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Context of 'July 11, 2005: Press Secretary Grilled by White House Press Corps over Rove-Plame Revelations'

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Scott McClellan and Karl Rove.Scott McClellan and Karl Rove. [Source: Doug Mills / New York Times]Newly promoted White House press secretary Scott McClellan takes part in his first truly contentious White House press briefing. He will later recall feeling “well prepared,” both from the morning’s less formal “press gaggle” and from a prebriefing preparation session with his staff. He has confirmed from President Bush and White House chief of staff Andrew Card that the White House had no involvement in the Plame Wilson leak (see September 29, 2003). McClellan is authorized to say that anyone involved in the leak “would no longer be in this administration”; Bush has said, “I would fire anybody involved.” McClellan will later write, “I had his full, unequivocal approval.” Bush has also reminded McClellan to ask reporters to come forward if they know who the leakers are. [McClellan, 2008, pp. 187-189]
Leakers 'Would No Longer Be Part of This Administration' - During the briefing, McClellan says that it is “simply not true” that White House political adviser Karl Rove is involved in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity (see September 26, 2003 and September 27, 2003). He says, after frequent questioning about Bush being “passive” about the possibility of criminal activities in the White House, “If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.” [White House, 9/29/2003; New York Times, 2006]
Denying Rove's Involvement - McClellan denies again and again that Rove or any other White House official leaked Plame Wilson’s identity to the press. “[T]hat is not the way this White House operates,” he says. “The president expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. No one would be authorized to do such a thing. Secondly, there—I’ve seen the anonymous media reports, and if I could find out who ‘anonymous’ was, it would make my life a whole lot easier.… [A]nyone—anyone—who has information relating to this should report that information to the Department of Justice.” The only information suggesting White House involvement has come from the media, McClellan says. A reporter asks McClellan about his statement earlier in the day that “the president knows” Rove did not leak Plame Wilson’s name. McClellan says: “I’ve said that it’s not true. And I have spoken with Karl Rove.… [Bush is] aware of what I’ve said, that there is simply no truth to that suggestion. And I have spoken with Karl about it.” When pressed about discussing the matter with Rove, McClellan adds, somewhat contradictorily: “I’ve known Karl for a long time, and I didn’t even need to go ask Karl, because I know the kind of person that he is, and he is someone that is committed to the highest standards of conduct.… I have spoken with Karl about this matter and I’ve already addressed it.” McClellan refuses to answer repeated questions about any possible White House investigations or attempts to find the leakers, repeating his answer that any such investigation is a task best left to the Justice Department and repeatedly asking reporters if they have any information about the leaks. He dodges repeated questions about the possibility of Attorney General John Ashcroft appointing a special counsel to investigate the leaks (see December 30, 2003). [White House, 9/29/2003]
'Aggressive' Push Back against Reporters' 'Assumptions' and 'Challenges' - McClellan will later describe his performance at the briefing as “push[ing] back aggressively on assumptions embedded in the questions, and challeng[ing] reporters to produce information suggesting that White House aides were responsible for the leak.” He will write: “Those last words [the statement that anyone caught leaking information ‘would no longer be part of this administration’] would get plenty of media play over the next few years, particularly as important information came to light. With the president’s approval and his oft-stated commitment to honor and integrity embedded in my mind, I could not have been more confident in what I said.” The post-briefing critique with his staff, he will recall, is “very positive.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 187-189]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Karl C. Rove, Scott McClellan, Andrew Card, John Ashcroft, US Department of Justice, Valerie Plame Wilson, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

