NEAL CONAN, host:
Friday's indictment of White House aide Lewis Libby left a lot of questions unanswered. Today White House spokesman Scott McClellan held his first press briefing since the indictment and the media was eager for answers. NBC's David Gregory set the tone.
(Soundbite of press briefing)
Mr. DAVID GREGORY (NBC News): On October 7th, 2003, you were asked about a couple of key players here, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby as well as some other administration official who has not figured in the investigation so far as we know. And you said the following, quote, "There are unsubstantiated accusations that are made, and that's exactly what happened in the case of these three individuals, including Rove and Libby. 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." You were wrong then, weren't you?
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): David, it's not a question of whether or not I'd like to talk more about this. I think I've indicated to you all that I'd be glad to talk about this once this process is complete, and I'll look forward to that opportunity, but again, we have been directed by the White House counsel's office not to discuss this matter or respond to questions about it.
Mr. GREGORY: Public representation you made to...
Mr. McCLELLAN: Hang on.
Mr. GREGORY: ...the American people...
Mr. McCLELLAN: We can have this conversation, but let me respond.
Mr. GREGORY: ...because it's such an artful dodge. Whether there's a question of legality...
Mr. McCLELLAN: No, I disagree with you.
Mr. GREGORY: Whether there's a question of legality, we know for a fact that there was involvement. We know that Karl Rove, based on what he and his lawyer have said, did have a conversation about somebody who Patrick Fitzgerald said was a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. We know that Scooter Libby also had conversations...
Mr. McCLELLAN: That's accurate.
Mr. GREGORY: ...so aside from the question of legality here, you were wrong, weren't you?
Mr. McCLELLAN: Again, David, if I were to get into commenting from this podium while this legal proceeding continues, I might be prejudicing the opportunity for there to be a fair and unpartial trial, and I'm just not going to do that.
Mr. GREGORY: You speak for the president.
Mr. McCLELLAN: I know very...
Mr. GREGORY: Your credibility and his credibility is not on criminal trial, but they may very well be on trial with the American public. Don't you agree?
Mr. 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...
Mr. GREGORY: It's not about us. It's about what the American people...
Mr. 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.
Mr. GREGORY: Yeah, if the president--just let me follow up...
Mr. McCLELLAN: And I think I've earned it with the American people.
CONAN: Every time a reporter at the White House briefing today asked a similar question about whether Scott McClellan told the truth, he steadfastly refused to answer. That led ABC's Terry Moran to say this.
(Soundbite of press briefing)
Mr. TERRY MORAN (ABC News): ...follow that. I can't go on TV and say America believes Scott McClellan. That's not my role.
Mr. McCLELLAN: You go on TV, though, and engage in commentary about views and things that are expressed here at the White House.
Mr. MORAN: Right. But what I can't do is carry your water for you and I wonder...
Mr. McCLELLAN: I'm not asking you to.
Mr. MORAN: Yes, you are.
Mr. McCLELLAN: I'm just asking you to speak to who I am, and you know who I am.
Mr. MORAN: 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 just 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 that still are not known in this.
CONAN: White House press secretary Scott McClellan, speaking with reporters today at the White House briefing. NPR White House correspondent David Greene joins us now from the White House.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: I'd also like to introduce Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. He's with us from his home in Virginia.
Professor, nice to have you on the program.
Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (George Washington University): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: David, quite a briefing today. The reporters did not seem to get very far with Mr. McClellan. That issue--his credibility, the credibility of the White House press office very much in question.
GREENE: You know, McClellan did a very good job of holding the line and not advancing the story about the leak, you know, saying that this is an ongoing legal process. But I have to tell you it was an extraordinary scene if you think about McClellan's personal reputation. I've never seen him look so alone in that briefing room and to reach out to reporters and say, `I'm asking you to speak to who I am'--that's extraordinary. That's something you see very rarely, and McClellan was backed up against the wall because he did, as you heard in those cuts, say in October of 2003 that he spoke to Rove and Libby and they were not involved.
CONAN: And I assume he was barraged with questions today as well about, oh, Democrats have said President Bush ought to apologize, that Vice President Cheney ought to apologize, and was equally unforthcoming with those.
