Stonewalled at the White House


I advise all students of political speech to read the transcript of the press briefing conducted by White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Monday. It was a smorgasbord of stonewalling. He entered the White House press room at 1:00 p.m., his eyes darting about, and started off by reading a statement from President Bush on the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica.

Then the subject changed. Rather abruptly. Reporter after reporter asked McClellan about Karl Rove and the news -- broken by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek -- of a July 11, 2003 email written by Time's Matt Cooper that noted that Cooper had spoken to Rove on "double super secret background" and that Rove had told him that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's "wife… apparently works at the agency on wmd issues." The email is proof that Rove leaked to a reporter information revealing the CIA employment of Valerie Plame (a.k.a. Valerie Wilson).

This puts Rove and the White House in a pickle. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, says that Rove did not mention Valerie Wilson's name to Cooper. But this is a rather thin defense. (I explain why here, and I also note why George W. Bush, if he takes his own rhetoric seriously, has no choice but to dismiss Rove.) But legal and criminal difficulties aside, the email is undeniable evidence that Rove leaked national security information to a journalist to discredit a critic (Joseph Wilson). How does that square with White House policy as it has been previously stated? Well, it doesn't. And the journalists in the White House press room knew that. Many had a list of previous McClellan statements at the ready. I was there, and I had a list, too. Here are some of the past White House statements I had collected.

On September 29, 2003, Scott McClellan said of the leak (which first appeared in a Bob Novak column on July 14, 2003):

That is not the way this White House operates. The president expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. No would be authorized to do such a thing.
Asked then about the allegation Rove had been involved in the leak, he said,
Well, I've made it very clear that it was a ridiculous suggestion…. It is simply not true…. And I have spoken with Karl Rove.
He also said that the White House would not stand for such conduct:
If anyone in this administration was involved in [the leak], they would no longer be in this administration.
On October 1, 2003, McClellan reiterated the White House position:
The president certainly doesn't condone the leaking.
And he said of Rove:
I made it very clear that he didn't condone that kind of activity and was not involved in that kind of activity.
On October 7, McClellan noted that prior to previously telling the press that Rove and two other White House aides -- National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- were not involved in the leak, he had spoken to each of the three and determined they had not been part of the Plame/CIA leak:
I had no doubt of that…but I like to check my information to make sure it's accurate before I report back to you, and that's exactly what I did.
How could McClellan defend such a record? His strategy was clear: don't even try. When the reporters began firing Rove-related queries at him, he refused to answer any of them. The first query came from Terrence Hunt of Associated Press: Does Bush stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in the Plame/CIA leak? McClellan replied that "while the [leak] investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment on it." Hunt tried again: "Excuse me, but I wasn't actually talking about any investigation. But in June 2004, the president said that he would fire anybody who was involved in this leak…. And I just wanted to know, is that still his position."

McClellan would not say: "We're not going to get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation." He claimed that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had "expressed a preference to us" that the White House not comment on the matter. (I later called Fitzgerald's office and asked it to confirm whether Fitzgerald had made such a request. A spokeswoman for Fitzgerald said he would not have any comment regarding any part of the investigation. "Not even to back up what the White House said?" I asked. "No," she replied.)

Next up in the press room was John Roberts of CBS News. He asked if McClellan was contradicting himself since he had freely discussed the matter in the fall of 2003 when he claimed it was "ridiculous" to believe Rove had been involved in the leak. McClellan said, "I appreciate the question." (That was clearly not the truth.) He went on: "I remember very well what we previously said, and at some point would be glad to talk about it, but not until after the investigation is complete."

NBC's David Gregory than piped up: "Did Karl Rove commit a crime?" Again, McClellan went to Index Card No. 1: "this is a question relating to an ongoing investigation, and you have my response related to that investigation." Did McClellan stand by his previous statements? No answer. A frustrated (justifiably) Gregory noted, "Scott, I mean, just -- I mean, this is ridiculous. The notion that you're going to stand before us after having commented with that level of detail and tell people watching this that somehow you decided not to talk. You've got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium, or not?" McClellan: "There will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time."