After being ordered to assure the press that Lewis “Scooter” Libby knew nothing of the Plame Wilson leak (see October 4, 2003), White House press secretary Scott McClellan agrees to follow that order if Libby himself will give him that same assurance. McClellan calls Libby and asks, “Were you involved in the leak in any way?” Libby replies, “No, absolutely not.” Together, they decide what reporters McClellan should call, and McClellan begins spreading the word among a wide array of national media correspondents. [McClellan, 2008, pp. 218-220] (Later research by author and blogger Marcy Wheeler indicates the reporters McClellan contacts are most likely the Associated Press’s Scott Lindlaw, Michael Isikoff or Evan Thomas of Newsweek, an unnamed reporter for the New York Times, and the Washington Post’s Mike Allen.) [Marcy Wheeler, 6/10/2008] The line is, as agreed upon, Libby “neither leaked the classified information, nor would he condone it.” Shortly afterwards, McClellan decides on his own to make the same assurances about National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams, who has angrily denied rumors of his own involvement (see October 5, 2003). “I was becoming increasingly frustrated,” McClellan will write, “as this was exactly what I didn’t want to happen. I was putting myself in the middle of the investigation by publicly vouching for people, against my own wishes and against the sound advice of White House counsel.… In hindsight, the president should have overruled his advisers and demanded that an internal investigation be conducted to determine whether there might have been any White House involvement. He also should have ordered the public release of as much information as possible as soon as it was known, so that the scandal would not take on a life of its own.” McClellan will theorize that Bush “chose not to do so, perhaps feeling that keeping clear of the story would insulate him and protect him from potential political damage. Instead, it gave the story broader and longer life, only helping to reinforce the permanent state of suspicion and partisan warfare he had pledged to move beyond.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 218-220]

Entity Tags: Mike Allen, Michael Isikoff, Elliott Abrams, Evan Thomas, George W. Bush, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Marcy Wheeler, Scott Lindlaw, Scott McClellan

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Through White House spokesmen, two senior Bush officials deny being involved in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see July 14, 2003 and July 17, 2003). Neither Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, nor Elliott Abrams, the director of Middle East affairs for the National Security Council, were involved in the leak, according to spokesmen; the same claim has been made for White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. According to press secretary Scott McClellan, Libby “neither leaked the classified information, nor would he condone it.” The disclaimers are in response to reporters’ questions. [New York Times, 10/5/2003] In 2007, the prosecution in the Libby perjury trial (see January 16-23, 2007) will enter into evidence a page of undated notes taken by Libby around this time. The notes are talking points for McClellan, and indicate that McClellan should use lines such as “I’ve talked to Libby. I’ve said it was ridiculous about Karl and it is ridiculous about Libby. Libby was not the source of the Novak story. And he did not leak classified information.” Libby’s notes also advise McClellan to say something like, “Not going to protect one staffer & sacrifice the guy the Pres that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” Cheney has crossed out the words “the Pres,” obviously not wanting McClellan to reference President Bush (see October 4, 2003). [Office of the Vice President, 9/2003 pdf file; National Public Radio, 3/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Valerie Plame Wilson, Karl C. Rove, Scott McClellan

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

During a press conference, President Bush is asked, “[D]o you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found to have” leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s name to the press? Bush replies, “Yes.” [White House, 6/10/2004] Not only will Bush not fire either his chief political adviser Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, when evidence clearly shows both men leaked Plame Wilson’s name to the media, but when Libby is later convicted of lying about his leaks and obstructing justice in the investigation, Bush will commute his sentence, ensuring that Libby does not pay for his crimes (see July 2, 2007).

Entity Tags: Karl C. Rove, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Valerie Plame Wilson, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff reveals that White House political strategist and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove was Time reporter Matthew Cooper’s source in revealing that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003). Isikoff learns that Rove was Cooper’s source from Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin. Rove has given Cooper permission to testify about their conversations surrounding Plame Wilson and her husband, Joseph Wilson, and anonymously confirms his identity as the source. There is no indication in Cooper’s notes or e-mails to suggest that Rove knew Plame Wilson was a covert operative. However, Isikoff notes, “it is significant that Rove was speaking to Cooper before Novak’s column appeared; in other words, before Plame’s identity had been published.” A “source close to Rove” says, “A fair reading of the [Cooper] e-mail makes clear that the information conveyed was not part of an organized effort to disclose Plame’s identity, but was an effort to discourage Time from publishing things that turned out to be false.” In 2008, current White House press secretary Scott McClellan will write that Luskin’s confirmation is “part of Karl’s and Luskin’s strategy.” Luskin continues to publicly insist that Rove never actually leaked Plame Wilson’s identity. [Newsweek, 7/10/2005; McClellan, 2008, pp. 261] He tells a Washington Post reporter that while Rove mentioned someone he identified as “Wilson’s wife,” he never actually identified her to Cooper by name. Rove also identified Plame Wilson, falsely, as the person who sent Wilson to Niger on behalf of the CIA (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, and October 17, 2003). [Washington Post, 7/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Michael Isikoff, Karl C. Rove, Joseph C. Wilson, Matthew Cooper, Robert Luskin, Scott McClellan, Valerie Plame Wilson

