White House Press Secretary McClellan Under Fire
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
To the CIA leak case now, and we're going to focus in on one of the bit players. As former top vice presidential aide Lewis Libby faces five indictments and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove remains under investigation, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan faces pressures of his own in the Valerie Plame affair. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
President Bush recently made several major announcements: the initiative to fend off a flu pandemic, the nominations of a new US Supreme Court justice and Federal Reserve Board chairman. But they haven't drowned out sharp questions confronting Scott McClellan, like the ones at today's press conference.
(Soundbite of press conference)
Unidentified Reporter: Do you end up with a credibility problem?
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): Hang on. That's what we've done and that's what we will continue to do.
Unidentified Reporter: Don't you end up with a credibility problem?
Mr. McCLELLAN: I've already addressed that issue.
FOLKENFLIK: These questions date back to a White House press briefing in late September of 2003. McClellan dismissed the idea that Karl Rove or Lewis Libby could be involved in leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
(Soundbite of 2003 briefing)
Mr. McCLELLAN: It was a ridiculous suggestion in the first place. I saw some comments this morning from the person who made that suggestion backing away from that, and I said it is simply not true.
FOLKENFLIK: A week later McClellan personally vouched for Rove and Libby.
(Soundbite of 2003 briefing)
Mr. McCLELLAN: I spoke with them so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved. I had no doubt with--of that in the beginning, but I like to check my--information to make sure it's accurate before I report back to you and that's exactly what I did.
FOLKENFLIK: But it now appears clear Rove and Libby were involved in the leak. Rove talked to syndicated columnist Robert Novak and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine about Plame before her name became public. According to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby spoke with Judith Miller of The New York Times three times about Plame, and Libby confirmed Plame's profession for Matthew Cooper. And now McClellan's truthfulness is being challenged. Terry Moran of ABC News
(Soundbite of press briefing)
Mr. TERRY MORAN (ABC News): There's been a wound to your credibility here. A falsehood wittingly or unwittingly was told from this podium. And do you really believe that the American people should wait until the conclusion of all of this process and just take on trust everything that comes from that podium now without the explanation and the answer that you say you want to give?
Mr. McCLELLAN: There are a lot of facts...
FOLKENFLIK: McClellan's response to Moran and a barrage of similar questions from other White House reporters was the same--again and again and again.
(Soundbite of press briefing)
Mr. McCLELLAN: We have been directed by the White House counsel's office not to discuss this matter or respond in any...
I wouldn't get into commenting from this podium while this legal proceeding continues...
For me to even respond to that question would force me to talk about an ongoing investi...
There's an ongoing investigation...
FOLKENFLIK: McClellan's plight generates sympathy from some of his predecessors, even Democrats. Michael McCurry was press secretary for President Clinton during much of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Mr. MICHAEL McCURRY (Clinton Press Secretary): You know, the press seems to believe that there's some big closet at the White House called the truth closet, and it's all in there. And if you would just go, you know, get the key and open that door, you know, it'd all come tumbling out. And in fact, it's a much more painstaking process.
FOLKENFLIK: But McCurry says McClellan may be in an untenable position.
Mr. McCURRY: The credibility of the press secretary is about the only important asset you have to protect as fiercely as anything. That's where press secretaries get in trouble, when the press corps begins to believe that they're not shooting straight.
FOLKENFLIK: In an interview, McClellan told NPR he's eager to talk once the legal process in the leak case has run its course, and he says his credibility remains intact with reporters.
Mr. McCLELLAN: The relationship that we built over the last few years is one that they know is based on trust, and I think both of us have worked to earn that trust and have done that.
FOLKENFLIK: Some reporters say that kind of comment amounts to a wink and a nod from McClellan signaling he wasn't intentionally lying, just passing on what Rove and Libby had told him. NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory tells NPR that McClellan needs to correct the record.
Mr. DAVID GREGORY (NBC News): He has made suggestions that he was given bad information. But, again, I mean, he is the public face of the White House beyond the president, the president's spokesman. And we rely on him for accurate information and the American people do, and so when he says something that proves to be demonstrably false, it's important that he own up to it.
FOLKENFLIK: Gregory says McClellan is largely well-liked and trusted personally but says he's suffering from President Bush's approach to the news media. Administration officials suggest they see the press corps as just another special interest group.
Mr. GREGORY: It's the disdain for the press corps, the view that you can effectively communicate without engaging the press corps, that also gets the White House into some trouble.
FOLKENFLIK: And Gregory says McClellan shouldn't expect questions about his credibility to go away anytime soon. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.