It's going to be tough for White House reporters to sustain the level of intense distrust they have displayed at yesterday and today's White House press briefings. During Monday's session, the reporters lambasted press secretary Scott McClellan for (a) having made what appears to be false statements in the past when he claimed Karl Rove was not involved in the Plame/CIA leak and (b) for refusing to answer any questions related to those past statements or the recent news that Rove had told Time's Matt Cooper that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA officer, (See my firsthand account below). And on Tuesday they returned with essentially the same questions and the same disgust. Once more, McClellan wouldn't touch a single query, claiming yet again that he could not discuss anything related to the Rove scandal while there was an "ongoing investigation." He also declined to answer when a reporter asked if the White House has a "credibility problem." Pressed on this--he had to be pressed to defend his and the White House credibility?--McClellan said, "The president is a very straightforward and plainspoken person, and I'm someone who believes in dealing in a very straightforward way with you all, as well, and that's what I've worked to do." Yet there was no straightforwardness in the briefing, as McClellan continued to repeat the mantra that the White House cannot address the Rove matter while an investigation is underway.
The reporters were not buying this dodge. Certainly, McClellan could reaffirm the previously made pledge that anyone involved in the Plame/CIA leak would be booted out of the administration. Such a statement would not hinder the investigation, but it would be bad news for Rove. And George W. Bush also stuck to the say-nothing strategy. After he met with the prime minister of Singapore, reporters asked him if he would still fire whoever leaked information on Valerie Wilson. He refused to answer and smiled awkwardly.
This stonewalling may work. There were fewer questions about the Rove scandal at Tuesday's session than Monday's; the indignation was high but perhaps not as high as the previous day. In a way, that is natural. White House aides know that the press corps cannot maintain the same degree of interest and passion in a story like this if each day there is nothing new to cover or say. How many times can you ask a reality-denying press secretary the same question? Eventually either the reporters will tire of hitting their head against McClellan's brick wall or some other story will emerge (a Rehnquist resignation?) that will demand their attention. At the White House, aides are probably saying to each other--and to McClellan--just make it through one day at a time. One day at a time. The sun will come out tomorrow. We're stronger than they are. We will survive. We will survive.
It's hard to argue with such tactics as tactics. After all, telling the truth would probably not help Rove and the White House. And if McClellan tried to counter the bad news with spin--concocting too-clever explanations for Rove's actions--he would open the door to questions from the press. Better to pretend nobody's home and hope they stop pounding on the door.
The spin job has been delegated to others. Foremost among them is Ken Mehlman, chief of the Republican Party. Shortly after McClellan finished saying nothing, Mehlman was on CNN, speaking with Wolf Blitzer. It was a rather brazen performance, even by party chieftain standards. Asked about Rove and the leak, he proclaimed that "what's so unfortunate" is that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean "would follow the angry left and MoveOn.org" by slamming Rove. Yes, that's the real problem at hand. Repeatedly, Mehlman decried the "unprecedented partisan smear campaign" being waged against Rove. He maintained that when Rove spoke to Matt Cooper and said Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA, Rove was merely discouraging Cooper from writing "a false story." What a gent. But I cannot find the part of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 that says it's fine to reveal the identity of a US intelligence officer as long as you're helping a journalist not make a mistake. And it's wrong for Mehlman to claim that Rove was helping Cooper when Rove told Cooper, according to that infamous email, that Wilson's wife had "authorized" Wilson's trip to Niger. Conservative critics of Wilson have tried to make Valerie Wilson's role in her husband's trip an issue, but the record shows she did not "authorize" the trip. Rove's aim was not to assist a member of the Fourth Estate; it was to undermine Wilson's account of his trip.
Mehlman insisted that Rove did not leak classified information. Well, how does he know what Rove did in addition to talking to Cooper? And is the employment status of a CIA NOC--that is, someone who has nonofficial cover, as Valerie Wilson did--not classified information? Blitzer asked Mehlman if Mehlman had attended White House meetings on how to deal with Joseph Wilson. Mehlman replied with a lawyerly, "I don't recall those meetings occurring." And when Blitzer inquired if he had been called before the grand jury, Mehlman borrowed a line from McClellan: "I'm not going to comment on the specifics of this investigation." Think about this: Mehlman is on television defending the White House, but he won't say whether he's part of the controversy. At that point, Blitzer should have said to him, "If you cannot tell us whether you are involved or not in this investigation--as a witness or as a target--why should we believe anything that you say? And we're not going to continue this interview unless you fully reveal your role and interest in this." But Blitzer didn't. Still, this exchange was illuminating. It demonstrated that on the Rove leak even the spin eventually turns into stonewalling. I wonder why that is.
© 2005 David Corn