The unflappable Ari Fleischer?

If you'd spent nearly three years defending George W. Bush, you'd be pretty good on cross-examination, too.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 29, 2007 8:51PM (EST)

Scooter Libby defense lawyer William Jeffress has spent much of the afternoon trying to chip away at the credibility of Ari Fleischer. It wouldn't seem to be a particularly difficult task: As White House press secretary, Fleischer dissembled on everything from Iraqi WMD to the president's views on nation building to the threats that weren't made against Air Force One on 9/11.

But on the more narrow matter at issue today -- what Libby told Fleischer over lunch in the White House mess on July 7, 2003 -- Jeffress hasn't yet landed much of a punch. Fleischer testified earlier today that Libby told him during that lunch that Joseph Wilson had been sent to Niger by his wife and that Wilson's wife worked in the counterproliferation division of the Central Intelligence Agency. If the jury believes Fleischer, his testimony is a major blow for Libby, who said, in sworn testimony before the grand jury, that he first learned about Wilson's wife from Tim Russert three days later.

Jeffress hasn't accused Fleischer of making up the lunch conversation, exactly, but he has tried mightily to nibble around at the edges. Fleischer hasn't given much ground, leaving Jeffress' inquiries to land with dull thuds rather than the explosions he might be intending.

Jeffress seized on the fact that Fleischer had said he thinks -- rather than he knows -- that Libby used Valerie Plame's name during their lunch. "That's what you say, 'I think,' on the name." Yes, Fleischer said: "I said 'I think.'" You don't know for certain? "Absolute certainty? No."

Jeffress noted that Fleischer had pronounced Plame's name two different ways in his grand jury testimony -- once as if it rhymed with "flame," another time as if it were pronounced "Plaw-may." Doesn't that suggest that Fleischer first learned of Plame's name by reading it somewhere rather than by hearing someone say it? No, Fleischer said, explaining that while it mattered to him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA -- he thought it helped back up his claim that the Office of the Vice President hadn't sent Wilson to Niger -- he really didn't care what her name was.

Jeffress noted that Fleischer testified that he had talked with Libby about the Miami Dolphins during their lunch. In what seemed like an attempt to prove that Fleischer didn't really have such a clear independent memory of the discussion, Jeffress asked Fleischer to read a "goodbye and good luck" letter he received from Libby a few days later -- a letter in which Libby mentioned their mutual affection for the Dolphins. Jeffress didn't follow up, apparently thinking that he'd made whatever point he meant to make. Maybe he had, but the result was more lightning bug than lightning.

Jeffress reminded Fleischer of a conversation he had with NBC's David Gregory in which Gregory said it was too bad that Fleischer had to deal with the controversy over the "16 words" in Bush's State of the Union address during his last week as White House press secretary. Fleischer told Gregory that it was all the same to him -- that if it hadn't been "this crap" it would have been "some other crap." Didn't Fleischer call Gregory and ask him not to quote him on that? Yes, Fleischer said. Why was that, Jeffress asked. "Because," Fleischer said, "I don't think press secretaries should go around using that word."

It might be too much to say that Fleischer is unimpeachable, but a man who spent two and a half years defending George W. Bush is a man who can handle himself on cross-examination -- especially when he's sporting the well-dressed, well-fed look of a corporate communications consultant and packing a grant of immunity in his pocket.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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