July 11, 2005

Stranger than fiction…

You cannot make up something like this: Scott McClellan explaining previous answers to the press regarding Karl Rove’s role as a source for Matt Cooper. [Some commentary added.]

Q: Does the president stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in a leak of the name of a CIA operative?

MCCLELLAN: I appreciate your question. I think your question is being asked related to some reports that are in reference to an ongoing criminal investigation. The criminal investigation that you reference is something that continues at this point.

[No one cares if he appreciates the question, although we might appreciate a straight answer. McClellan tries to deflect the question by reframing the reporter’s purpose. That allows him to place it in the context of the criminal investigation so that he can claim he can’t answer. He’ll use this tactic throughout the following exchange.]

And as I’ve previously stated, while that investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment on it.

[Except when it does…more anon.]

The president directed the White House to cooperate fully with the investigation. And as part of cooperating fully with the investigation, we made a decision that we weren’t going to comment on it while it is ongoing.

Q: I actually wasn’t talking about any investigation. But in June of 2004, the president said that he would fire anybody who was involved in this leak to the press about information. I just wanted to know: Is that still his position?

[Glad to see this reporter is awake. He/she rejects the reframing.]

MCCLELLAN: Yes, but this question is coming up in the context of this ongoing investigation, and that’s why I said that our policy continues to be that we’re not going to get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation from this podium.

The prosecutors overseeing the investigation had expressed a preference to us that one way to help the investigation is not to be commenting on it from this podium….

QUESTION: Scott, if I could point out: Contradictory to that statement, on September 29th of 2003, while the investigation was ongoing, you clearly commented on it. You were the first one to have said that if anybody from the White House was involved, they would be fired. And then, on June 10th of 2004, at Sea Island Plantation, in the midst of this investigation, when the president made his comments that, yes, he would fire anybody from the White House who was involved, so why have you commented on this during the process of the investigation in the past, but now you’ve suddenly drawn a curtain around it under the statement of, We’re not going to comment on an ongoing investigation?

[A normal human being would/should be embarrassed by this clearly accurate assertion about commenting on the investigation. McClellan, however, is no ordinary human being. Rhetorically, he is a human heat shield. Do not underestimate the skill and sheer balls it takes to do this job. I am quite serious when I say that I’m in awe of McClellan’s talent.]

MCCLELLAN: Again, John, I appreciate the question. I know you want to get to the bottom of this. No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States.

[And he’s funny, too! hahahahaha!]

And I think the way to be most helpful is to not get into commenting on it while it is an ongoing investigation. And that’s something that the people overseeing the investigation have expressed a preference that we follow.

[This tactic also makes it easier to sweep under the carpet later, but McClellan knows not to mention this.]

And that’s why we’re continuing to follow that approach and that policy. Now, I remember very well what was previously said. And, at some point, I will be glad to talk about it, but not until after the investigation is complete.

Q: So could I just ask: When did you change your mind to say that it was OK to comment during the course of an investigation before, but now it’s not?

[This reporter suffers from the delusion that a good question based on facts in the public record can knock a weasel off balance. Tsk, tsk. When will they ever learn, when willll theeeey e-ever learn…?]

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think maybe you missed what I was saying in reference to Terry’s question at the beginning. There came a point, when the investigation got under way, when those overseeing the investigation asked that it would be — or said that it would be their preference that we not get into discussing it while it is ongoing.
I think that’s the way to be most helpful to help them advance the investigation and get to the bottom of it.

Q: Scott, can I ask you this: Did Karl Rove commit a crime?

[Bad question. But such things happen when skilled flacks tie you in knots. I’ll bet McClellan was grinning on the inside when he got this one. I would be. It’s a lot like my tennis game. The first time my opponent throws his racquet, I know I’ve won 🙂 ]

MCCLELLAN: Again, David, this is a question relating to a ongoing investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation. And I don’t think you should read anything into it other than: We’re going to continue not to comment on it while it’s ongoing.

Q: Do you stand by your statement from the fall of 2003, when you were asked specifically about Karl and Elliot Abrams and Scooter Libby, and you said, “I’ve gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they are not involved in this”?

MCCLELLAN: And if you will recall, I said that, as part of helping the investigators move forward on the investigation, we’re not going to get into commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time as well.

Q: Scott, this is ridiculous. The notion that you’re going to stand before us, after having commented with that level of detail, and tell people watching this that somehow you’ve decided not to talk. You’ve got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium or not?

[This reporter suffers from the delusion mentioned above.]

MCCLELLAN: I’m well aware, like you, of what was previously said. And I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is when the investigation…

Q: (inaudible) when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate?

