The president's accountability moment

Two years ago, the White House said that "the president knows" that Karl Rove wasn't involved in the Valerie Plame leak. Now Bush says he doesn't know all the facts. Why not?

Published July 18, 2005 7:19PM (EDT)

George W. Bush was asked a question about the Valerie Plame case this morning, and rather than ignoring it -- as he has done before -- he actually said words in response. The words didn't answer the question, exactly, and sometimes they didn't even make much sense. ("The best place for the facts to be done," the president said, "is by somebody who's spending time investigating it.") But there was something remarkable buried in the president's remarks, and we're not talking here about his bar-raising, goalpost-moving flip-flop on whether he'd fire anyone involved in the leak.

No, what struck us as most remarkable -- most inexplicable -- is the admission of ignorance from a president who usually seems entirely sure of himself even when he's demonstrably wrong. When it comes to the Plame case, Bush said, "I don't know all the facts."

Assuming for a moment that the president is telling the truth, we've got a one-word follow-up question to ask.


Bush says he wants to know the facts about the case. And time was, he seemed to think that he did. Scott McClellan has said "I speak for the president" so many times over the last couple of years that Bush surely would have stopped him if he disagreed. And yet there was McClellan, on Sept. 29, 2003, saying that "the president knows" that Karl Rove wasn't involved in the Plame leak. McClellan wouldn't say how the president knew, but he said that the president was aware that he was saying that the president knew. "He's aware of what I've said, that there is simply no truth to that suggestion," McClellan said. The president spoke about the case the next day in Chicago. If he disagreed with McClellan's characterization of his knowledge then, he had every opportunity to say so. He didn't.

So we take it back. It turns out that we have two follow-up questions for the president: First, why don't you know all the facts about the Plame case yet? And second, how is it that you used to know all of the facts -- or at least enough of them to "know" that Rove wasn't involved -- but that you don't know all the facts anymore?

We know what the White House will say. There's an ongoing investigation, the special prosecutor is handling this, we don't want to prejudice the investigation, etc. But the fact is, we shouldn't have to wait until Patrick Fitzgerald finishes his job before the president starts doing his. It seems to us that the president would want to know right now whether the people who work for him can be trusted with the kind of classified information whose release could compromise national security and get people killed. The president has the power to collect that information himself. As McClellan acknowledged today, members of the White House staff serve at the pleasure of the president. If Bush wants to know what Karl Rove or Scooter Libby or Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer did with respect to the Plame case, he has every right to call them into the Oval Office and say, "Tell me the truth or you're out the door."

Has he done that yet? The White House wouldn't say back in 2003 -- "I'm not going to get into conversations that the president has with advisors or staff or anything of that nature," McClellan said in that Sept. 29, 2003, briefing -- but now it appears that the answer is no. When the question came up at today's White House press briefing, McClellan engaged in a war of words with Helen Thomas before offering what sounded like a concession that Bush has not, in fact, taken the simple step of asking Rove to tell him what he did.

"What is his problem?" Thomas began. "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."

McClellan's non-response response: "You just heard from the president. He said he doesn't know all the facts. I don't know all the facts ... We want to know what the facts are."

The follow-up: "Why doesn't he ask [Rove]?"

"I'll tell you why -- because there's an investigation that is continuing at this point," McClellan said, "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 ... prejudging the outcome."

No, maybe we shouldn't, except of course that the White House already has. Two years ago, Bush let McClellan summon up all the public relations power of the White House press office to proclaim that "the president knows" that Karl Rove is innocent. Today, the president says he doesn't know all the facts.

Why won't Bush just ask the people who could tell him? Maybe he doesn't want to know what the answers are. Maybe he thinks it's better to postpone any revelations as long as possible, beyond the fight over a Supreme Court nominee and whatever else remains of his second-term agenda. Or maybe Fitzgerald's investigation is hitting so close to home that Bush can't call in Rove and Libby and the like without risking a charge that he's trying to orchestrate stories and obstruct justice himself.

Is that it, Mr. President, or is it something else? You've said that the nation had its "accountability moment" back in November. We're still waiting for you to have yours.

By Tim Grieve

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

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