White House Spokesman Losing Credibility

Press Secretary Scott McClellan at the podium.

Press Secretary Scott McClellan responds to a question during a White House press briefing, July 15, 2003. White House Photo hide caption

itoggle caption White House Photo

Something's Gotta Give.

That's the name of an Academy Award winning film from a couple of years back.

It's also an apt description of the mood inside the Press Briefing Room at the White House these days.

For close to two years, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has responded to reporters' questions about the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the press with some variation on the following line:

“The President directed the White House to cooperate fully with the investigation, and as part of cooperating fully with the investigation, we made a decision that we weren't going to comment on it while it is ongoing.” (July 11, 2005… but other examples abound)

But over the course of that investigation certain facts have become known. Most significant is that I. Lewis Libby, a top aide to both the president and vice president, has been indicted on five counts of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice. Those charges stem, in part, from conversations Libby had with reporters about Valerie Plame, who was not only an undercover CIA employee, but also the wife of Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador actively engaged in undermining the administration's case for war.

We also know now that White House political strategist Karl Rove talked to reporters about Plame during that same period in the summer of 2003.

Here's the problem for McClellan. Back in October 2003 (before the official “no-comments” began) he personally vouched for both Rove and Libby, assuring reporters that neither had anything to do with the leaking of Plame's name. McClellan said at the time:

"They're good individuals, they're important members of our White House team, and that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved."

What's more, he labeled any suggestion to the contrary “ridiculous.”

Now, with Libby facing criminal charges and with Rove still under a cloud, the White House press corps is demanding an explanation from McClellan about statements that have turned out to be false. And the demands recur every day.

McClellan has been confronted with the discrepancy time and time again since Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's big announcement last week. But McClellan's response has been consistent: No comment.

This is from his daily press briefing at the White House on Nov. 1.

McClellan: Well, the nature of the investigation is that is it ongoing, and there is a legal proceeding that is ongoing as part of that investigation. And as part of that ongoing legal proceeding, we're just not having any further comment on it from this podium.

Then came the follow-up question, obviously referring to Rove.

Q Everyone who is working at the White House currently, in the president's mind, has acted appropriately in this matter?

McClellan: Well, you're asking about this matter. This matter is ongoing.

And there was this pointed exchange a day earlier, between David Gregory of NBC News and McClellan. It came on a day when McClellan would have preferred talking about that morning's big news, the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

Gregory/NBC News: You speak for the president. Your credibility and his credibility is not on criminal trial. But it may very well be on trial with the American public, don't you agree?

McClellan: No, I'm very confident in the relationship that we have in this room, and the trust that has been established between us. This relationship —

Gregory: See those cameras? It's not about us. It's about what the American people —

McClellan: This relationship is built on trust, and you know very well that I have worked hard to earn the trust of the people in this room, and I think I've earned it —

And so it goes. You can sense the tension in the words. But in the close heat and bright light of the briefing room, it's far more pronounced.

Something indeed does have to give. The legal proceedings McClellan refers to could last a year or longer. Surely he can't expect to hold off commenting on false statements he has made until then.

If he intends to do so, he'll have a hard time standing at the podium as a credible spokesman for the administration. He can no longer count on the assumption of trust that makes it possible for a spokesman to do his job.

Most reporters at the White House believe that Rove and Libby told McClellan they were not involved in the Valerie Plame matter, and that McClellan simply passed this along.

This puts McClellan in a difficult position, but whether he has discussed that fact with either Libby or Rove is not known. Neither man has apologized so far for talking to reporters on background about Plame. Nor has either come forward to let McClellan off the hook by admitting publicly that they told him a lie. It may not be possible for either to do so without complicating his own legal situation. That's why, some speculate, McClellan's only way out of the vise is to step down.

Either way, something's gotta give.

The movie that bears that title stars Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. That fact is not particularly relevant to this discussion, except that the movie Web site Imdb.com highlights this quote from Something's Gotta Give:

Harry Sanborn (Nicholson): I have never lied to you, I have always told you some version of the truth.

Erica Barry (Keaton): The truth doesn't have versions, okay?

That sounds like a bit of dialogue that could be coming to a White House briefing room near you in the not too distant future.

Stay tuned.

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