That was for sure. Other reporters took similar swings at McClellan. He just stood there, counting the minutes, perhaps silently trying to convince himself that he was in his happy place and that he was not being beaten into a pulp. One reporter asked when Fitzgerald had requested the Bush White House not to talk about the investigation. McClellan said the request came in the fall of 2003. A-ha, one reporter said; Bush spoke about the leak investigation in June 2004 and renewed his pledge to fire anyone involved. Had Bush violated the White House policy against speaking about the probe? "You have my response," McClellan said. Of course, the reporter did not.

Carl Cameron of Fox News asked if Bush continues "to have confidence in Mr. Rove?" McClellan wouldn't even touch this down-the-middle pitch: "Again, these are all questions coming up in the context of an ongoing criminal investigation. And you've heard my response on this." And when another reporter asked McClellan to describe the importance of Rove to the Bush administration, he replied, "Do you have questions on another topic?"

By the time my turn came, I realized I was not going to be able to cause any crack in the wall. But I had to try, and I attempted to slightly redefine the issue. I noted,
There's a difference between commenting publicly on an action and taking action in response to it. Newsweek put out a story, an email saying that Karl Rove passed national security information on to a reporter that outed a CIA officer. Now, are you saying that the president is not taking any action in response to that? Because I presume that the prosecutor did not ask you not to take action, and that if he did, you still would not necessarily abide by that; that the president is free to respond to news reports, regardless of whether there's an investigation or not. So are you saying that he's not going to do anything about this until the investigation is fully over and done with?
In other words, how about forgetting the crime and focusing on the leak? He responded,
Well, I think the president has previously spoken to this. This continues to be an ongoing criminal investigation. No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States. And we're just not going to have more to say on it until that investigation is complete.
But Bush has not said what he intends to do about Rove now that there is public evidence that Rove leaked information on Valerie Wilson. (And if Bush wants to get to the bottom of this, shouldn't he just whistle Rove into his office and ask, "Karl, what gives?") So I pushed on:
But you acknowledge that he is free, as president of the United States, to take whatever action he wants to in response to a credible report that a member of his staff leaked information? He is free to take action if he wants to?

But there would be no such acknowledging. McClellan said,
Again, you're asking questions relating to an ongoing investigation, and I think I've responded to it.
He hadn't. But then why should my question receive special treatment this day.

Other Rove-related questions were hurled at him. He refused to touch a single one. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post took a stab as well:
Scott, I think you're [being] barrage[d] today in part because we -- it is now clear that 21 months ago, you were up at this podium saying something that we now know to be demonstratively false. Now, are you concerned that in not setting the record straight today that this could undermine the credibility of the other things you say from the podium?
McClellan showed no such concern:
Again, I'm going to be happy to talk about this at the appropriate time. Dana, you all -- you and everybody in this room, or most people in this room, I should say, know me very well and they know the type of person that I am. And I'm confident in our relationship that we have. But I will be glad to talk about this at the appropriate time, and that's once the investigation is complete.
Everybody in the room -- and out of it -- should review McClellan's exchange with the reporters to see how he and this White House do business. After what transpired, no reporter should take McClellan's word at face value (if they ever did). Moreover, the larger issue is not his -- and Bush's -- credibility, but the wrongdoing committed by a senior White House official and the apparent lack of a response from the White House. (And remember, Bob Novak's column outing Valerie Wilson as a CIA officer cited two unnamed senior Bush administration officials.)

The White House is adopting a familiar media strategy: say nothing, don't fuel the story, wait for it to pass -- and ignore the substance of the issue. Bush aides must be hoping that the media lose interest and are not provided any further reasons to headline this story. They are probably also hoping that the Democrats fail to create the sort of political storm that would compel journalists to continue to give the Rove scandal prominent play.

Maybe their stonewall will hold. And what's the alternative? Tell the obvious truth and admit that Bush's most important adviser committed an act that Bush has said warrants dismissal? But what's the percentage in that? With McClellan providing no answers related to the Rove scandal, the question is whether the White House's we-can't-comment stance will allow it to dodge yet another troubling and inconvenient reality.

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