by Ted on September 29, 2003

I’ve read the transcripts of today’s press conferences (this one and this one), and it seems clear to me that Scott McClellan chose his words very carefully to avoid saying that Rove told him that he’s not the source of the leak. This certainly doesn’t prove that Rove is one of the leakers, but it’s pretty conspicuously not a denial.

Some people would consider this a long, nitpicking post. (Heck, I consider it a long, nitpicking post, but I don’t know another way to write it.) If you’re one of those people, and you know who you are, don’t continue reading.

Here’s an excerpt from Talking Points Memo. My comments are in parenthesis and italics. If I’m reading McClellan correctly, he’s continually making two points:

– I talked to Karl Rove
– The accusation that Karl Rove leaked this news is false/ “ridiculous”.

He repeatedly states these two points close to each other. But when directly asked the question “Did Karl Rove tell you that he was not the source for the leaks?”, he will not say yes.

QUESTION: Ambassador Wilson has said that he has information that Karl Rove condoned this leaking, and I’ve seen your comment that that’s absolutely false —

McCLELLAN: It is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. (He doesn’t say false. In fact, he corrects the questioner who says “false”. What he says is “ridiculous,” which is not the same thing, and not an answer.)

QUESTION: What do you —

McCLELLAN: And keep in mind, I imagine that only a limited number of people would even have access to classified information of this nature.

QUESTION: So he doesn’t have information?

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

McCLELLAN: Yes, go ahead. And, Helen, you may always follow up. Go ahead.

QUESTION: What, then, do you think the — given that you say Rove condoning this is ridiculous, what do you think Ambassador Wilson’s motivation is for leveling such a scurrilous charge?

McCLELLAN: I can’t speculate about why he would say such a thing. I mean, I saw some comments this morning, where he said he had no knowledge to that effect. But I can’t speculate why he would say that.

QUESTION: Did Rove say, “ridiculous”?

McCLELLAN: I did, for him. (So what did Rove say, then? Did Rove say anything at all?)

QUESTION: Did you speak with him about it?

McCLELLAN: Yes, I’ve spoken to him. (Later, he seems to reveal that he spoke to Rove weeks ago, and he hasn’t spoken to him on the subject since.)

QUESTION: But he told you, “ridiculous”?

McCLELLAN: No, I said — I told some of your colleagues that it was ridiculous. And, remember, I said this back — what, July and September this issue came up, and said essentially what I’ve said now. (This is key. He says, I’ve spoken to him, and he said… what? Nothing. He changes the subject back to “this is ridiculous.” He never says what Karl Rove told him.)

QUESTION: Can you characterize your conversation with him about this?

McCLELLAN: I talk to him all the time, so —

QUESTION: About this?

McCLELLAN: No, about a lot of issues.

QUESTION: But can you characterize your conversation about this subject with him?

McCLELLAN: I don’t think there’s anything to characterize. I mean, I think that what I said speaks clearly, that the accusations just simply are not true. (He refuses to talk about their conversation, and he deliberately steers away from saying how he knows that the accusation is not true. What he doesn’t say is “And I know this because Rove denied it to me.” This is also the first time that he seems to shift from “ridiculous” to “not true”. Does he mean it, or is he just playing a word game, defining “the accusations” as some set of accusations that includes a false item?)


QUESTION: You spoke directly with Rove about this?

McCLELLAN: I have spoken — I speak to him all the time, on a lot of things.

QUESTION: He categorically denied to you —

McCLELLAN: I just told you, it’s simply not true. (Again, he says “not true”. He refuses to answer the question about whether Rove told him that it was not true or not. To avoid that question, he answers a different one.)

QUESTION: Yes, but you refuse to say whether or not it was Rove who told you it’s untrue.

McCLELLAN: No, no, I spoke to Rove. I spoke to him about — no, I spoke to him about these accusations, I’ve spoken to him.

QUESTION: And Rove told you that they were not true —

McCLELLAN: That’s why I would be telling — (“Would be telling”? He seems to be shifting into hypotheticals to avoid an answer.)

QUESTION: — or is it just you —

McCLELLAN: That’s why I would be telling you what I did. (“I would be telling you”, rather than “That’s why I told you”)

QUESTION: — or is it just you who is telling us?

McCLELLAN: No, I have spoken to him and been assured. And that’s why I reported to you and reported to the media that it is simply not true. I like to check my sources, just like you do.

Now, here, after repeatedly refusing to answer the question over and over again, he says something that comes perilously close to saying that Rove told him- “I have spoken to him and been assured.” Is he saying that Rove told him that he wasn’t the leaker? Not exactly, but I’ll bet that we’ll be arguing just this point with our right-wing friends before the week is over.

If it is supposed to mean that Rove told McClellan that he didn’t do it, McClellan certainly doesn’t amplify on it in his second press conference later on in the day. Rather, he backs away from it, saying that he hasn’t spoken to Rove recently. His statements about how “ridiculous” the accusations are seem to come from his intimate knowledge of Rove’s character; they certainly don’t come from Rove himself.

