Within minutes of “Scooter” Lewis Libby being convinced of four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice yesterday the questions began: is this political controversy going to end or to continue — and will President George Bush pardon Libby in the end?
The administration’s staunchest defenders put a full-court press to say how this case and the crime for which Libby was convicted didn’t matter. But if the jury’s reaction is any indication at the very least it means the Bush administration has crossed a solid boundary: it now has a fullfledged credibility gap and will be believed far less by the news media (and many Americans) in the future. Just look at this news report on the jury’s decision where a jury spokesman says the jury believed Libby was the “fall guy”:
Dennis Collins said that “a number of times” they asked themselves, “what is HE doing here? Where is Rove and all these other guys….I’m not saying we didn’t think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. It seemed like he was, as Mr. Wells [his lawyer] put it, he was the fall guy.”
He said they believed that Vice President Cheney did “task him to talk to reporters.”
Collins said, “some jurors said at one point, ‘We wish we weren’t judging Libby…this sucks.” More than once he said many jurors found Libby “sympathetic.”
Asked about Vice President Cheney not testifying, he said, “Having Cheney testifying would have been interesting.” And when the defense opened the trial by suggesting that Libby was scapegoated by the White House, “I thought we might get to see President Bush here.” But Collins said Libby not testifying was not such a big deal since they’d listen to nine hours of tapes of his earlier testimony.
It’s clear that reporters will be giving greater scrutiny to an administration that will now find out it will likely not get much of the benefit of the doubt. It’s statements will be increasingly questioned and examined. The verdict gives Vice President Cheney a virtual black eye. The Guardian:
The case laid bare the inner workings of a presidency under siege and the secretive world of Vice President Dick Cheney.
It showed the lengths to which Cheney went in early summer 2003 to discredit administration critic Joseph Wilson. The former ambassador’s assertions had cast doubt on the administration’s justification for having taken the country to war in Iraq. And the Libby case showed the president assisting Cheney in the leaked attacks on Wilson.
Libby, who was Cheney’s chief of staff, was found guilty on Tuesday of four of five counts of obstructing justice, lying and perjury during an investigation into the administration’s disclosure of the identity of undercover CIA official Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife.
The verdict “does great damage to the Bush administration,” said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University. “It undermines the president’s pledge of ethical conduct. But the most serious consequence is that it will raise questions about Cheney’s durability in office. It may be time for Cheney to submit his resignation.”
But don’t count on it. Bush in the past has repeatedly come to the defense of his vice president.
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.”
If there’s a big loser in this, it appears to be Cheney, who (unless his new illnesses eventually cause him to step down) now faces two years of constant and increased skepticism, his name being brought up at Congressional hearings, and becoming a “high concept” symbol of the administration’s ruthlessness in going after those with whom it disagrees.
Cheney issued a pro forma statement after the verdict:
â€œI am very disappointed with the verdict. I am saddened for Scooter and his family. As I have said before, Scooter has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service.
â€œSince his legal team has announced that he is seeking a new trial and, if necessary, pursuing an appeal, I plan to have no further comment on the merits of this matter until these proceedings are concluded.”
Political scientist Jeff Lomonaco, writing in the L.A. Times, looks at the consequences of this trial. Read it in full but here’s a small part of it:
Fitzgerald has just said that he does not expect to file any more charges and that the investigation is now inactive, barring any new information. That means that Fitzgerald has no intention of pursuing Cheney himself on any possible charges. Beyond that, however, given his constrained, literal-minded interpretation of the checks on his power…. and his immunity to public opinion, Cheney’s own response to a Libby conviction and the cloud of suspicion over him is likely to be…nothing. So, putting aside entirely the larger questions about Cheney’s follies past and present and whether he is, in Josh Marshall’s intemperate if memorable phrase, “a screw-up and a moron of historic proportions” the question is: will there actually be any consequences for Vice President Cheney himself from the facts that have been revealed and the trial and conviction of his main advisor for obstructing an investigation that focused, to no small extent, on Cheney’s own role in directing Libby to leak Plame’s identity to reporters? The question, I presume, goes to Congress if it goes anywhere.
But Collinsâ€™ revealing comments illustrate how difficult it was for the jurorsâ€”and perhaps members of the publicâ€”to distinguish the relatively narrow questions in the Libby trial from the much larger issues about Iraq war intelligence and White House conduct that have swirled around the CIA leak case from the beginning.
The connection between Libbyâ€™s case and the larger political battles over Iraq is one reason why the verdict is likely to plague the White House for some time.
So look for a shift — for the legal matter to possibly become a Congressional matter, which means a political matter. And look for the conventional wisdom about Cheney begin to change on the part of the media. If reports are to be believed, the jurors seemed to feel that Mr. Cheney got away with it. It’s likely some reporters may agree.
So if Cheney ever got a free or — or even discounted — ride from the news media, those days are likely over.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.