Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan just released an excerpt from his forthcoming book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What’s Wrong With Washington: “I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President’s chief of staff, and the President himself.” At a press briefing in 2005, when McClellan first began to put distance between himself and the rest of the Bush administration, John Dickerson took note. Dickerson’s 2005 “Politics” piece is reprinted below.
Observers of the White House press briefing—you masochists, you!—may wonder why reporters ask the same question again and again, knowing that White House spokesman Scott McClellan won’t answer. Well, sometimes if you pound your head against a stone enough times you get a little water. That appears to have happened yesterday.
For the last several months, McClellan has dodged all questions about the CIA leak investigation. “I’m not going to comment because it’s relating to an ongoing investigation,” is his typical answer. He has been particularly stout in handling questions about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. For good reason: McClellan bravely defended those two administration officials in October 2003 by saying they had nothing to do with the affair. In fact, he did more than that: To prove that he wasn’t issuing meaningless, blanket denials, he told reporters at the time that he’d double-checked with the two men. They had assured him they were not involved. “I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved,” he said at the time. “I had no doubt 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.”
We now know that both men were in fact involved. Both talked to reporters about Joe Wilson’s wife. So, someone wasn’t telling the straight story two years ago. Over the last several months, reporters have asked McClellan: Was he misleading reporters, or had Rove and Libby misled him? McClellan refused to answer, citing an ongoing investigation.
Yesterday, though, he did something a little different. Asked again about his blanket denials of two years ago as a part of a broader question about whether he could be trusted, he responded:
… you know that our relationship is built on trust, and I have earned that trust with you all. As you pointed out, you pointed back to some past comments that I gave and I talked to you about the assurances that I received on that. [emphasis added]
What does this mean in plain English? After months of refusing to revisit his 2003 comments, McClellan suddenly did. More important, he went out of his way to make this distinction, which reporters have been repeatedly asking him to make. He reminded us that two years ago, Rove and Libby gave assurances to him that they were not involved. In other words, McClellan wasn’t the agent of the lie. He was merely the good-faith conduit. After taking months of battering on behalf of his colleagues, did the onset of indictments make McClellan finally stand up for his honor, or did he merely make a slip of the tongue? Whatever the motivation, at least that one tiny question has been answered.