Will the Stonewall Work?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 12, 2005; 12:48 PM

The Valerie Plame story has finally and undeniably hit the big-time -- with White House chief political strategist Karl Rove now a central figure, press secretary Scott McClellan's stonewalling recalling the darkest moments of previous administrations, and Democrats calling for blood.

Washington scandals sometimes flame out pretty fast. But signs thus far suggest that the White House's say-nothing strategy is only feeding the conflagration, rather than starving it.

Mike Allen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's aides put up a wall yesterday when questioned about revelations that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had discussed the role of CIA official Valerie Plame with a reporter despite past White House assertions that he was not involved in her unmasking. . . .

"Democrats, emboldened by having the White House on the defensive, began a campaign to pressure Rove to give up his security clearances, answer questions before Congress and even resign.

"Whether a crime occurred remains the focus of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, but the latest revelations also leave White House credibility at stake, given past statements by the president, McClellan and others. . . . It was the issue of credibility, more than of criminal culpability, that produced some of the most aggressive questioning at a White House briefing in recent memory -- but no answers."

Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, spoke to The Post again yesterday and said his client continues to cooperate fully with Fitzgerald, including with the prosecutor's request not to publicly discuss the case.

"'It puts Karl in a no-win position,' Luskin said. 'If he doesn't talk to [reporters], he subjects himself to criticisms like we're hearing from the Democrats on why he won't come forward and talk about his role. But if he does . . . he runs the risk of being accused of not cooperating with the investigation.' "

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Rove made no public comment. A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House now says its official position is not to comment on the case while it is under investigation by a federal special prosecutor, said Mr. Rove had gone about his business as usual on Monday. The official said Mr. Rove had held his regular meetings with Mr. Bush and other top White House aides, and was deeply involved in preparations for the Supreme Court nomination and efforts to push several major pieces of legislation through Congress this month. . . .

"Because of the powerful role Mr. Rove plays in shaping policy and deploying Mr. Bush's political support and machinery throughout the party, few Republicans were willing to discuss his situation on the record. Asked for comment on Monday, several Republican senators said they did not know enough or did not want to venture an opinion."

"But in private, several prominent Republicans said they were concerned about the possible effects on Mr. Bush and his agenda, in part because Mr. Rove's stature makes him such a tempting target for Democrats."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "As Rove emerges as a central figure in an ever-more-provocative case involving the unmasking of a CIA agent, Democrats and liberal groups are seizing on the story as proof of their more sweeping charge that Bush has put partisan loyalty and political advantage ahead of national security. . . .

"Rove 'gets people animated because he has been so viciously partisan, and so the opportunity to hold him accountable for putting his partisanship ahead of his patriotism is very juicy,' said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, a liberal anti-war group that fought Bush's re-election."

Richard Simon and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times that "the new information about Rove's role was emerging as a potential embarrassment for a White House that had scrupulously sought to avoid the kinds of investigations that plagued the Clinton administration."

And they note: "Luskin declined to say whether Rove knew that Plame was a covert agent, even if he did not know her name, which analysts said was a crucial factor in determining whether the law was broken."

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Even if Rove didn't violate the law, proof that he disclosed Plame's identity could damage his effectiveness in public life and tarnish the president for tolerating it."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Sensing vulnerability on the part of a formidable political adversary, Democrats on Monday urged hearings into the conduct of presidential adviser Karl Rove and demanded his security clearance be revoked as the White House grew close-mouthed about allegations that Rove played a role in revealing a CIA employee's identity. . . .

"Democrats mounted a full-blown assault on Rove, the architect of imposing Republican electoral victories over the past five years, while the political damage to the White House remained unclear. Rove also recently drew fire for saying that after the Sept. 11 attacks liberals wanted to offer the terrorists 'therapy and understanding.' "

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "The White House faced mounting Democratic calls for President Bush to sideline or fire his top political aide Karl Rove on Monday over his involvement in a CIA leak scandal."

The Associated Press and the New York Times were among the journalistic institutions offering their readers a collection of previous White House statements on the leak case.

And see yesterday's column for more background.

This Just In

At an Oval Office photo-op with the prime minister of Singapore this morning, Bush took questions from two reporters -- one American, and one from Singapore. The Singaporean reporter asked about trade. Fair enough.

