Alito is the news, but questions about Plame persist

Scott McClellan, pressed to explain how he was "wrong" two years ago, says he still can't talk about the case.

Published October 31, 2005 8:27PM (EST)

If George W. Bush thought naming a new Supreme Court nominee would knock news of the CIA leak case right out of the news cycle, he was right. If he thought the nomination would end questions about the Valerie Plame case, he was wrong.

Scott McClellan is holding his daily White House press briefing now, and Valerie Plame's name seems to be coming up as often as Samuel Alito's. McClellan said two years ago that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby had assured him that they weren't involved in leaking Plame's identity. He hinted last week that he'd been misled just like everyone else. But asked today to come clean about Plamegate and his role in it, McClellan repeatedly refused to answer on the ground that the investigation and a legal proceeding are continuing. At one point, he said that he'd been directed by the White House counsel not to discuss the matter at all.

When NBC's David Gregory confronted McClellan with statements he made two years ago, McClellan said he continues to "look forward" to the day when he can discuss the case with reporters. When Gregory pushed, McClellan accused him of being "rude and disrespectful," then talked about the "relationship" of "trust" that he enjoys with the White House press corps. When a reporter suggested that that relationship had been damaged by the White House's false assurances in the Plame case, McClellan again retreated to his "no comment" position.

Later, McClellan said he has two responsibilities as White House press secretary: to "vigorously defend" the president and his policies, and to "make sure the American people get an accurate account of what's going on here in Washington, D.C." When a reporter asked whether he hadn't failed in that second role, McClellan refused to say more. "For me to even respond to that question would force me to talk about an ongoing investigation and legal proceeding," he said. "We've been directed not to do that. Whether or not that puts me in a difficult position is another matter."

Asked whether the president might pardon Libby, McClellan refused to speculate. Asked whether the president still has confidence in Rove, McClellan said that Bush has confidence in everyone who works for him.

A reporter read McClellan an excerpt from that 2001 speech in which Bush said that members of his administration must ask themselves "not only what is legal, but what is right." Then McClellan was asked whether the American people don't deserve some answers now. His response: "The American people deserve a White House that is committed to doing their work."

By Tim Grieve

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

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