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

David Gregory.David Gregory. [Source: TopNews (.us)]In light of the revelation that White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove was a source for a reporter in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see July 10, 2005), the White House press corps grills press secretary Scott McClellan unmercifully on the entire issue. Plame Wilson will reveal a modicum of sympathy for the beleaguered McClellan, whom she will note “endured what had to be one of his hardest days on the job as reporters competed to ask the next question.” The reporters are eager to pry information out of McClellan and are exasperated at his refusal to answer questions in any depth.
Fire Rove? - One of the most probing questions involves the White House’s promise to fire anyone involved in the leak (see September 29, 2003). Asked, “Does the president stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak of a name of a CIA operative?” McClellan responds that the White House is not going to comment on an ongoing investigation, an answer the gathered reporters find less than satisfactory. “Excuse me,” the reporter continues, “but I wasn’t actually talking about any investigation. But in June of 2004, the president said that he would fire anybody who was involved in the leak. And I just want to know, is that still his position?” McClellan continues to deflect the question with the standard “refusal to comment on an ongoing investigation” line. He also refuses to answer the direct question, “Did Karl Rove commit a crime?”
McClellan Cleared Rove, Others of Culpability - Another reporter, apparently NBC’s David Gregory, asks why McClellan told reporters that Rove, along with National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams and the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, were definitely not involved in the leak. “[Y]ou said, ‘I’ve gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they are not involved in this’—do you stand by that statement?” McClellan confirms he said that “as part of helping the investigation 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.” The reporter calls McClellan’s response “ridiculous,” and says: “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 decided not to talk. You’ve got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium, or not?” When McClellan says he will go into further detail “at the appropriate time,” Gregory interjects, “Why are you choosing when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate?” McClellan begins, “If you’ll let me finish—” and Gregory cuts him off, saying: “No, you’re not finishing—you’re not saying anything. You stand at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke out 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 public, he did, indeed, talk about [Wilson’s] wife, didn’t he?” McClellan continues to refuse to answer. Later in the conference, he is asked if “you will be consistent with your word and the president’s word that anybody who was involved would be let go?” McClellan says he “will be glad to talk about it at that point.”
Ordered to Stop Talking? - Another reporter, following up on Gregory’s relentless questioning, asks: “When did they ask you to stop commenting on it, Scott? Can you peg down a date?” McClellan answers vaguely, “Back in that time period.” The reporter then notes that “the president commented on it nine months later (see June 10, 2004). So was he not following the White House plan?” Again, McClellan refuses to answer. Another reporter tries a different tack, asking, “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?” McClellan answers that “those overseeing the investigation expressed a preference to us that we not get into commenting on the investigative side while it’s ongoing.”
When Did Bush Know? - McClellan is asked bluntly, “When did the president learn that Karl Rove had—” to which McClellan interrupts with, “I’ve responded to that question.”
Changing the Subject - McClellan then calls on Raghubar Goyal of the India Times, who he is sure will ask a foreign policy question having nothing to do with Rove or Plame Wilson. He manages to keep the subject more or less off of Rove for the remainder of the conference. Plame Wilson will recall, “I almost felt sorry for McClellan, who was perspiring and had that deer-in-the-headlights look to him.” [White House, 7/11/2005; Wilson, 2007, pp. 223-227]
Change in Media Focus - After this press conference, as Plame Wilson will note, the press begins issuing far more skeptical reports on the leak and its investigation, depending less on White House spin about the Wilsons’ supposed culpability and zeroing in on the roles of Rove, Libby, and other White House officials. Plame Wilson will recall that for the first time, the pressure was easing off of them and being refocused onto the White House. [Wilson, 2007, pp. 227-228]
McClellan: Press Conference 'Brutal,' 'Humiliating' - McClellan will later characterize the press conference as “brutal.” He calls NBC’s Gregory “mocking” when Gregory asks whether he still stands by his old assertions of no involvement by Rove (see September 29, 2003), Lewis Libby (see October 4, 2003), and Elliott Abrams (see October 5, 2003). ABC’s Terry Moran is incredulous that McClellan would try to hide behind a refusal to “comment on an ongoing investigation.” McClellan will later write, “Eventually, long after leaving the White House, I came to see that standing in front of the speeding press bus in those days had much more to do with protecting the president and the White House from further political embarrassment than respecting the sanctity of the investigation.” McClellan will reflect that it was during this press conference, as he felt his “reputation crumbling away, bit by bit,” that he began to lose his “affection for the job.” He will write: “The ridicule I received that day and the following ones, though dispiriting and humiliating, was justified, given what I had previously said. Since my hands were tied (see July 10, 2005), about all I could do was go into a defensive crouch.” After the conference, McClellan receives a brief verbal apology from Rove. McClellan will write, “It’s clear to me, Karl was only concerned about protecting himself from possible legal action and preventing his many critics from bringing him down.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 260-261]