But instead of asking about Rove, Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press asked Bush how close he was to a Supreme Court nomination. She used a follow-up to ask his reaction to a comment about the nomination by the first lady.

When Bush shut the event down, other reporters spoke up -- but their White House wranglers yelled them down. I heard one reporter shout "Will you fire him?" but Bush just grinned. What a missed opportunity.

Bush meets with his Cabinet tomorrow morning -- maybe someone can ask him about Rove then.


Bill Plante reports this morning on CBS News: "This has made things very uncomfortable for the White House because it suggests that someone here was either misinformed or, worse yet, lying, when they told spokesman Scott McClellan back in September '03 to say that Rove wasn't involved."

He concludes that even if it turns out Rove is not the focus of the criminal investigation, "the White House still looks stupid."

John Roberts reported on the CBS Evening News: "It was a bad day at the White House, unable to defend its own on-the-record statements, unable to explain why what it repeatedly said with such certainty, 21 months ago, now would appear so demonstrably false."

David Gregory 's report on NBC included one of his own unanswered questions to McClellan about Rove: "Was he involved, or was he not? Because, contrary to what you told the American people, he did, indeed, talk about his wife, didn't he?"

Earlier, Gregory had also asked: "Scott, I mean, just -- I mean, this is ridiculous. The notion that you're going to stand before us after having commented with that level of detail and tell people watching this that somehow you decided not to talk. You've got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium, or not?"

The Grilling

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post on the scene in the briefing room yesterday, after the press corps realized McClellan had long misled them about Rove's involvement.

"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."

Milbank is Live Online today at noon ET.

It was, by any measure, an astonishing briefing -- well worth reading or watching in its entirety.

Pummeled by tough questions, McClellan time and again reached for a lifeline. His first, as Milbank writes, was "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.' "

That gambit had a payoff for McClellan: Once it seemed clear that the mumbling Goyal was just warming up, CNN chose to cut away from its live coverage of the briefing.

As a result, CNN's viewers missed even more pummeling. Reporters came back to the central issue of the day over and over again.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who studies the press corps' interaction with the White House, wrote to me in an e-mail: "Scott was looking for relief. . . . But there was no relief. Reporters are unrelenting when they believe they have been lied to."

Unanswered Questions

Among the questions McClellan did not answer:

"Does the President stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak of a name of a CIA operative?"

"[W]hy have you commented on this during the process of the investigation in the past, but now you've suddenly drawn a curtain around it under the statement of, 'We're not going to comment on an ongoing investigation'?"

"Do you stand by your statement from the fall of 2003 when you were asked specifically about Karl and Elliott Abrams and Scooter Libby, and you said, 'I've gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they are not involved in this' -- do you stand by that statement?"

"After the investigation is completed, will you then be consistent with your word and the President's word that anybody who was involved would be let go?"

"Does the President continue to have confidence in Mr. Rove?"

"Has there been any change or is there a plan for Mr. Rove's portfolio to be altered in any way?"

"Now, are you saying that the President is not taking any action in response to that?"

"Scott, what was the President's interaction today with Karl Rove? Did they discuss this current situation?"

"[A]re you concerned that in not setting the record straight today that this could undermine the credibility of the other things you say from the podium?"

"Scott, at this point, are we to consider what you've said previously, when you were talking about this, that you're still standing by that, or are those all inoperative at this point?"

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, taking your questions and comments .


Howard Kurtz writes on washingtonpost.com today: "The liberal blogosphere is aflame with animosity toward Karl Rove, now that he's been sucked deeper into the Plame probe. . . .

"Legally, what Rove said to Matt Cooper on 'double super secret background' (according to this Mike Isikoff piece) may or may not have violated the law against identifying intelligence agents. . . .

"But politically, this is a bombshell."

Kurtz asks: "What does Rove do now? Give a couple of interviews and explain his role? Or remain in the background while his lawyer issues carefully parsed statements?"

On the left:

The Nation's David Corn writes: "Everybody in the room -- and out of it -- should review McClellan's exchange with the reporters to see how he and this White House do business. After what transpired, no reporter should take McClellan's word at face value (if they ever did). Moreover, the larger issue is not his -- and Bush's -- credibility, but the wrongdoing committed by a senior White House official and the apparent lack of a response from the White House. . . .

