MSNBC: Tim, now that the CIA leak grand jury has finished its work and Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, has been indicted, what can you tell us about your role in this case? There have been published reports that Libby said he learned the CIA agent’s name from you. Did you appear before this grand jury? What you were asked and how did you answer?
Tim Russert: We were subpoenaed at NBC, and myself, in May of 2004. We fought the subpoena and lost.
On August 7, I sat down with the special counsel, under oath, not before the grand jury, and was asked if I was a recipient of the leak. The answer was no. I was asked whether I knew Valerie Plame's name and where she worked and whether she was a C.I.A. operative. And the answer was no. That was the extent of it. This is all confirmed on page 7 of the published indictment.
Mr. Libby had called NBC and me, as bureau chief, in July, not to leak information, but to complain about something he had seen on a cable television program. That was the extent of it.
It is interesting that both in his conversations with me and with Time magazine’s Matt Cooper and the New York Times’ Judy Miller, he was suggesting that he was learning information or sharing information for the first time, when we have seen published reports way back in June, he had been able to find information out from the vice president. The published indictment confirms this on page 12.
So clearly the special counsel has made a judgment that, when taking the comments and statements of Matt Cooper, and Judy Miller and myself, as opposed to Scooter Libby, he has decided Mr. Libby was not telling the truth.
MSNBC: What should we make of the indictment and resignation of Libby?
Russert: This is significant. It is the first time in 130 years a sitting White House official has been indicted - Orville Babcock, who worked for Ulysses S. Grant, was the last. So, it’s a big event.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was not indicted and still continues under investigation.
Now it will be quite interesting to see what happens with the Libby case. Will he try to take it to court? Will he seek a plea bargain? Many Republicans are obviously concerned that a trial of Scooter Libby, on this kind of information - about when he learned it and how he learned it and why he learned it - could, in effect, put the Iraq war on trial -- as Mr. Libby could put the vice president on trial in a symbolic way, as much as Mr. Libby. And put the entire Bush administration on trial in a symbolic way.
MSNBC: So, your sole contact with Scooter Libby in the period in question here, was he called to complain about a programming, something that was said or covered on one of NBC’s cable news programs.
Russert: Correct. And that was the extent of it. I immediately, obviously called to the president of NBC News, and shared the complaint - which is why it was memorable in my mind.
And to the notion that I somehow was the recipient of a leak, which wasn't the case, or that I had shared information that i did not know. The first time I heard of Valerie Plame and the fact that she was a C.I.A. operative is when I read Robert Novak's column the following Monday.
MSNBC: Does what is contained in this five-count indictment collide on its face with anything the vice president said to you at a later date, as a guest on your broadcast "Meet the Press"?
Russert: Well, I asked him in September of 2003 about Joseph Wilson. He said he did not know Joseph Wilson, and he went on to say he did not know who sent Joe Wilson to Africa or authorized the trip.
I do not know what the special counsel says the vice president told Scooter Libby in June, if anything. I only know what a publish report of that conversation said in the New York Times last week.
It would be unfair to make a judgment now. But clearly that program will be scrutinized.
But, as you know, it is not a crime to say misleading things on "Meet the Press" or other interview programs. It is a crime to say misleading or false things under oath.
MSNBC: We’ve been told CIA name leak grand jury investigation has caused “distractions” at the White House. Has it gone beyond that now, paralyzing the Oval Office and the White House?
Russert: Well, a Republican described it to me Thursday as “the week from Hell”.
I think President George W. Bush moved on Harriet Miers because he wanted to get that bad news out Thursday rather than let it drift for several weeks through confirmation hearings plus deal with any Grand Jury bad news.
They’re going to try to jumpstart, or restart, the second term of President George W. Bush next week -- there will be a new Supreme Court nominee and whoever is indicted would resign.
Many Republicans said to me they had hoped they could avoid a trial. That there’d be some kind of plea bargain, because they’re concerned that if there is a trial, it would not only be an individual, but the Iraq war would be put on trial on the television sets across America for the next four or five months.