MCCLELLAN: If you’ll let me finish.

Q: No, you’re not finishing. You’re not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke about Joseph Wilson’s wife. So don’t you owe the American public a fuller explanation. Was he involved or was he not? Because contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his wife, didn’t he?

[Crack! I can hear that racquet hitting the court.]

MCCLELLAN: There will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time to talk about it.

Q: Do you think people will accept that, what you’re saying today?

MCCLELLAN: Again, I’ve responded to the question.

QUESTION: You’re in a bad spot here, Scott… because after the investigation began — after the criminal investigation was under way — you said, October 10th, 2003, “I spoke with those individuals, Rove, Abrams and Libby. As I pointed out, those individuals assured me they were not involved in this,” from that podium. That’s after the criminal investigation began.

Now that Rove has essentially been caught red-handed peddling this information, all of a sudden you have respect for the sanctity of the criminal investigation?

MCCLELLAN: No, that’s not a correct characterization. And I think you are well aware of that.

[Excellent response. McClellan refuses to accept the reporter’s frame of reference. Further, he asserts (between the lines) that his own frame is the one true version of the truth and the reporter knows it. The facts are not in dispute. Facts can never be in dispute in an argument. Something in dispute cannot be a fact until established as a fact, e.g. it either is or is not 72 degrees outside. We have an accepted way to measure temperature. And once established, it is absurd to dispute it. What 72 degrees means or how it is framed, however, may certainly be in dispute.]

We know each other very well. And it was after that period that the investigators had requested that we not get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation.

[Someone needs to check this out right now.]

And we want to be helpful so that they can get to the bottom of this. Because no one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States.

I am well aware of what was said previously. I remember well what was said previously. And at some point I look forward to talking about it. But until the investigation is complete, I’m just not going to do that.

Q: So you’re now saying that after you cleared Rove and the others from that podium, then the prosecutors asked you not to speak anymore and since then you haven’t.

[Good clarifying question.]

MCCLELLAN: Again, you’re continuing to ask questions relating to an ongoing criminal investigation and I’m just not going to respond to them.

[Sorry. That answer should be in play considering he’s based all his answers so far on this point.]

Q: When did they ask you to stop commenting on it, Scott? Can you pin down a date?

MCCLELLAN: Back in that time period.

Q: Well, then the president commented on it nine months later. So was he not following the White House plan?

MCCLELLAN: I appreciate your questions. You can keep asking them, but you have my response.

[Again, the tennis metaphor is apt. McClellan is the perfect pusher: No matter what shot you make, the ball just keeps coming back until your head explodes.]

Q: Well, we are going to keep asking them. When did the president learn that Karl Rove had had a conversation with a news reporter about the involvement of Joseph Wilson’s wife in the decision to send him to Africa?

MCCLELLAN: I’ve responded to the questions.

Q: When did the president learn that Karl Rove had been…

MCCLELLAN: I’ve responded to your questions.

Q: After the investigation is completed, will you then be consistent with your word and the president’s word that anybody who was involved will be let go?

MCCLELLAN: Again, after the investigation is complete, I will be glad to talk about it at that point.

Q: Can you walk us through why, given the fact that Rove’s lawyer has spoken publicly about this, it is inconsistent with the investigation, that it compromises the investigation to talk about the involvement of Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff, here?

MCCLELLAN: Well, those overseeing the investigation expressed a preference to us that we not get into commenting on the investigation while it’s ongoing. And that was what they requested of the White House. And so I think in order to be helpful to that investigation, we are following their direction.

Q: Scott, there’s a difference between commenting on an investigation and taking an action…

MCCLELLAN: (inaudible)…

Q: Does the president continue to have confidence in Mr. Rove?

MCCLELLAN: Again, these are all questions coming up in the context of an ongoing criminal investigation. And you’ve heard my response on this.

[This is a thing of beauty. I know steam must be shooting out of liberal ears right about now, but you must appreciate the skill that it takes to be a good presidential press secretary.]

Q: So you’re not going to respond as to whether or not the president has confidence in his deputy chief of staff?

MCCLELLAN: You’re asking this question in the context of an ongoing investigation, and I would not read anything into it other then I’m simply going to comment on an ongoing investigation.

[Missed opportunity! Change the context. Ask: “In regard to running the day-to-day operations of the White House, and having nothing to do with anything discussed so far, does the President have confidence in Karl Rove.” 🙂 That would be amusing. But McClellan is too smart to fall for it. The answer: “You’re STILL asking this question in the context…”]

Q: Has there been any change, or is there a plan for Mr. Rove’s portfolio to be altered in any way?

