Peter Baker, Meat Grinder for Bush

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In the NYT, Peter Baker presents his version of George Bush’s decision not to pardon Scooter Libby as the best pitch for his new book, Days of Fire, Bush and Cheney in the White House. Given that the piece is not at all newsworthy (and as I’ll show, Baker’s version of it is badly flawed), I suppose Baker thought that Bush’s refusal to fulfill Cheney’s request supports Baker’s contention that Bush, not Cheney, was the dominant player in the relationship.

One piece of evidence Baker provides to support that contention is this quote from Alan Simpson.

Cheney “never did anything in his time serving George W. that George W. didn’t either sanction or approve of,” said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming and a close friend of Cheney’s.

If Baker believes Simpson’s claim, however, then his entire reading of Cheney’s involvement in leaking Valerie Plame’s identity is wrong (and not just because he quotes Liz Cheney pretending PapaDick had no role in the leak).

Baker provides dialogue suggesting that Bush and certain lawyers — Baker identifies them as White House Counsel Fred Fielding and his Deputy William Burck — debated whether Libby was protecting Cheney.

“All right,” the president said when the lawyers concluded their assessment. “So why do you think he did it? Do you think he was protecting the vice president?”

“I don’t think he was protecting the vice president,” Burck said.

Burck figured that Libby assumed his account would never be contradicted, because prosecutors could not force reporters to violate vows of confidentiality to their sources. “I think also that Libby was concerned,” Burck said. “Because he took to heart what you said back then: that you would fire anybody that you knew was involved in this. I just think he didn’t think it was worth falling on the sword.”

Bush did not seem convinced. “I think he still thinks he was protecting Cheney,” the president said. If that was the case, then Cheney was seeking forgiveness for the man who had sacrificed himself on his behalf.

Baker implies that Bush’s conclusion — that Libby believed he was protecting Cheney — convinced himself it would not be ethical to pardon Libby based on Cheney’s insistence. (Note, whatever you and I were paying Burck, it was far too much, because his logic as portrayed here is pathetically stupid.)

That would imply that Bush believed — Burck’s shitty counsel to the contrary — that Cheney played some role in the leak.

But Alan Simpson, who truly does know Cheney well, says Cheney never did anything without either Bush’s sanction or approval. Which would imply that whatever Cheney did to leak Plame’s identity, he did with the approval of Bush.

Which brings us to the other gaping hole in Baker’s account (aside from his complete misunderstanding of the evidence surrounding the leak itself). Baker uses the word “lawyers” 11 times in this excerpt, including (but not limited to) the following.

In the final days of his presidency, George W. Bush sat behind his desk in the Oval Office, chewing gum and staring into the distance as two White House lawyers briefed him on the possible last-minute pardon of I. Lewis Libby.

“Do you think he did it?” Bush asked.

“Yeah,” one of the lawyers said. “I think he did it.”


At the time, Bush said publicly that he was not substituting his judgment for that of the jury. So how would he explain a change of mind just 18 months later? That was the argument Ed Gillespie, the president’s counselor, made to Cheney when he came to explain why he was advising Bush against a pardon. “On top of that, the lawyers are not making the case for it,” Gillespie told Cheney, referring to the White House attorneys reviewing the case for Bush. “We’ll be asked, ‘Did the lawyers recommend it?’ And if the lawyers didn’t, it’s going to be hard to justify for the president.”


The following Monday, Bush had his final, definitive meeting with the White House lawyers, ending any possibility of reconsideration. There would be no pardon for Libby. [my emphasis]

Lawyers lawyers lawyers. Baker emphasizes how important the counsel of Nixon’s old lawyer and his apparently half-witted deputy were to Bush’s decision, and he implies, with his description of which lawyers Ed Gillespie referred to, that those lawyers were limited to official White House lawyers.

Nowhere — at least nowhere in this excerpt — does Baker mention that Bush also consulted with his own lawyer, Jim Sharp, as reported by Time 4 years ago.

Meanwhile, Bush was running his own traps. He called Jim Sharp, his personal attorney in the Plame case, who had been present when he was interviewed by Fitzgerald in 2004. Sharp was known in Washington as one of the best lawyers nobody knew.


While packing boxes in the upstairs residence, according to his associates, Bush noted that he was again under pressure from Cheney to pardon Libby. He characterized Cheney as a friend and a good Vice President but said his pardon request had little internal support. If the presidential staff were polled, the result would be 100 to 1 against a pardon, Bush joked. Then he turned to Sharp. “What’s the bottom line here? Did this guy lie or not?”

The lawyer, who had followed the case very closely, replied affirmatively.

Yet neither Time then nor Baker now considered the implications of Bush consulting with the lawyer who knew what questions he got asked when Pat Fitzgerald interviewed the President.

Those questions would have included whether — as Libby’s grand jury testimony recorded Cheney as having claimed — the President declassified the information, including Plame’s identity, Cheney ordered Libby to leak to Judy Miller. They also would have included why — as the note above shows — Cheney almost wrote that “the Pres” had ordered Libby to stick his neck in a meat grinder and rebut Joe Wilson, before he cross out the reference to the President and used the passive voice instead. They would have also included questions about Bush’s public comments about rebutting Wilson in meetings. (I laid out these details in this post.)

Peter Baker pretends that Bush had no personal knowledge of the leak or — more importantly — of Fitzgerald’s reasons for suspecting Cheney ordered the leak. He somehow forgets that Bush consulted his own lawyer, along with Fielding and Fielding’s lackey, either to interpret what Libby did or, more likely, what implications pardoning Libby would have for his own legal exposure.

