Fleischer Handles Questioning in the Usual Fashion

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

It's been almost four years since Ari Fleischer stepped down from the podium, but he has lost nothing off the old curveball.

Questioning the former White House press secretary in the Scooter Libby trial yesterday, defense lawyer William Jeffress Jr. asked if Fleischer had read a document Jeffress placed in front of him. "In a generic sense," Fleischer said.

Did President Bush visit Entebbe, Uganda? "I'm not sure of the spelling."

Did he work for White House communications director Dan Bartlett? "Nominally," Fleischer replied. "On paper, Mr. Bartlett had a box above me. . . . I wouldn't put it that way."

Thus did Libby's defense team learn what any reporter could have told them: The longer you question Fleischer, the less knowledge you take away from the experience. And Fleischer, protecting his own role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, was determined not to give even a kernel of fact to Libby's defense.

Jeffress asked when Fleischer's lawyers approached prosecutors seeking an immunity deal. "The only way I would know that is from any discussions I had with my lawyers," Fleischer answered.

Did the dispute over the outing of Plame cause tensions between the CIA and the White House? "In the context of the controversy of the week it was hard to tell what was attributable to one problem we had," Fleischer replied.

The responses evidently flustered Jeffress, who at one point stated that Iraq was "seeking Africa in Niger" when he apparently meant "uranium." The court reporter looked up quizzically. "What did I say?" Jeffress asked. Libby played with his pen.

With Fleischer avoiding answers, Jeffress had to strike deals with the prosecution to get basic facts into the record. This led the judge to instruct the jury that "the parties have agreed July 6 was a Sunday." A similar deal led to the judge's announcement that "Uganda is seven hours ahead of Eastern daylight time."

In lieu of cooperation, Fleischer addressed the jury as if it were a civics class, offering long and extraneous accounts of what it's like "when you're the press secretary and you deal with the press." In one instance, Fleischer lamented: "I remember after September 11 and I said we were attacked by al-Qaeda, one reporter said, 'Prove it.'

After Jeffress finished questioning him about a briefing transcript from 2003, Fleischer piped up: "Are we still on this document? Can I say one thing about it?"

The judge smiled. "Not unless there's a question," he said.

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