GREENE: Equally unforthcoming, and as the grand jury investigation progressed, the message from the White House was always once we get some word from the special prosecutor, we'll be able to talk about this, and I think the feeling was in that briefing room, `We got word last week. Let's talk about it,' and the White House message hasn't changed.
CONAN: Jonathan Turley, let me bring you into the conversation. What is next for Lewis Libby? We know that his successors in the vice president's office have been named today. We will get more on that in just a minute, but he faces a court proceeding as soon as this week.
Prof. TURLEY: That's right. The first step is for him to go through arraignment, and he will have to plead obviously guilty or not guilty. He'll plead not guilty, and then there will be a date for the trial set. Now after that, a great deal happens. Among other things, usually there is an attempt to see if the indicted individual, A, wants to cooperate and, B, has anything worth a deal with the prosecutors.
CONAN: And is that likely in this case, do you think?
Prof. TURLEY: No. I think Libby's not the type of guy that is going to cooperate, and the only way that he's going to plead is probably not a deal for cooperation in the sense of revealing something knew, but simply a deal to avoid trial in exchange for a lower sentence.
CONAN: We're talking about the fallout from last week's indictment of White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. We're talking with Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University and with NPR's White House correspondent David Greene.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Jonathan, as this case goes ahead, then, there doesn't seem to be an awful lot of--there's ordinarily a big discovery process where each side finds out what the other knows. In this case, the prosecutor, Fitzgerald, seemed to have laid out his case at that news conference last week.
Prof. TURLEY: Well, when you have a prosecution for perjury or false statements, there's not a lot of mystery as to what is going to be involved in the trial. And there's also not much of a mystery at to what the defense will be. The classic defenses really fall to two general categories: I didn't recall what I--was done or said in those early days. And second, I did not intend to mislead or lie in my statement. Those are the classic defenses. The problem is that jurors and prosecutors love perjury and false statement charges because they are so finite, so clear; you know, they just are simply asked, `He said X. Is X true?' essentially. And that's a really deadly type of question for a defendant to face.
CONAN: And he, of course, may not be the only defendant. David Greene, last time we tuned in to this drama, the special prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, was saying, `We are not quite done,' and the widespread suspicion is he is considering whether to lay charges at the feet of the president's deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove.
GREENE: That's right, Neal. And I think that the sigh of relief from the White House on Friday was pretty big. They feel like they dodged a bullet and people close to Karl Rove are hopeful that he's going to avoid any legal troubles. But I mean, this cloud, this kind of mystery remains for the White House, and until there's a some sort of full closure from Patrick Fitzgerald, I think they're still wondering and they know that the story still has legs.
CONAN: And of course, the White House also today took care to try to change the subject of everybody's conversation by naming a new nominee to the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito. And, Jonathan Turley, to some degree, as this court proceeding goes ahead, that's going to be overtaken by events--his confirmation or not--but in the meantime, this criminal trial's going to be out there with the possibility that we may see testimony from a sitting vice president of the United States.
Prof. TURLEY: I think that's right. There's also the question of what happens in the interim. There remains some question as to how hard Fitzgerald pushed when it came to the vice president and Karl Rove. Reportedly, he informed Rove's attorneys that there are some statements that they consider potentially perjuous or false, and apparently those discussions are still going on, so he can always go and get a new indictment from the currently sitting grand jury. But the second issue is how he's going to handle certain conflicts, particularly between Vice President Cheney and former CIA Director George Tenet. Cheney reportedly said that he got the name of Wilson's wife from Tenet, and Tenet has denied that. People, including myself, were very surprised that Fitzgerald did not call Tenet to the grand jury. That is not his style, and most prosecutors would have jumped on that type of contradiction.
CONAN: Jonathan Turley, more unanswered questions that we hope to get answers to in the future. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Prof. TURLEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. He joined us by phone from his home in Virginia. David Greene at our tiny little space at the White House, thanks very much for being with us.
GREENE: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: David Greene is NPR's White House correspondent. More on this story throughout the day as coverage from NPR News continues on this story, and of course, the nomination of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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