The Oval: Stonewalling?

Contentious news conferences are nothing new in the hothouse of the James S. Brady press briefing room at the White House. But new evidence about Karl Rove's role in the Valerie Plame leak has turned the already tense daily press briefings into something of a frenzy. On Monday, reporters repeatedly slammed White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan for refusing to comment on questions about Rove's discussions with Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, in which the White House deputy chief of staff told the reporter that former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. When reporters pressed McClellan if he stood by previous comments that Rove had no involvement in the leaking of Plame's name, the Bush spokesman demurred, saying "I appreciate the question"--but adding that he couldn't comment because of an "on-going investigation."

That was a line repeated by McClellan's boss after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. "I have instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation. I also will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports," President Bush told reporters. "We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation and I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed." That would be fine if neither President Bush nor McClellan had commented before on the investigation. Unfortunately for both of them, their comments were fully recorded and broadcast all the way through last year.

This leaves White House aides with only one escape route, short of telling the full story about what Rove said and what Bush knew. That escape route is to fall back on personal charm and goodwill. The only problem is that five years into this administration, and three years after the searing experience of the run-up to war in Iraq, there's not a lot of goodwill left to go around. So McClellan returned to the briefing room Tuesday to find it even more crowded than usual, with every seat filled and correspondents lining the aisles. McClellan smiled and tried to make nice by joking about Bush's scheduled meeting that morning with NCAA champion sports teams. "I don't know why the Longhorns aren't here," McClellan quipped, referring to his alma mater, the University of Texas. When no one laughed, McClellan looked a little nervous.

He had every reason to feel that way. Minutes later, he was back to dodging questions on Rove and, more often than not, his own credibility. Back in 2003, McClellan said it was "ridiculous" to think Rove was involved in the Plame leak. (Although Rove was a Cooper source, there is no evidence that Rove told the reporter--or even knew--Plame's name or identified her as a covert operative.) This week, McClellan and other White House officials have offered up no such defense, remaining silent on a story that the administration clearly hopes will go away. But, judging by the mood of the White House press corps, that's not likely to happen anytime soon. The frustration over McClellan's silence this week has reached fever pitch not just because of the feeling that the White House may have misled the media about Rove's role, but also because reporters have become increasingly fed up with what they see as the White House's stonewalling on other issues, including Iraq, Social Security and, most recently, Bush's search for a Supreme Court nominee.

On a personal level, McClellan is well regarded by most White House reporters. His longtime relationship with President Bush means that he can speak with authority on much of what goes on behind closed doors at the White House. Yet McClellan is known for sticking relentlessly to the administration's talking points, no matter how hard he is badgered by reporters. It's a virtue that has garnered McClellan much admiration from Bush, yet has irked reporters time and again.

On Tuesday, as reporters filed in for McClellan's briefing, one longtime correspondent laughingly joked, "We're here for the barbecue!" Indeed, McClellan was ready for his roasting, brushing aside all questions on the Rove-Plame affair. When McClellan was asked if he had put his own credibility on the line, the spokesman dodged. "You all in this room know me very well, and you know the type of person that I am," he said. " I'm someone who believes in dealing in a very straightforward way with you all ... and that's what I've worked to do." As the questions continued, other White House press aides wore increasingly pained expressions. One reporter asked McClellan if the spokesman might allow his attorney to comment on the investigation. McClellan didn't answer. "There will be an appropriate time to talk about all this," McClellan said, as he exited the podium. "The time for that, though, is not now." Near the back of the room, a reporter mumbled, "Yeah, and when exactly will that be?"

A Supreme Surprise

As Bush prepares to name his nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, the White House continues to face strong resistance from conservative groups over the potential nomination of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Last week, opponents of the nomination got phone calls from White House officials urging them to quiet the anti-Gonzales rhetoric and even heard from Bush himself, who publicly warned that when his friends get attacked, "I don't like it."

The right's most frequent criticism of Gonzales is that he could be another David Souter, a moderate who was appointed to the court by Bush's father after assurances that he would tilt right on issues that conservatives care about. Yet, as conservatives often like to note, Souter has voted more often than not with the court's liberal bloc. In recent days, administration officials and their GOP surrogates have moved to blunt the criticism that "Gonzales is Spanish for Souter" by noting that, in choosing Gonzales, Bush would be picking a longtime friend and aide who wouldn't be as unpredictable as Souter. "Presidents have not had a successful track record of predicting how their nominees will act on the bench, which is one reason why the name of a trusted friend and ally like Al Gonzales keeps coming up," Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee, tells NEWSWEEK. "Obviously, David Souter was a shock. I don't think Al Gonzales would be."

Adding even more fuel to the Gonzales rumors: On Monday, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, a strong White House ally and one of the more conservative members of the Judiciary Committee, announced he had asked to meet with Gonzales privately this week to discuss his positions on key issues, including abortion. Brownback, who strongly opposes abortion, hasn't said publicly if he would support a Gonzales nomination. Brownback has strong ties to many of the conservative groups who have spoken out on Gonzales. Winning his support would be crucial should Gonzales be nominated. Yet, a Brownback spokesman tells NEWSWEEK that the Kansas senator is still waiting to hear back from the AG on his invite.

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