McClellan being pressed on leak case

White House spokesman had told media that no top White House officials were involved

November 13, 2005|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

WASHINGTON -- The questions fly his way day after day, sometimes with quite a zing.

Reporters have been pressing -- sometimes hammering -- White House press secretary Scott McClellan for answers to a growing list of questions surrounding the leak of a CIA officer's identity.

Invariably, his response is the same: This is a serious investigation. It's continuing. No comment.

But as the questions have become more pointed, McClellan has faced a buzz saw in the White House briefing room, in large part because he had assured reporters early in the inquiry that top White House officials were not involved in the leak case.

"There's been a wound to your credibility here," ABC correspondent Terry Moran bluntly told McClellan the other day. "A falsehood, wittingly or unwittingly, was told from this podium."

On Tuesday, he was pressed on whether Vice President Dick Cheney would take the refresher ethics course that the president has ordered.

"It's mandatory for all White House staff. That's who it's for," McClellan responded, a bit perturbed.

"And [Cheney's] considered staff?" a reporter asked.

"No, he's considered the vice president," McClellan said, never directly answering the question.

Clearly, McClellan has had better days at the front of the briefing room. Still, he bristles at any suggestion that he has been irreparably damaged.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I am someone who deals in a straightforward manner," he said in an interview, "and any assertion to the contrary would leave a false impression of who I am and what I've worked to earn."

His relationship with the White House press corps is built on trust, he said, and he says he has done his "part to earn and maintain that trust."

McClellan is a native Texan with deep political roots. His mother, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is running for governor, and his brother, Mark, a physician and an economist, oversees the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Scott McClellan came to the White House with President Bush as a deputy press secretary at the start of the president's first term in 2001. He was promoted two years later to replace Ari Fleischer, who left for the consulting business.

McClellan said he serves at the pleasure of the president and has no plans to move on.

Speaking for the White House -- in any administration -- has its ups and downs, bumps and bruises, said Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House.

"You end up being a pinata," Lehane said, recalling his work with the media during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the other bumps of the Clinton years. "I still have the scars.

"All of us had situations where at times we got bad information, and the test became how we reacted in the heat of those situations."

For McClellan, this rough patch goes back to the early days of the federal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative by syndicated columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003.

Plame's husband, Joseph C. WilSon IV, a retired diplomat who has challenged the president's rationale for the war in Iraq, had quickly pointed to the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis I. Libby Jr., and to Bush's longtime political strategist, Karl Rove, a deputy White House chief of staff.

McClellan told reporters that Libby and Rove had assured him that they were not involved in the leak.

Libby was indicted Oct. 28 by a federal grand jury on charges of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice in the case. Rove was not indicted, but his attorney, Robert Luskin, says he's still under investigation.

The indictment cites a senior White House aide -- "Official A," widely reported to be Rove -- who had discussed Plame with Novak. Also, a Time Magazine correspondent has said he told the grand jury that Rove had discussed Plame with him, referring to her only as Wilson's wife.

Since the indictment, reporters have been seeking more information from McClellan, particularly about Rove: Exactly what was his role? Does he still have the confidence of the president? Might he resign?

McClellan's daily briefing got so hot one day that he accused NBC correspondent David Gregory of being rude and disrespectful. There have been private encounters as well.

In his interview, McClellan referred to the early "assurances that had been given" that Libby and Rove were not involved in the leak case. But he kept close to the "no comment" script that has become the mantra of the besieged White House.

"I'd be glad to talk about that matter," he said, "but right now, there's an ongoing investigation and legal proceeding. It's a serious matter, and our policy has been not to comment on it while it's ongoing."

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