Monday, July 18, 2005

ALL MIXED UP At today's press briefing, Scott McClellan tried to walk back President Bush's comments from this morning--comments that certainly appeared to contradict previous White House statements about the job security of Plame leak participants.

Remember, Bush implied this morning that committing a crime would now be considered a necessary condition for him to issue a dismissal--he won't fire anyone who hasn't yet been convicted, he seemed to be saying:

I don't know all the facts; I want to know all the facts. If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration.
But at the briefing, McClellan argued that Bush hadn't broken any new ground with this assertion--that the President meant to convey only that a guilty verdict is a sufficient condition for a staffer's termination.

In other words, according to McClellan, Bush was making a simple, uncontroversial observation: Criminals aren't allowed to work at the White House. And that's all he meant to say.

Of course, that interpretation only comes anywhere near making sense if you ignore the context completely. But making sense has never been McClellan's strong suit:

Q Scott, the President seemed to raise the bar and add a qualifier today when discussing whether or not anybody would be dismissed for--in the leak of a CIA officer's name, in which he said that he would--if someone is found to have committed a crime, they would no longer work in this administration. That's never been part of the standard before, why is that added now?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I disagree, Terry. I think that the President was stating what is obvious when it comes to people who work in the administration: that if someone commits a crime, they're not going to be working any longer in this administration...

Q But you have said, though, that anyone involved in this would no longer be in this administration, you didn't say anybody who committed a crime. You had said, in September 2003, anyone involved in this would no longer be in the administration.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, we've been through these issues over the course of the last week. And I know--

Q But we haven't talked about a crime.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- well what was said previously. You heard from the President today. And I think that you should not read anything into it more than what the President said at this point. And I think that's something you may be trying to do here.

Q Does the President equate the word "leaking" to a crime, as best you know, in his mind? Just the use of the word "leaking," does he see that as a criminal standard? And is the only threshold for firing someone involved being charged with a crime?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we all serve at the pleasure of the President in this White House. The President--you heard what he had to say on the matter. He was asked a specific question, and you heard his response.

Q Is leaking, in your judgment of his interpretation, a crime?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll leave it at what the President said.

Go ahead.

Q What is his problem? Two years, and he can't call Rove in and find out what the hell is going on? I mean, why is it so difficult to find out the facts? It costs thousands, millions of dollars, two years, it tied up how many lawyers? All he's got to do is call him in.

MR. McCLELLAN: You just heard from the President. He said he doesn't know all the facts. I don't know all the facts.

Q Why?

MR. McCLELLAN: We want to know what the facts are. Because --

Q Why doesn't he ask him?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll tell you why, because there's an investigation that is continuing at this point, and the appropriate people to handle these issues are the ones who are overseeing that investigation. There is a special prosecutor that has been appointed. And it's important that we let all the facts come out. And then at that point, we'll be glad to talk about it, but we shouldn't be getting into --

Q You talked about it to reporters.

MR. McCLELLAN: We shouldn't be getting into prejudging the outcome.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, we don't know all the facts, but we know some of the facts. For example, Matt Cooper says he did speak to Karl Rove and Lewis Libby about these issues. So given the fact that you have previously stood at that podium and said these men did not discuss Valerie Plame or a CIA agent's identity in any way, does the White House have a credibility problem?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. You just answered your own question. You said we don't know all the facts. And I would encourage everyone not to prejudge the outcome of the investigation.


Q Given the new formulation "if somebody committed a crime," would that be a crime as determined by an indictment, or a crime as determined by a conviction?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, Bob, I'm not going to add to what the President said. You heard his remarks, and I think I've been through these issues over the course of the last week. I don't know that there's really much more to add at this point.

Q But the importance is the question of would -- if it is the latter, the strategy would be to run out the clock?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I indicated to you earlier that everyone here serves at the pleasure of the President. And the White House has been working to cooperate fully with the investigators. That was the direction that the President set. That's what we've been doing. We hope they come to a conclusion soon.

Go ahead.


Q Scott, I just want to sort of go back over this. Insofar as you're telling us that we shouldn't read anything new into the President's comments today, should we then take that to mean that if there is criminal activity, that person would be fired, but this does not render inoperative those things that the President has said "yes" or responded in the affirmative to in the past when asked, for instance, if you would fire somebody if they were involved in a leak?

MR. McCLELLAN: I wouldn't read anything into it. You said, "new." I wouldn't read anything into it beyond what he said.

Q So the previous statements remain operative?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, once the investigation is concluded, then we can talk about it at that point. But those are decisions for the President to make.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.