Did Rove or McClellan obstruct justice?

Bill Clinton was impeached, at least in part, for spreading false stories to the White House staff.

Published July 12, 2005 2:30PM (EDT)

Scott McClellan refused to answer all sorts of questions about Karl Rove at Monday's White House press briefing and again at this morning's press gaggle. At one point in Monday's contentious briefing, McClellan refused even to say who Rove was. But it wasn't just Rove that McClellan wouldn't discuss Monday. Scott McClellan wouldn't say much about Scott McClellan, either -- including, for instance, whether Scott McClellan himself has consulted with an attorney about the Plame case.

McClellan's reluctance to talk is understandable. Back in the fall of 2003, McClellan made it as clear as he possibly could that Karl Rove wasn't involved in the outing of Valerie Plame; he called the allegation "ridiculous" and said that there was "simply no truth" to it. As we know now, there's a lot of truth to the allegation and not so much truth to McClellan's denials. But is McClellan's sudden refusal to talk about the Plame case driven by something more than Rove's legal problems and McClellan's own embarrassment? Maybe.

The House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998. One of them, known then as Article III, centered on the charge that Clinton had engaged in the obstruction of justice -- a federal crime -- related to the lawsuit brought by Paula Jones. And among the specific charges in Article III was this: "On or about January 21, 23 and 26, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton made false and misleading statements to potential witnesses in a Federal grand jury proceeding in order to corruptly influence the testimony of those witnesses. The false and misleading statements made by William Jefferson Clinton were repeated by the witnesses to the grand jury, causing the grand jury to receive false and misleading information." As the Washington Post explained at the time, the charge was based on the allegation that Clinton had "denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky to five aides who were later called before the grand jury."

Sound familiar? At a White House press briefing on Oct. 10, 2003, McClellan said that he'd talked with Rove, Scooter Libby and Elliot Abrams about the Plame case, "and those individuals assured me they were not involved with this."

That assurance -- at least coming from Rove -- was "false and misleading." So by Clinton impeachment standards, is Rove guilty of obstructing justice? Is McClellan guilty of conspiring with him to do so? We've got more questions than answers on this front for now. Did Rove lie to McClellan when he said he wasn't involved in the Plame leak, or did McClellan lie to the press about what Rove told him? Was the Justice Department conducting a criminal investigation into the Plame leak at the time Rove spoke to McClellan? Could Rove have anticipated that McClellan would be appearing before a federal grand jury in the Plame case? Did Rove tell other potential grand jury witnesses that he wasn't involved in the Plame leak? Did McClellan spread the story about Rove only at White House press briefings, or did he share it with other potential grand jury witnesses in the administration? And when McClellan himself appeared before the grand jury on Feb. 6, 2004, what did he say there? Did he say that the Rove allegation was "ridiculous" when he was testifying under oath? Did he tell the grand jury that Rove had told him that he wasn't involved in the leak?

Those are the kinds of questions that McClellan and Rove and any other White House officials involved in the Plame story might want to be discussing with a lawyer just about now. Which is another way of saying that they're the kinds of questions that Scott McClellan would probably prefer not to discuss with the national press.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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