September 30, 2003


I don't know diddly about the Plame affair you haven't read elsewhere but that press conference Marshall excerpts today is notable for one reason... it's as nice a little piece of journalistic cross-examination in a scrum situation as you're likely to ever read. As an ex-practitioner of the journalism-PR adversarial contest, it's always nice seeing the game played at the highest level, and this was certainly it.

Note how the press questioners circle around the Bush PR secretary McClellan, patiently boxing him in. The central question in the second half of the interview is what the President knows now about the nom de Plame. McClellan's line is that he knows nothing. The technique is to work collectively to box McClellan into either going off message, or saying patently stupid. McClellan's job is to wriggle out of the box. This day, he loses. You can see the end coming several questions off... I confess I got the same joy out of reading it as I do following a Spassky-Fischer match in a chess book. The key passage:

QUESTION: Scott, the President came into office promising public integrity would be restored to this office and accountability. Isn't that true, he expects that from all members of his staff?
McCLELLAN: Yes, the President expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct.
Step one... get your subject to agree to a fundamental premise on which the next line of questioning will be hung: in this case, that ethics are important to the president. McClellan has previously conceded, as he pretty much had to, that outing CIA agents was unethical. He also has little choice but to answer in the affirmative here.
QUESTION: All right. If that's the case, then why does he even need an independent investigation? Why doesn't he simply call those who are responsible to come forward --
(Question follows from the last... McClellan, knowing this is an area with pitfalls, at first tries to switch topics back to the Justice inquiry.)
McCLELLAN: Do you have something to bring to our attention? I mean, let me make clear, if anyone has information about this leak of classified information, they need to report it to the Department of Justice -- anyone...
(Things meander for a while in this vein, without either side getting an opening Then...)
QUESTION: Has the President either asked Karl Rove to assure him that he had nothing to do with this; or did Karl Rove go to the President to assure him that he --
(Nice opener to a new tangent... Uncertain whether the attack is still on Bush or has switched back to Rove, McClellan stumbles, and can't recover for half a minute)
McCLELLAN: I don't think he needs that. I think I've -- and I've spoken clearly to this publicly that -- but it's -- yes, I've just said it's -- there's no truth to it.
QUESTION: But I mean --
McCLELLAN: So I think it doesn't --
QUESTION: But is the President getting his information from you? Or did the President and Karl Rove talk, and were there assurances given that Rove was not involved?
(Inspired follow-up. McClellan had previously said that he and Rove have discussed the matter. So he now either has to say he's received information the president's not privy to, or admit the president has already gotten involved. From this point on, he's trapped into saying something that will either be damaging, or stupid.)
McCLELLAN: I've already provided those assurances to you publicly.
QUESTION: Yes, but I'm just wondering if there was a conversation between Karl Rove and the President, or if he just talked to you, and you're here at this --
McCLELLAN: He wasn't involved. The President knows he wasn't involved.
QUESTION: How does he know that?
QUESTION: How does he know that?

McCLELLAN: The President knows.
(A palpable hit: "The president knows [Rove] wasn't involved," will appear in numerous stories the next day, because it tangibly ties Bush to the growing scandal. The press corps counts coup with a wry aside, then moves on, up one point in the box score.)
QUESTION: What, is he clairvoyant? How does he know?

UPDATE: If you can't see the minor victory of the press secretary saying "The President knows [Rove] wasn't involved," put it in another context. What if early in Iran-Contra, McClellan's counterpart had said, "Mr. Reagan knows Mr. North wasn't involved?" It basically would have made it impossible to claim later, once it turned out North was involved, to have claimed he had no knowledge of his underling's actions. The only possible way out would then have been that Mr. North lied to Mr. Reagan. And you can't publicly lie to the President and still work for his office. In other words, if the President says publicly he knows you didn't do something, and then it later turns out you did, your job is automatically forfeit. In effect, then, McClellan's statement formally put Mr. Rove's continued employment in the White House on the line, pending his exoneration in this affair.

Posted by BruceR at 12:22 AM