Entity Tags: Elliott Abrams, Joseph C. Wilson, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, David Gregory, Bush administration (43), Raghubar Goyal, Karl C. Rove, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Scott McClellan, Valerie Plame Wilson, Terry Moran

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

During a press conference, President Bush is asked if he still intends to fire anyone involved in the Plame Wilson leak, and if he is “displeased that Karl Rove told a reporter that Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife worked for the [CIA] on WMD issues.” Bush, described as looking “mildly annoyed,” responds, “We have a serious ongoing investigation here,” and adds: “[I]t’s being played out in the press. And I think it’s best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. And I will do so, as well. I don’t know all the facts. I would like to know all the facts. The best place for the facts to be done is by somebody who’s spending time investigating it. I would like this to end as quickly as possible so we know all the facts, and if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration.” The last line regarding a “crime” was carefully selected before the conference by White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who, press secretary Scott McClellan will later write, wanted to “redefine the terms of firing someone who might have been involved in the leak, specifically Karl.” The New York Times observes, “The remarks appeared to shift the standard for dismissal that has been expressed repeatedly over many months by Mr. Bush’s spokesmen—from promises to fire anyone who played a role in the disclosure, to Mr. Bush’s statement today that criminal conduct would have to be involved.” McClellan dutifully echoes the new phrase in his own press conference, “barely objecting that it did not square with what the president had previously committed to do” (see September 29, 2003 and June 10, 2004). “I think that the president was stating what is obvious when it comes to people who work in the administration: that if someone commits a crime, they’re not going to be working any longer in this administration,” McClellan tells reporters. “I think that you should not read anything into it more than what the president said at this point.” McClellan will later describe himself as “psychologically battered” by this point (see July 11, 2005). [New York Times, 7/18/2005; White House, 7/18/2005; New York Times, 7/19/2005; McClellan, 2008, pp. 262-263]
Accusations of Shifting Standards, 'Lowering the Ethics Bar' - Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) says he is disappointed in what he believes to be Bush’s shifting stance. “The standard for holding a high position in the White House should not simply be that you didn’t break the law,” he says. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) writes a letter to Bush charging that he has “significantly changed” his position, and that a president has “an affirmative obligation” to take quick action to protect national security secrets without waiting for a prosecution to run its course. [New York Times, 7/18/2005] Other Democrats charge that Bush has “lowered the ethics bar” for his administration. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) says: “It appears that an administration that came to office promising ‘honesty and integrity’ and to avoid ‘legalisms’ is now defining ethical standards downward. In this White House, apparently no aide will be fired or forced to resign unless and until the jail cell door is locked behind him.” [Associated Press, 7/18/2005]
Rove Held to Different Standard of Accountability, Say Experts - Some experts say that by insisting on waiting for a final legal verdict, Bush is setting a different standard of accountability for Rove than for other government employees. Elaine Kaplan, who headed the Office of Special Counsel from 1998 through 2003, says: “Government employees and officials who are negligent with classified information can lose their jobs for carelessness. They don’t have to be convicted of intentionally disseminating the information. Crime has never been the threshold. That’s not the standard that applies to rank-and-file federal employees. They can be fired for misconduct well short of a crime.” Beth Slavet, the former chair of the Merit Systems Protection Board, adds: “The government can fire a Civil Service employee if it can show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it would ‘promote the efficiency of the service’ to do so. The person does not have to be guilty of a crime. You can be dismissed because you didn’t submit paperwork on time, you didn’t follow instructions, you repeatedly showed up late for work, or you yelled at supervisors and fellow workers.” [New York Times, 7/19/2005]

