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Questions of Trust in the Press Room

White House spokesman Scott McClellan talked about trust but heard skepticism.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan talked about trust but heard skepticism. (By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The question came politely, almost sweetly. Toward the end of the White House daily briefing yesterday, USA Radio Network's Connie Lawn asked press secretary Scott McClellan if he had considered resigning.

McClellan said he had not. In fact, the spokesman added, "I feel pretty good."

And why shouldn't he?

After three weeks of telling the world that Harriet Miers was the best possible Supreme Court nominee because she is a woman who was not an Eastern Ivy Leaguer serving on the appellate bench, McClellan made the case yesterday that the second-best possible Supreme Court nominee is Samuel Alito -- an Ivy League-educated man from New Jersey who has been on the appellate bench for 15 years.

Worse, McClellan personally vouched for White House officials Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, saying that they had nothing to do with the leak of a CIA agent's identity and that anybody who did would be fired. Libby was indicted in the case on Friday, Rove has been identified as a leaker but remains on the job -- and McClellan says that, on advice of counsel, he can't say a peep about the whole thing.

Instead of explaining himself, McClellan appealed for understanding.

"I'm very confident in the relationship that we have in this room and the trust that has been established between us," the spokesman said, making his plea for "trust" thrice more. "This relationship is built on trust, and you know very well that I have worked very hard to earn the trust of the people in this room, and I think I've earned it."

President Bush tried a similar "trust me" defense of Miers, telling conservatives she would be sufficiently conservative because he said so. Conservatives didn't buy that, and Miers was withdrawn.

McClellan doesn't seem to be having any better luck getting the White House press corps to trust him. ABC News's Terry Moran informed McClellan that "we can't vouch for you" and said he couldn't "carry your water for you." Moran added: "There's been a wound to your credibility here. A falsehood, wittingly or unwittingly, was told from this podium."

NBC's David Gregory was no more trusting, telling McClellan that his credibility "may very well be on trial with the American public" and asking, "Don't you agree?"

"No," McClellan said, and when Gregory continued to demand an answer, the spokesman told him he was "rude" and "disrespectful."

Some were surprised, though, that the spokesman was treated as gently as he was. Two years ago, he categorically denied any involvement in the leak by Rove and Libby and said without qualification: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration." Both statements are now inoperative. But instead of an explanation or an apology, McClellan resorted to time-tested scandal defenses: "Our counsel's office has directed us not to discuss this" and "We are expected to focus on the people's business."

The Alito announcement was, in political parlance, a "page-turn" to shift attention from the leak probe. But the White House press corps, for the most part, didn't bite: Of the first nine questioners, six focused on Libby and Rove. Nor did the Supreme Court questions come as softballs. "Why did the president give up on diversity on the court?" asked ABC's Ann Compton. McClellan, in response to another question, disputed the notion that it had been Bush's "first priority" to pick a woman.

Bush had put additional pressure on McClellan yesterday by avoiding questions himself. Standing at 8 a.m. in the White House Cross Hall -- the same spot on which he delivered his final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein before the war -- Bush made it clear he anticipated a fight over the Alito nomination, demanding that "an up-or-down vote is held before the end of this year." Later, when Bush met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, reporters were shooed away without question time. When a query was shouted about whether Rove would be fired, Bush did not even turn his head.

The White House sent another signal of defiance in the afternoon, when it announced that Cheney counsel David Addington would replace Libby as Cheney's chief of staff. Addington was identified by his titlein the indictment -- and he was a principal author of a White House memo justifying aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects.

"Can you address the message that was sent today by the vice president?" Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times asked McClellan.

"It's always the president's prerogative to choose the team that best meets his needs for advancing his agenda," came the unresponsive response.

All other avenues exhausted, a questioner wondered whether it might be in the White House's interest to come clean about the leak, because Republican candidates up for election in 2006 are worried about "the cloud of suspicion which is still hanging over the White House."

"I think your question presumes many things," McClellan told the reporters, who, whatever their presumptions, had not presumed he would answer them.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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