"With McClellan providing no answers related to the Rove scandal, the question is whether the White House's we-can't-comment stance will allow it to dodge yet another troubling and inconvenient reality."

Garance Franke-Ruta writes at the American Prospect Online: "If there is one thing that reporters hate, it's being played for patsies. McClellan has publicly humiliated some of the most prominent reporters in the country by persistently feeding them information that has now been revealed to be false, and I'm pretty darn sure that they are not going to grant him any favors and extend him the benefit of the doubt in the future."

On the right, the criticism is mostly aimed toward the media:

Michelle Malkin writes: "I actually have no problem with McClellan getting justifiably barked at during his daily briefings. . . . But isn't it funny how Beltway reporters who get all prissy and whiny about one Fox News Channel reporter asking the DNC chairman one mildly aggressive question have no problem turning pack-rabid on McClellan?"

Lorie Byrd writes: "I don't even know how to describe the journalists' questions in the briefing. I guess I could say they were disrespectful and disgraceful, but that does not quite do it justice."

Opinion Watch

From a Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial: "The president would bring credit to himself and his administration by firing Rove immediately. Whether or not Rove violated the law, his actions on behalf of the administration broke trust with the American people and with the president's own stated view of the matter. Minimally, enough is known that the president must suspend Rove and cease all contacts with Rove until the investigation is complete. Rove, it appears, cannot be trusted with the United States' secrets."

From a Philadelphia Daily News editorial: "There is no easy way to explain this away. And the White House shouldn't even try. Rove must go."

From Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer : "To try to conceal the fact that the president had lied to the American public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, Rove attempted to destroy the credibility of two national security veterans and send an intimidating message to any other government officials preparing to publicly tell the truth."

From Slate's Timothy Noah : "For a White House official to be so reckless as to reveal, even unknowingly, the identity of an undercover CIA employee is a firing offense. Period. That Rove did so for the purpose of smearing a political enemy makes the whole episode even more distasteful. He's outta there."

In Other News

Bush yesterday gave what was billed as a major speech on the war on terror. But it wasn't.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday defended the White House strategy for preventing future terrorist attacks and warned that the London bombings were part of a broader campaign to scare the United States and its allies into retreat."

Nedra Pickler cuts to the chase for the Associated Press: "Bush said nothing new in his speech. He repeated the same themes and indeed much of the same language that he used over the weekend in his radio address and in speeches on Independence Day and before a prime-time audience at Fort Bragg last month."

David E. Sanger finds something to write about in the New York Times: "It was the second time in the last week that he has begun to describe the terror groups as having an ideology; in the past the White House has said, in the context of Iraq, that they have nothing to offer the people of Iraq, and no governing philosophy other than attacking the United States and its allies. But now that tone appears to have changed, in what a senior White House official said last week was an effort 'to define the stakes more clearly.'"

Supreme Court Watch

Reuters reports: "President Bush heard the views of Senate leaders on Tuesday on whom he should pick for a Supreme Court nominee and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he believed Bush would seek a 'consensus candidate.' "

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Laura Bush, meanwhile, said she hoped her husband would pick a woman.

" 'I would really like him to name another woman,' Mrs. Bush said Tuesday on NBC's 'Today' show, in an interview from Cape Town, South Africa, where she is traveling. 'I admire and respect Sandra Day O'Connor, but I know that my husband will pick somebody who has a lot of integrity and strength.' "

Cox News's Ken Herman , who has been covering Bush on and off since 1993, writes: "George W. Bush has a penchant for appointing Supreme Court justices with compelling personal stories to tell, the kind of tales that can cement an image.

"As Texas governor, Bush appointed four state Supreme Court justices, including current attorney general and potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee Alberto Gonzales, a Hispanic from humble beginnings.

"Bush also picked a wheelchair-bound man who lost the use of his legs when a tree fell on him while jogging and a woman whose work as a special-education teacher led her to a career in law."

What, Me Worry?

Marc Humbert reports for the Associated Press: "Republicans took aim at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday for a speech comparing President Bush to Mad magazine's freckle-faced, 'What, me worry?' kid, Alfred E. Neuman. . . .

"Clinton's attack on the president came Sunday during a speech in Colorado.

" 'I sometimes feel that Alfred E. Neuman is in charge in Washington,' Clinton said during the inaugural Aspen Ideas Festival, organized by the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan think tank."

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