Entity Tags: Beth Slavet, Charles Schumer, Dan Bartlett, Henry A. Waxman, Elaine Kaplan, Scott McClellan, George W. Bush, John Conyers, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who has faced an increasingly disbelieving and hostile Washington press corp in his role as Bush administration spokesman in handling the Plame Wilson identity leak (see July 11, 2005), announces his upcoming resignation. Possible successors include Fox News commentator Tony Snow, former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, and Dan Senor, a former coalition spokesman after the invasion of Iraq, though Clarke says she is not interested in the job. President Bush says McClellan has had “a challenging assignment.” He adds: “I thought he handled his assignment with class, integrity. It’s going to be hard to replace Scott, but nevertheless he made the decision and I accepted it. One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas and talking about the good old days.” McClellan tells reporters that he has been considering leaving for weeks, ever since chief of staff Andrew Card announced his own resignation. “With a new chief of staff coming on board,” McClellan says, “it was a good time to make this decision. And three years would have been an awfully long time in this position. I’ve been at this for a long time and I didn’t need much encouragement to make this decision, even though you all [reporters] kept tempting me.” [MSNBC, 4/20/2006; New York Times, 4/20/2006] Neither Bush nor McClellan tell the press that McClellan did not decide on his own to leave, but was asked to resign by Card’s successor, Joshua Bolten. In his 2008 book What Happened, McClellan will write that he had indeed considered leaving his position, perhaps by July 15, 2006, but was taken aback when Bolten informed him the week before that he had made the decision for him to leave. “[T]his is a White House that is severely crippled and in need of change,” Bolten told McClellan. “One area that I have decided needs to change is your position.” McClellan will write that his first, emotional response was, “He’s ready to throw me to the wolves,” but rationally, he understands that Bolten is just making a decision he feels he needs to make. “I had been on the defensive too often since the Rove revelations in July” (see July 10, 2005 and July 10, 2005), McClellan will write. “A press secretary cannot survive for long under such circumstances.” McClellan will add that when he discusses his upcoming resignation with Bush, the president seems regretful that he is leaving, but McClellan is not entirely convinced of Bush’s sincerity, even when Bush tears up during their brief conversation. [McClellan, 2008, pp. 298-301]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Dan Senor, Victoria (“Torie”) Clarke, Tony Snow, Joshua Bolten, Scott McClellan, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Lewis Libby, second from left, and members of the press watch video of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s press briefing.Lewis Libby, second from left, and members of the press watch video of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s press briefing. [Source: Art Lien / NBC]In the Lewis Libby perjury trial, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald plays video excerpts from press briefings by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who fielded questions about the Valerie Plame Wilson CIA identity leak (see October 4, 2003 and October 7, 2003). Judge Reggie Walton has ruled that he does not grant credibility to charges by Libby’s defense team that Libby is being “scapegoated” by the White House to protect White House political strategist Karl Rove, and denies the defense’s attempt to suppress the videos. “There’s no evidence of an effort to throw [Libby] under the bus,” Fitzgerald argues to Walton, and he says he wants to show the videos to disprove Libby’s contention of scapegoating. However, Walton rules that because the press briefings were so emotionally charged (see September 29, 2003 and July 11, 2005), to allow the jury to hear them in their entirety would prejudice it against Libby. Instead, prosecutors read aloud the questions reporters asked McClellan and the jurors see only brief excerpts. The videos show McClellan assuring reporters that he had been assured Libby did not leak classified information, and promising that any White House official who did leak information would be summarily fired. [Washington Post, 2/2/2007; Associated Press, 2/2/2007; Los Angeles Times, 2/2/2007; MSNBC, 2/21/2007; BBC, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Reggie B. Walton, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Karl C. Rove, Nathan Siegel, Scott McClellan, Patrick J. Fitzgerald

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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