Russert on Role as Witness: Better to Throw Grenades Than Catch Them

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Tim Russert, an unrelenting interrogator as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Friday it was painful having the tables turned on him by lawyers defending former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby against perjury and obstruction charges.

The day after Russert spent five grueling hours on the witness stand in Libby’s trial, the NBC newsman took questions in the much friendlier setting of an interview on the set of the “Today” show with his network colleagues. Asked how it felt to be on the other end of rapid-fire questioning, Russert said, “It’s a lot of easier to throw grenades than it is to catch them. I’ve got to tell you.

“Sitting in that witness box is very uncomfortable because on `Meet the Press’ or the `Today’ show, you have a chance to finish your thought and complete your sentence. That’s not the case in a court of law. The defense lawyer will say, `Yes or no, yes or no’ and you’re trying very hard to listen intently to the question to make sure you answer as precisely as possible,” he added. “Otherwise it can be played back the next day. … It’s not pleasant, I have to say.”

Russert said, though, he kept a mind a lesson learned in the 7th grade, that “if you tell the truth, you’ll live to remember one story, and that’s what I did.”

In the “Today” interview, Russert reiterated what he had said on the stand: he did not discuss the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson with Libby in a conversation they had in July 2003 and he said he did not at that time know about Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife, who was outed subsequently as a CIA operative.

“I did not know she worked at the CIA. I did not know any of that until the following Monday when I saw all in (newspaper columnist) Robert Novak’s column. … We simply did not know it. I wish we had.”

Russert did say he was “stunned” when he heard that Libby said he had learned Plame’s identity from him, saying, “I said that just can’t be. It’s impossible.” Russert steadfastly held to that line during cross-examination this week.

On Friday, he said that when he saw the Novak column a few days after the talk by phone with Libby, “I said, `Wow, that’s it. That’s an important story,’ and that’s when we began to report on it.”

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