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."
McClellan delivered a nearly verbatim response to CBS's John Roberts, so NBC's David Gregory tried to provoke him, asking: "Did Karl Rove commit a crime?"
"This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation," a pained McClellan repeated. After dodging some follow-up questions, he tried to quiet Gregory by saying, "Let me finish."
Gregory almost shouted back: "No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything."
ABC's Terry Moran tried next, observing that Rove "has essentially been caught red-handed peddling this information."
McClellan repeated his mantra. "Ongoing criminal investigation," said he.
The spokesman gave a substantive answer to only one question, saying prosecutors asked the White House in 2003 to stop making public comments on the case. But that only made matters worse, because Bush himself continued to talk about the leaks in 2004. When this inconsistency was pointed out, McClellan clammed up, saying: "You can keep asking [questions], but you have my response."
This incited the normally mild-mannered Richard Stevenson of the New York Times, who retorted: "We are going to keep asking them."
As the barrage continued, McClellan reached for a lifeline, calling on Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe, who reliably asks about Pakistan -- and did so again. A grateful McClellan offered Goyal an expansive response about how "free nations are peaceful societies."
McClellan tried for relief from Fox News, but Carl Cameron hit him with a tough one. "Does the president continue to have confidence in Mr. Rove?"
McClellan wouldn't say, so a mischievous April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks tried to get McClellan to say something -- anything -- about Rove. "Who is Karl Rove as it relates to this administration?" she asked.
"I think I've responded," McClellan answered.
The press secretary seemed grateful when questions turned to other subjects, such as the Supreme Court, the attacks in London or a withdrawal from Iraq. At other times, he seemed to plead for understanding from his questioners, saying they "know the type of person that I am."
McClellan is indeed well liked by the press corps. But that counts for little now, when recent events have shown that he either misled reporters deliberately or was duped by his White House colleagues. Ken Herman, the voluble Cox News White House reporter, even invoked Watergate days, asking if McClellan's previous statements are "all inoperative."
Finally, a merciful Steve Holland of Reuters called an end to the interrogation. As McClellan turned to depart, CNN's Bob Franken asked if he could have one more question. McClellan paused, but Franken, reconsidering, waved the spokesman off.
"It's not worth it," he said.