Spokesman Holds Tongue During Intense Grilling
On the north lawn of the White House yesterday afternoon, gardeners were taking a chain saw and wood chipper to some tree branches. Inside the briefing room, reporters were taking press secretary Scott McClellan to the woodshed.
It was journalists' first chance to grill McClellan on camera since coming to the conclusion that he had misled them 18 months ago when he said President Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, had nothing to do with the unmasking of a CIA operative. The recipients of McClellan's bum steer were furious -- hectoring him more than questioning him.
"This is ridiculous!"
"You're in a bad spot here, Scott."
"Have you consulted a personal attorney?"
The 32-minute pummeling was perhaps the worst McClellan received since he got the job two years ago. His eyes were red and tired. He wiggled his foot nervously behind the lectern and robotically refused to answer no fewer than 35 questions about Rove and the outing of the CIA's Valerie Plame. Twenty-two times McClellan repeated that an "ongoing" investigation prevented him from explaining the gap between his past statements and the facts.
In September 2003, McClellan said that anybody found to be involved in the Plame unmasking "would no longer be in this administration." He said that any suggestion of Rove's involvement was "ridiculous." But in recent days, Rove's lawyer and an internal Time magazine e-mail confirmed that Rove told Time that the wife of administration critic and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was with the CIA.
This produced a frenzy in the briefing room yesterday, where McClellan's long opening statement about the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre did not distract the reporters.
The Associated Press's Terry Hunt led off. "Does the president stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak of a name of a CIA operative?"
McClellan, wearing a gray suit and heavy makeup, delivered the first of many demurrals. "While that investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment," he said.
Hunt, expecting this, pressed: "I wasn't actually talking about any investigation."
"Yes," McClellan allowed, "but this question is coming up in the context of this ongoing investigation."