Both Rove and Bartlett have already received trial subpoenas from Libby’s defense lawyers, according to lawyers close to the case who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. While that is no guarantee they will be called, the odds increased this week after Libby’s lawyer, Ted Wells, laid out a defense resting on the idea that his client, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, had been made a “scapegoat” to protect Rove.
Cheney is expected to provide the most crucial testimony to back up Wells’s assertion, one of the lawyers close to the case said. The vice president personally penned an October 2003 note in which he wrote, “Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the other.” The note, read aloud in court by Wells, implied that Libby was the one being sacrificed in an effort to clear Rove of any role in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joe Wilson. “Wow, for all the talk about this being a White House that prides itself on loyalty and discipline, you’re not seeing much of it,” the lawyer said.
An equally embarrassing conflict could emerge next week when former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer takes the stand. Fleischer has been one of the most mysterious figures in the case, making virtually no public comments about it since he left the White House in July 2003. In the past he has insisted he wasn’t even represented by a lawyer. But it emerged during court arguments this week that Fleischer originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privileges to avoid testifying and then only agreed to do so after he was given an immunity deal by Fitzgerald—an arrangement that normally requires extensive bargaining among attorneys. Fleischer’s testimony is critical to Fitzgerald’s case: as the prosecutor laid out this week in his opening statement, Fleischer has said that Libby told him over a White House lunch on July 7, 2003, that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and made a point of describing this information as “hush and hush.” Fitzgerald used that account to undercut Libby’s grand-jury assertion that he was surprised and “taken aback” just three or four days later when, he claims, Russert told him about Wilson’s wife. “You can’t learn something startling on Thursday that you’re giving out Monday and Tuesday of the same week,” Fitzgerald said. Fleischer has also testified that Bartlett also later told him about Wilson’s wife and, after hearing it from both Libby and Bartlett, the then-White House press secretary disclosed the information to NBC reporter David Gregory.
On its face, Fleischer’s account seems to contradict the repeated public assertions of his immediate successor, Scott McClellan, in October 2003 that nobody at the White House was in any way involved in the leak of Plame’s identity. It also potentially puts Bartlett, one of the president’s senior and most trusted advisers, on the hot seat. If Bartlett backs up Fleischer, it suggests he himself played a role in passing along radioactive information that triggered a criminal investigation that has plagued the White House for more than four years. If he contradicts Fleischer, it raises questions about the credibility of a man who was President Bush’s chief spokesman for the first two and a half years of his presidency. His lawyer declined to comment on what Bartlett will say.
But either way, it’s not a scenario that anybody at the White House can be looking forward to.
The person everyone had to protect and lie for was Karl Rove.
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. Seeking to rebut Fitzgerald’s contention that Libby had lied about his knowledge of Plame’s CIA employment in order to save his job with Cheney, Wells shot back: “Mr. Libby was not concerned about losing his job in the Bush administration. He was concerned about being set up, he was concerned about being made the scapegoat.”
According to Wells, the chief culprit, or at least the beneficiary of the plot was Rove, described by the defense lawyer as “the president’s right hand man,” whose survival was essential for the president’s re-election. As related by Wells, his client was so worried that Rove’s fate was taking priority over his that Libby went to his boss, Cheney, in October 2003 and complained: “I think people in the White House are trying to set me up. People in the White House are trying to protect Karl Rove.”
Well’s argument was both brilliant and complex-and perhaps difficult for non-news hounds on the jury to follow. But it 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.