Which is pretty bizarre. While including these details might make Bush look like a self-interested asshole, they are the only details that make sense if — as Baker suggests with the Simpson quote — whatever Cheney did that required Libby’s protection, he did with Bush’s sanction.

13 replies
  1. scribe says:

    All this also leaves out the analysis which was presented contemporaneously to what the book author talks about, either here or over at TalkLeft, making clear what Bush’s lawyer Sharp doubtless told him: if Bush pardoned Libby, there was nothing to prevent Libby from being compelled to testify fully, completely and (this time) truthfully about everything which went on in leaking Plame’s identity and covering-up. He could not have invoked the Fifth Amendment because the pardon would have eliminated any chance of his being incriminated by his own testimony. And he would have to have given up Bush (whether sanctioner or director) and Cheney. Any other refusal to testify would have been a contempt and/or obstruction of justice. Any other lie would be a new one, not covered by the pardon.

    And the commutation was, as I wrote when the commutation was granted, the culmination of Libby blackmailing both Bush and Cheney. As I recall EW reporting then (or maybe at the time of the guilty verdict) Mrs. Libby was quite admant, sotto voce, to the effect that Scooter would never spend a day in jail or they’d be sorry. “They” apparently being Bush and Cheney. Libby made them his bitches.

    Frankly, if that moron writing the book had bothered to read my diary post linked above, he’d have had a far better framework to build his book around and a much better product than the crap he spewed forth.

  2. scribe says:

    @emptywheel: I knew I had and thought you had, but I’ll never know your archives as well as you do.

    IMHO, the underlying fact that a pardon would mean Libby could be made to talk was the #1 reason Bush didn’t give it to him. It would have been for me – regardless of whether I sat in the President’s chair or his lawyer’s. Which, of course, the author doubtless never even mentions. All that “loyalty” shit is so much shit.

  3. Ernie Souchak says:

    @person1597: You don’t understand, Scooter does not need a pardon, he and his lawyers have all they need to walk right into court and be exonerated. Ask yourself. Why aren’t they doing so?

    Remember, things are rarely what they seem to be.

  4. Teddy says:

    Baker writes of

    Cheney’s calm hand in the bunker that day

    which is not my recall of recent, contemporaneous narratives by others present, who witnessed Darth’s panicked, unauthorized shoot-down orders. I wonder whence cometh this “calm hand” characterization?

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The Simpson quote seems carefully to avoid two things: First, was Mr. Bush’s “approval” of Mr. Cheney’s actions fully informed? That is, was the approval specific? Or did the no doubt David Addington-drafted documents of approval (if any such written records exist) simply cover “all unspecified acts” performed by or at the behest of Mr. Cheney, “in accordance with the president’s wishes”? Second, was Mr. Bush’s purported approval ever before the fact, or was it always afterwards?

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    It is touching that Mr. Baker can, with a straight face, contend that Mr. Bush chose not to acquiesce in a demand by his soon-to-be-former Vice President because to do so would have violated Mr. Bush’s “ethical standards”.

  7. Ardant says:

    Those were some dark days. But the coverage by EW and interaction at FDL are days I will always remember and being a part of the relatively small community (at the time) was stimulating and comforting.

  8. Avattoir says:

    ‘ “I don’t think he was protecting the vice president,” Burck said.’

    That line could well have been said just that way.

    It makes more sense that it was said than not. It’s the sort of statement that’s most useful for everyone present to be able to recall being said, not least because it was actually said.

    Assuming it was said, it’s still ambivalent on whether Burck is in fact so naive, or so credulous, or so both, as to have said it while intending that it be received by the president at face value.

    (For FWIW, the idea that Fred Fielding would agree to having a dolt as his deputy seems … unlikely.)

    Two points:

    1. The phrase could have been, ‘I [positively] think that Libby did not lie to protect Cheney’.

    Strictly construed, that would mean something different from, strictly construed, what he did say (I still ‘assume’, all the usual problems with doing so fully in mind.)

    Saying it as ‘I don’t think’ could mean, ‘Speaking as DWHC, I hereby advise you, Mr President, that I have not put my mind to considering that question.’

    This might be better illustrated by using emphasis: ‘I DON’T think …”.

    2. Saying it as it appears in full could have been followed by, or could have been intended to convey, something alone this line:

    ‘Speaking as DWHC, I hereby advise you, Mr. President, that I have indeed put my mind to that question, and this is my considered opinion:

    – that Libby’s lies were motivated by his intention to protect you as president, and only incidentally Mr Cheney as vice-president.

    In arriving at this conclusion, I have considered, among other things, the following:

    – that Libby had two formal roles: assistant to you as president and legal counsel to Mr Cheney as the vice-president;

    – that the former role clearly renders his primary duty and fidelity to you as president; and

    – that the latter role was conditioned by and subservient to the former role.

    Corollary to that construction of priority, I also advise you, Mr. President, that the primary duty and fidelity of Mr Cheney, both as vice-president and also in the role in this Plame affair on which he executed pursuant to your orders, explicit or implicit, were and are to you as president.

    Thus, I am able to advise you, as president, of my conclusion that, as a matter of law, Libby lied primarily to protect, ultimately, you as president, and only incidentally to protect Mr Cheney as vice-president, regardless of Libby’s actual and other personal motivations for lying.’

    This, too, might be better illustrated by using emphasis: ‘I don’t think he was protected THE VICE-PRESIDENT.’

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