reporter's notebook

How The Scooter Libby Trial Presaged The Mueller Probe

SLUG: NA/LIBBY. DATE: June, 5, 2007 CREDIT: Katherine Frey / TWP. Washington, DC. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby sentenced to 30 months @ U.S. District Court -Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald leaves the courthouse Spe... SLUG: NA/LIBBY. DATE: June, 5, 2007 CREDIT: Katherine Frey / TWP. Washington, DC. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby sentenced to 30 months @ U.S. District Court -Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald leaves the courthouse Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald leaves the courthouse without commenting after I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison. EDITED BY: Nicole (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images) MORE LESS
April 25, 2018 3:40 pm

A recused attorney general. The appointment of a special counsel. Republicans furious with James Comey. A presidency under siege. Questions of whether a key aide in the inner circle might turn on the presidency. A get-out-of-jail-free card from the same bosses he’s protecting.

Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is starting to feel a lot like the Scooter Libby trial.

On Tuesday, TPM broke the news that Comey was using his old pal Patrick Fitzgerald as one of his attorneys.

That’s not the first time Comey has relied on his close buddy in a high-profile situation. And it’s the latest strange parallel between the ongoing investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election and the last special counsel probe, one that ended in a guilty verdict for Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide that would have sent him to jail if President George W. Bush hadn’t commuted his sentence. Just this month, Trump gave Libby a full pardon — a move many saw as a clear signal to his own lieutenants that if they don’t flip on him, he’ll protect them from jail time down the line, as well as a middle finger to Comey.

Both Comey and Fitzgerald were major players in the Libby drama, which centered around whether top Bush officials had intentionally leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame as vengeance for her husband’s public rebuke of the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq.

After Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation, to the consternation of many on the right (though no public tirades from Bush, unlike Trump’s frequent tweetstorms against Attorney General Jeff Sessions), the job fell to then-Deputy Attorney General Comey to pick a special prosecutor for the investigation.

He turned to Fitzgerald, then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois — and the godfather to one of his children.

Fitzgerald’s probe became the fixation of liberals hoping he’d take down the Bush White House, possibly indicting Karl Rove or even Cheney. That level of anticipation  earned his investigation the nickname of “Fitzmas” in left-wing media. But some progressives felt like they got coal when the only one to fall was Libby — and were furious when Bush decided to commute his sentence.

There are some parallels with those jail-time dynamics as well. Libby got caught in a lie, putting him behind bars. But he never turned on Cheney or Bush. And Bush was quick to commute his sentence, saving him from the worst of the punishment.

One big difference: During Libby’s actual trial, Fitzgerald focused nearly exclusively on the perjury and obstruction of justice, setting aside the larger questions of whether Bush or Cheney had authorized the leak of Plame’s name to columnist Robert Novack. Mueller’s investigation seems to be much more wide-reaching. While it’s unclear whether Paul Manafort or Michael Cohen might flip, Mueller has already turned a number of key witnesses, including Michael Flynn and George Papadapoulos. And while the accusations against the Bush White House were serious, they pale in comparison to what Mueller seems to be investigating.

And once again, Comey and Fitzgerald will be in the thick of it — this time on the witness side rather than as prosecutors.

History may not repeat itself exactly. But right now it feels like it’s Fitzmas in April.

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