We also have the Iraq war’s 2000th American death arrived at this week, home heating costs are going to go through the roof and the concern about the pandemic flu situation. There are real problems confronting this administration.
I think you’re going to see some new people brought in – some fresh blood, some fresh eyes. We have three years left in the second term of this presidency. It can’t be allowed to drift aimlessly by President Bush, if he, in fact, wants to be remembered as a president who did a good job.
MSNBC: This obviously affects the politicians and their parties, but what impact will this have on Americans? How Americans feel about what’s going on?
Russert: It will be interesting to see how they react to the Grand jury’s action.
I think how the president responds to that is important. Remember, it was George W. Bush, who in the campaign of 2000 said, “When I put my hand on the Bible I will restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office.”
People were looking at it in terms of an ethical vote – a post Clinton era vote if you will. Now, there’s concern of an indictment in the Bush administration, regarding national security.
MSNBC: Do you see Republicans bailing out on this administration? For the next three years, will this administration be really up against it trying to get anything through?
Russert: Their self-interest is always front and center. You saw it during Harriett Miers. Her nomination was defeated by the Republicans and not the Democrats. It was pulled because they didn’t have 51 Republican votes. It was bottom-line simple. The same with Social Security. That went nowhere because of the Republicans
And I think more and more, particularly on the war in Iraq, you’re going to probably see some real conflict between the president’s interest and congressional Republicans’ interest.
MSNBC: Friday’s Washington Post calls the Harriet Miers nomination one of the biggest political miscalculations of President Bush’s term. What do you think the White House has learned from this and how will they approve the next nominee? Will they pick another female jurist who’s names was bandied about before Harriet Miers was nominated or do you think all bets are off?
Russert: They could. There are several women jurists – Edith Clements, Edith Jones, Karen Williams -- and the list goes on.
I think what the president will have learned is, you have to send up someone who had impeccable credentials in terms of not only their conservative judicial philosophy but in terms of their judicial temperament and intellect. You just can’t have someone that is not making a strong impression on your own party.
There are 55 Republican senators and the president couldn’t persuade them to support his nominee.
MSNBC: How can Mr. Bush turn things around?
Russert: I can just tell you what Republicans have told me this whole week -- they learned from Ronald Reagan after he tried to come back after Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton after his impeachment. And that is you have to bring in fresh people, fresh ideas to try to refocus and reenergize the White House and say to the country, “We’re trying to start anew. We’ve made mistakes.” Acknowledge mistakes but also say, “We have three years left and we just can not be an administration second term that drifts aimlessly. There are real issues: Iraq, energy prices, heating fuel and so forth. It’s time to try to govern.”
MSNBC: On the energy problem, most Americans, hearing Thursday’s news about enormous oil company profits, must be going through the roof?
Russert: Right, because you stare at the pump and you see that little dial going $35, $40 and you hear, “There’s a world-wide shortage and refining is limited and costs have going up,” and you say, “Okay, fine.” Then you see Exxon make a 78% increase in profit and you say, “Wait a minute!”
MSNBC: How can the administration deal with that?
Russert: It’s painful. I think the president and the Republicans are going to have to step forward and start saying something publicly because they are going to be perceived as part of the problem - “in pocket with the Oil companies.”
I remember when John F. Kennedy took on the steel industry. It was a real high point of his presidency. If George W. Bush and the Republicans started taking on the oil industry, it would probably be pretty good politics.
MSNBC: Who will you be talking with Sunday, on Meet the Press?
Russert: We’re going to talk to some former White House chiefs of staff: Hamilton Jordon from Jimmy Carter, Leon Panetta from Bill Clinton, Ken Duberstein from Ronald Reagan and ask how they handled crises like Iran-contra and impeachment. And then we’ll have some wise people around the table – David Broder of the Washington Post, David Brooks of the New York Times and Judy Woodruff and William Safire.
All Sunday, on Meet the Press.