Free-Fall for the Fall Guy
Minutes after Scooter Libby's guilty verdict was read, Pat Fitzgerald did his best Eliot Ness impression as his prosecution team marched, Untouchables-style, across the federal courthouse plaza under a perfect blue sky. But it didn't take long for the clouds to roll in.
A reporter asked Fitzgerald if he still believed, as he had said in court, that there is a "cloud over the White House." The sunny victor turned slightly overcast at this memory and declined to say whether the gloom had lifted. "By Mr. Libby obstructing justice and lying about what happened, he had failed to remove the cloud," Fitzgerald said. "And sometimes when people tell the truth, clouds disappear."
The cloud over the White House grew darker a few minutes later, when juror Denis Collins, standing in front of the same microphone, spoke of the "tremendous amount of sympathy" jurors had for the man they convicted. "It was said a number of times, 'What are we doing with this guy here? Where's Rove, where's -- you know, where are these other guys?' " Collins said. "We're not saying that we didn't think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of, but that it seemed like he was . . . the fall guy."
As a political matter, Libby's trial had long ago ceased to be about one man's guilt or innocence. Witnesses made it plain that at least three other administration officials had joined Libby in leaking the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, including top Bush strategist Karl Rove and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (whom jurors dubbed "Slick Willie"). Libby's conviction, and Collins's "fall guy" remark, only increased the determination of congressional Democrats to spread the blame throughout the White House.
Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, issued a press release titled, "The Fall Guy."
"Scooter Libby ended up being the fall guy," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in his statement.
Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, gave a quick news conference to assert that "the president and the vice president owe the country a much broader explanation of their own actions at this time."
Vice President Cheney, the ex-boss for whom Libby allegedly took the fall, respectfully disagreed. "I plan to have no further comment on the merits of this matter until these proceedings are concluded," he said in a statement. With Libby planning an appeal, that could keep Cheney silent for the rest of his term.
The fall guy himself was equally quiet. Just after noon in the sixth-floor courtroom, when the jury forewoman read the first guilty verdict, Libby briefly closed his eyes. While she read the other counts -- he was guilty on four of five -- Libby looked at his lawyer Ted Wells, who rubbed his chin. Libby's other lawyer, Bill Jeffress, exhaled deeply.
Libby's wife, Harriet Grant, was not as composed. In the first row of spectators, she hunched over and shook. A young member of Libby's defense team put his arm around her shoulders. After judge and jury left, Grant went over to hug her husband with a furious look on her face. Three reporters heard her say what sounded like, "We're gonna [expletive] 'em."
Libby maintained his stoic look as he walked out to the cameras with Grant and his lawyers. Wells uttered a mere 119 words and took no questions, prompting about 25 photographers, 15 camera crews and dozens of reporters to chase Libby back into the courthouse.
"Are you willing to go to prison to protect Vice President Cheney?" shouted NBC's David Shuster.