MCCLELLAN: Again, you have my response to these questions….


Q: There’s a difference between commenting publicly on an action and taking action in response to it. Newsweek put out a story, an e-mail saying that Karl Rove passed national security information on to a reporter that outed a CIA officer. Now, are you saying that the president is not taking any action in response to that? Because I presume that the prosecutor did not ask you not to take action and that if he did you still would not necessarily abide by that; that the president is free to respond to news reports, regardless of whether there’s an investigation or not.

So are you saying that he’s not going to do anything about this until the investigation is fully over and done with?

[Nice try.]

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think the president has previously spoken to this.

This continues to be an ongoing criminal investigation. No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States. And we’re just not going to have more to say on it until that investigation is complete.


Q: When the leak investigation is completed, does the president believe it might be important for his credibility, the credibility of the White House, to release all the information voluntarily that was submitted as part of the investigation, so the American public could see what transpired inside the White House at the time?

MCCLELLAN: This is an investigation being overseen by a special prosecutor. And I think those are questions best directed to the special prosecutor.

Q: Have you or the White House considered whether that would be optimal to release as much information and make it as open…

MCCLELLAN: It’s the same type of question. You’re asking me to comment on an ongoing investigation and I’m not going to do that.

Q: I’d like you to talk about the communications strategies just a little bit there.

MCCLELLAN: Understood. The president directed the White House to cooperate fully with the investigation, and that’s what he expects people in the White House to do.

Q: And he would like to do that when it is concluded, cooperate fully with…

MCCLELLAN: Again, I’ve already responded.

Q: Scott, who in the investigation made this request of the White House not to comment further about the investigation? Was it Mr. Fitzgerald? Did he make a request of you specifically?

MCCLELLAN: You can direct those questions to the special prosecutors. I think probably more than one individual who’s involved in overseeing the investigation had expressed a preference that we not get into commenting on the investigation while it’s ongoing.

Here is my own question for the press: Why do you put yourselves through this? Isn’t it clear that the press gaggle is a useless forum devoid of news?

One might claim that exposure of McClellan’s weaseltude is news. I disagree. He’s paid to be a weasel, and he’s one of the best that’s every practiced that important political art. He’s doing what’s expected, and “what’s expected” is not among the usual list of things defined as news. Part of his mastery is understanding how to speak in such a way that the perlocutionary acts following from them fall neatly along partisan lines. And this makes the press look like a bunch of slobbering liberals. Never mind that, for the most part, the questions above are important and beg for answers.

The press gaggle is not a civic forum. It is a snake pit where news goes to die. And these hapless reporters enter the pit everyday expecting to reason with the snake. How silly is that?

5 Responses


    Andrew Cline at Rhetorica is always good for a brisk intellectual workout, as he parses journalism and politics through the frame of rhetoric, but today’s post is particularly rewarding.
    In it, Andrew, former journalist and now professor of tha…

  2. Mum’s the Word

    When I read the transcript of today’s White House press briefing with Scott McClellan, I knew someone was going to pull this “McClellan’s a rhetorical genius” bit. Nonsense. People did the same thing with Ari F., and I call…

  3. john 

    Nice blog. Keep it up. Visit me at john

  4. RE: Your Snarkmarket comment

    I remain unconvinced. I can’t claim to have ever taught Aristotle, but it seems to me he treats rhetoric as a tool and persuasion as an end. I would argue with the characterization of McClellan’s performance yesterday as persuasive. If anything, it seemed spectacularly unpersuasive. A child could read that transcript and parse the dogged avoidance in McClellan’s responses.

    Even taking your criterion for rhetorical success — stopping discourse — I think McClellan clearly failed. True, the discourse never advanced beyond a very basic point. However, it marched to that point again, and again, and again, and again, despite all his best efforts to kill it. The press corps dealt McClellan no fewer than 35 questions on the Rove matter, 34 questions after he made the first attempt to, as you say, stop discourse. It would seem to me that a more skillful rhetorician would have concocted responses so circuitous and devious and propagandistic that he would have silenced the questioners early on.

    By McClellan’s standard of stopping discourse, repeating “No comment” 35 times would be a stunning display of rhetoric. And I’m not sure I buy that.

    Cross-posted to Snarkmarket.

  5. acline 

    Matt… So does that mean I used bad rhetoric? 🙂

    Well, yes.

    Is 35 times too many? Would one time have signaled a better rhetorical performance? That’s interesting to think about. My evaluation rests on what happened: He stopped the discourse. Could he have done it “better.” Depending upon what one means by that, the answer is certainly “yes.”