MR. McCLELLAN: I’ve made it very clear, from the beginning, that it is totally ridiculous. 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. (Whoa! That’s a non-denial if I’ve ever heard one! He’s back to “ridiculous”! He didn’t even have to ask him? What’s up with that?)

Q Have you read any book about him lately?

Q — have a subsequent conversation with Mr. Rove in order to say that you had this conversation —

MR. McCLELLAN: I have spoken with Karl about this matter and I’ve already addressed it.

Q When did you talk to him? Weeks ago, or this weekend?

MR. McCLELLAN: What I said then still applies today, and that’s what I’ve made clear. (“What he said then” was weeks ago. Furthermore, what he said then was “the accusation is ridiculous”, not “the accusation isn’t true”, and definitely not “I spoke to him and he said he wasn’t the source.”) What he said was-

A: That’s just totally ridiculous. But we’ve already addressed this issue. If I could find out who anonymous people were, I would. I just said, it’s totally ridiculous.

Q: But did Karl Rove do it?

A: I said, it’s totally ridiculous.

Q I have one other follow up. Can you say for the record whether Mr. Rove possessed the information about Mr. Wilson’s wife, but merely did not talk to anybody about it? Do you know whether for a fact he knew —

MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know whether or not — I mean, I’m sure he probably saw the same media reports everybody else in this room has.

Q When you talked to Mr. Rove, did you discuss, did you ever have this information, could you have talked to him?

MR. McCLELLAN: We’re going down a lot of different roads here. I’ve made it very clear that he was not involved, that there’s no truth to the suggestion that he was.

Q Well, I’m trying to ask how —

MR. McCLELLAN: And, again, I said I didn’t — it is not something I needed to ask him, but I like to, like you do, verify things and make sure that it is completely accurate. But I knew that Karl would not be involved in something like this. (He’s gone back to strategic ignorance. He knows, in his heart, that Rove wouldn’t do this, and his faith is so strong that he doesn’t need to ask.

Q And that conversation that you had with Karl was this weekend? Or when was it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry? No, I’ve had conversations with him previously. I’m going to leave it at that. (Previously? Previously when? How does he know? He doesn’t say; the only evidence that he gives is his own judgement of Rove’s character.)

Faced with the direct question over and over, McClellan repeatedly fails to say that Rove told him that he wasn’t the source of the leak. One logical conclusion is that Rove did not, in fact, tell McClellan that he wasn’t the leaker, and McClellan knows better than to ask.

If I was the White House press officer, I would have gone into Rove’s office and said something like, “Karl, people are going to ask me if you were the source of the leak. On one hand, I can tell them that those rumors are ridiculous, that you wouldn’t be involved in something like that. On the other hand, I can tell them that you have told me that those rumors are false, and that you didn’t leak Valerie Plame’s identity. Which strategy do you think would be better? Strictly from a communications point of view, you understand.”

It seems likely to me that they chose the former strategy, because Rove just can’t deny that he was the source. Time will show if I’m right.

UPDATE: Edited slightly to remove double negative



Keith M Ellis 09.30.03 at 12:57 am

I’m in the process of reading the transcript of the second press conference. I am more than a little mystified by the repeated “Do you have specific information to bring to our attention?”. Am I dense in not understanding what the subtext of that is? Anyone? In the first press conference I thought I understood it to be a sort of diversionary tactic. But here in the second one, McLellan repeats it so often that it is striking, and makes me feel like there’s a coded message there I’m not getting.


Keith M Ellis 09.30.03 at 1:19 am

Okay, I think I get part of it. I think the administration is looking to deflect some blame onto the press for not earlier reporting what they knew to be a crime. In other words, the harder the press pushes on the White House for failing to do something about this, the more the White House can push back. It seems like a very weak defense, really, but I think my detection of preparatory finger-pointing at the press is correct.

Also, I think they want to pressure the press into betraying sources, which would be convenient for the WH in many regards.


William 09.30.03 at 1:38 am

Wow… I read the transcript of the first press conference, and it seemed that Scott McLellan was simply avoiding answering a direct question directly, you know, for practice. But that second press conference looks much worse. Wow.


Matt Weiner 09.30.03 at 4:25 am

You know, I don’t think the “for practice” idea is so implausible. It’s a good idea for WH Press secretaries to get evasive occasionally when they’ve got nothing to hide, just so evasiveness won’t be a sure sign that they’re guilty as heck.


pathos 09.30.03 at 4:34 am

The problem is that press secretaries only do this because it works.

Check out the AP story:


As long as the news outlets continue to headline non-denial denials as actual denials (and this is not political — the do it for everyone), they will get away with it. Don’t reporters screen “All The President’s Men” in journalism school? We all should know the Non-Denial Denial by now.

All they need is the AP to headline “White House refuses to categorically deny . . .” and the White Houses will stop doing it.


Matt McIrvin 09.30.03 at 2:19 pm

That transcript reminds me of those frustration nightmares in which I try unsuccessfully to tie my shoes twenty times in a row.

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