Tim Russert's testimony in the Libby trial has revealed some interesting fault lines among the commentariat: people who have no trouble believing that Libby lied to avoid embarrassment and save his job can't imagine that Tim Russert may have provided misleading evidence to the FBI and grand jury and lied to the trial jury in order to avoid embarrassment and save his job. [Slate/Seth Stevenson link]
Let me help. First, keep in mind that Russert v. Libby is not an either/or proposition - both of their stories may include a mixture of truth and lies.
However, Libby may be telling the truth about the Russert conversation while lying about other things. Consequently, Libby may be convicted of perjury or obstruction even if Russert's testimony collapses. (I mention this to resolve the odd dispute between Byron York and Arianna Huffington [link].)
So, to help those who cannot imagine that the most trusted man in news could be deceiving them now, let me paint a scenario in which Tim Russert makes some seemingly reasonable decisions which take him down a twisted path to his current predicament. This is strictly hypothetical; I certainly can not prove this to be true, nor do I allege that it is. However, I do predict that the defense will attempt to insinuate something like this in their closing argument.
An overview of this hypothetical vision of Russert's descent into dishonor:
1. Andrea Mitchell, Russert's subordinate and colleague at NBC News, gets a leak from one source suggesting that Wilson's wife was involved in sending him on his Niger trip. She shares this information with Tim Russert.
2. Tim Russert equivocates when the FBI asks him about Plame leaks in Nov 2003; he says he does not "know" that "Valerie Plame" was a "CIA operative" involved with her husband's trip, so he could not have asked that of Libby, but does not directly address whether he told Libby that a rumor was circulating that Wilson's wife was with the CIA and had a role in his trip. Russert rationalizes his little white lie by convincing himself that, since the investigators were looking for government officials who had leaked to reporters, his chat with Libby was a bit of a false trail.
3. When asked to give a deposition to the grand jury in June 2004, the stakes are clearly higher, but Tim Russert doubles down on his bet - he still wants to avoid a subpoena for himself or Ms. Mitchell, and he still thinks the government is looking for primary leakers; he does not realize that Fitzgerald is now conducting an investigation into Libby's perjury. And please don't tell me that Tim Russert would not mislead the investigators when he clearly filed an affidavit misleading the court.
4. When the indictment is announced in October 2005, Tim Russert faces a moment of crisis and conscience, since it is clear that he will be a star witness against Libby. Should the most trusted man in news signal that he has deliberately misled investigators for almost two years? That might mean subpoenas from the Special Counsel and a change in his job status; it certainly means that he won't be telling any more stories about the high principles espoused by Big Russ and the Catholic school nuns.
Or should he ride it out and see what the morrow brings? He can see from the indictment that Libby didn't present notes or emails supporting his side of the story, so Russert chooses silence over disgrace.
5. Libby goes to trial and Tim Russert is called to testify. He goes all in and completes his descent into dishonor by fully and firmly testifying to the story he had originally fudged a bit. The alternative, admitting that he had misled the investigators and the public while letting Libby twist in the wind, was just too ghastly.
And here we sit. Next week we may see whether Andrea Mitchell is willing to cover for him (more on that soon, but she has plenty of motive to have forgotten having an early Plame leak.)
When time permits, I plan to come back with Andrea's predicament, and point out the seemingly obvious - although Libby's overall story may be a fabrication, this particular detail - Russert told me about Plame - was not a detail Libby needed to invent in order to paint a useful deception.
Libby's story was that Russert reminded him on July 10; he then talked to Rove, who told him that Novak had the story of Wilson's wife armed with these two reminders, Libby then leaked to Miller and Cooper, sourcing it as reporter gossip.
That "reporter gossip" story works just as well if Libby simply sources it to Novak; the Russert detail added nothing to the legal fog bank he was allegedly trying to create.
Or, if Libby simply picked a reporter's name out of a hat, why pick Russert, with whom he had no relationship? Judy Miller had extensive contacts among the neocons who might want to debunk Wilson and was a likely leak recipient - why not insist that she leaked Plame to him on July 8? Why not say Novak told him directly, or that he heard it from David Sanger of the Times?
Instead, by odd luck Libby chooses at random a reporter with two colleagues, Gregory and Mitchell, who might have had the Plame leak. Too bad he wasn't such a lucky guesser with Iraq.
And do keep in mind - I can't even imagine proving this, nor do I have any particular reason to believe it is "true"; I am predicting that the defense will raise it in order to create reasonable doubt about Russert's veracity and accuracy.