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.
Fleischer, trailed by superlawyer Bob Barnett, entered the courtroom at noon with a little less hair on top and a more expensive suit than he had when he departed the briefing room four years ago. In four hours on the stand, he talked his way out of several factual jams.
Jeffress seemed to have Fleischer cornered with grand jury testimony in which Fleischer appeared to say, falsely, that a confidential report on Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger for the CIA mentioned Wilson by name. But Fleischer rallied, providing the jury with not one but four explanations: (1) "I haven't read the entire document." (2) "If I read it and it doesn't include his name the context is clearly Ambassador Wilson's report." (3) "Unless it's in the blacked out area I cannot see." And (4) "It may not have his name verbatim."
Jeffress asked Fleischer if Bartlett had been talking to him when he said, aboard Air Force One, that Plame was the one who sent Wilson on the trip to Niger.
"He said it out loud," Fleischer answered.
"He was talking to you?"
"He said it out loud and I heard him," Fleischer repeated.
Why didn't Fleischer react to Bartlett's statement? "I was sitting in my chair trying to read a document."
When Jeffress expressed some skepticism on this point, Fleischer explained: "You can get interrupted by so many things at the White House."
Under the prosecutor's questioning, Fleischer delivered a damning account of Libby's actions, saying how the former aide to Vice President Cheney disclosed Plame's identity, along with an intimation that "this was kind of newsy." When Fleischer mentioned that Plame was "covert," Jeffress shouted an objection.
"Whatever her status was, that was totally irrelevant," the judge told the jury. A minute later, Fleischer repeated the allegation the judge had just disallowed.
Jeffress knew it would be a challenge to undo the damage Fleischer did to his client, particularly because, as he put it, Fleischer has "had a lot of practice" under hostile questioning.
Fleischer did not disappoint. Jeffress tried to get him to say which reporter questioned national security adviser Condoleezza Rice at a briefing. "I wouldn't know," Fleischer said. Jeffress asked why Rice was unaware of Wilson's trip even after it was reported in the press. "There was something in the air that spring," Fleischer explained.
Finally, Jeffress entered into the record a kind note Libby wrote to Fleischer on the press secretary's last day. Libby smiled as Fleischer read it. But Fleischer just stared straight ahead. "This is one of 20 to 40 letters I received on my last day in a big bound book," he said.