Scott McClellan's selective -- and successful -- silence

Did Bush know about Rove's role or didn't he? It depends on the time of day that you ask.

Published October 20, 2005 1:54PM (EDT)

We took Scott McClellan to task yesterday for selectively breaking his silence on the Valerie Plame investigation in order to throw cold water on a story suggesting that George W. Bush has known all along that Karl Rove leaked Plame's identity. It turns out that McClellan's work was even a bit slimier than we had noticed -- and that it seems to have worked.

During Wednesday morning's untelevised press gaggle, McClellan said he challenged the accuracy of a report in the New York Daily News that said that Bush had rebuked Rove for his role in Plamegate back in the fall of 2003. But when asked to explain the basis for his challenge, McClellan immediately said -- as he always does these days -- that he couldn't discuss an ongoing investigation. When a reporter said that the White House couldn't just challenge the accuracy of a story without saying why, McClellan responded: "Yes, I can. I just did."

People laughed.

But at the daily press briefing a short time later -- with the TV cameras on -- the White House press corps allowed McClellan to pretend that he'd never broken his silence on the story at all. Here's the transcript:

Question: Scott, did the president talk to Karl Rove two years ago about the leak?

McClellan: Steve, I appreciate the question. That's a question relating to an ongoing investigation, and I'm just not going to have further comment while that investigation is underway.

Question: Because the New York Daily News says the president rebuked Rove two years ago ...

McClellan: There are a lot of news reports out there and I've seen a lot of conflicting news reports, and we're just not going to comment any further on an ongoing investigation.

Question: It behooves you to ...

McClellan: Well, there's a special prosecutor doing his work, Helen, and we want him to come to a successful conclusion. And that's what we're doing, is cooperating --

Question: This is a question that directly affects the president, and --

McClellan: Cooperating with the ongoing investigation.

Question:: You should say it's true, or not true.

McClellan: As you have known for sometime now, we've been saying that while this is an ongoing investigation what we're going to do from the White House is cooperate fully with that investigation and let the special prosecutor do his work. We're not going to speculate or prejudge the outcome.

Question: We're not asking you to speculate. We're asking you, is this report true or not?

McClellan: And I've already answered that.

Of course, the people watching the press briefing on TV or reading about it on the White House Web site wouldn't know that McClellan had "already answered" the question with anything other than his usual "no comment." Maybe we're missing something, but is there some kind of rule that prevents reporters from raising at the press briefing something that came up earlier at the gaggle? What might have happened if someone at the press briefing had said, "Wait a minute, Scott. You said this morning that you challenged the accuracy of the Daily News report. Why won't you do that again now? Is it because the TV cameras are on? Or is it because you've learned something since this morning that has made you decide not to challenge the accuracy of the story now?"

But no one said that. And more important, no one in the mainstream media -- at least no one we've seen yet -- has picked up on the Daily News report. Maybe the other reporters have done their own follow-up on the Daily News report and concluded that the paper had it wrong. But if that's the case, why not say so? When the Daily News ran its story, it explained why it thought that earlier reports exonerating Bush were wrong. If others in the mainstream press think the Daily News story is wrong, why not write something explaining the basis for that view?

The more worrying thought is this: Did reporters in the White House press room simply accept McClellan's word about the accuracy of the Daily News report? If that's the case, then it's clear that the White House is still succeeding at manipulating the press, even in the midst of a scandal over the ways in which it has manipulated the press.

By Tim Grieve

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

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