been processed. What you saw today, Meredith, conservative outlets like the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, all calling for the President to pardon Scooter Libby. That will be an issue front and center for this White House."
Vieira: "Meanwhile Senator Harry Reid is putting pressure on the President to, to say that he will never pardon Scooter Libby."
Russert: "Absolutely and you heard a whole chorus of Democrats saying that yesterday. The Democrats try to do two things, put political pressure on the White House to publicly state the President would not pardon Mr. Libby and two, to try to put the Iraq war on trial. Trying to broaden it beyond Mr. Libby's credibility."
Vieira: "Well how will this affect the President's ability to, to push his agenda in Iraq, this verdict?"
Russert: "Well you know when you have a trial like this it's very difficult to engage the country in the nuances because it is very complicated but this morning when the headlines scream all across the country: 'Former Chief of Staff to Vice President Cheney Convicted.' 'Guilty,' 'Perjury,' 'Obstruction of Justice.' My sense is that will connect with people in a, in a large way."
Vieira: "You know one of the jurors that you just heard Tim, he, he said that several of the jurors actually felt bad for Libby, they felt he was a fall guy for others including his former boss, the Vice President. During the trial prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said and I'm quoting here, 'There is a cloud over what the Vice President did.' And in today's New York Times, Republican strategist Scott Reed was quoted saying, quote, 'The trial has been death by 1,000 cuts for Cheney. It's hurt him inside the administration. It's hurt him with the Congress, it's hurt his stature around the world because it has shown a lot of the inner workings of the White House. It peeled the bark right off the way they operate.' Is this the beginning of the end, do you believe, for the Vice President?"
Russert: "Well what was interesting in listening to the juror because he expressed an interest that the jury had been listening, personally, to Mr. Cheney. There was a suggestion by the defense that Mr. Cheney would testify. That never materialized. The President is on record saying that if anyone leaked information like this they would be dealt with. It appears the jury believed that Mr. Cheney gave Mr. Libby the information. As Kelly reported Mr. Armitage, Mr. Rove shared information with reporters and so the President now has to, at some time, come to grips with that and recognize that having made a commitment to deal with it how will he do that?"
Vieira: "Tim you are used to reporting on stories, not being the story but you were a key witness, if not the star witness for the prosecution in this case. What was your reaction to the verdict?"
Russert: "Well I don't take any joy in it Meredith and this has been a very difficult and, and, period because it's not what I'm comfortable doing. But the facts are very simple. When someone accuses me of something that's untrue I have an obligation to respond and set the record straight. When I am ordered to testify under oath I have an obligation to tell the truth, which is what I did. The jurors were extraordinary, those who have talked publicly. They said, very straightforward, that when Mr. Libby said he was surprised to learn about Valerie Plame from me they simply did not believe him. Those are the jurors, those are the ones who had to make this decision, not me."
Vieira: "Relieved it's finally over?"
Russert: "Yeah I am. I really am. It's not what I want to do. I love reporting stories and focusing on the news and not being part of it."
Vieira: "Alright Tim, thanks very much."
Russert: "Thanks, Meredith."