President Bush broke his promise to the country by refusing to fire aide Karl Rove for leaking a CIA agent's identity, said Scott McClellan, the president's chief spokesman for almost three years.
"I think the president should have stood by his word and that meant Karl should have left," McClellan said Sunday in a broadcast interview about his new tell-all book, a scathing rebuke of the White House under Bush's leadership.
McClellan now acknowledges he felt burned by Rove, Bush's top political adviser, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. He said Rove and Libby assured him they were not involved in leaking CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, and he repeated those assurances to reporters.
In fact, Rove and Libby did help leak Plame's identity, as confirmed in a later criminal investigation. Libby had resigned by then, but Rove remained in office and eventually stepped down on his terms in August 2007.
"I think the president should have stood by the word that we said, which was that if you were involved in this in any way, then you would no longer be in this administration. And Karl was involved in it," McClellan said.
Rove never charged with a crime
The White House had said in 2003 that anyone who leaked classified information in the case would be dismissed. Bush reiterated that promise in June 2004.
By July 2005, Bush qualified his position, saying he would fire anyone for leaking classified information if that person had "committed a crime."
Rove was never charged with a crime.
McClellan writes in his book that Bush backpedaled to protect Rove, a point McClellan repeated in the interview.
"We had higher standards at the White House," McClellan said. "The president said he was going to restore honor and integrity. He said we were going to set the highest of standards. We didn't live up to that. When it become known that his top adviser had been involved, then the bar was moved."
Current and former White House aides have disputed McClellan's account of a White House that pushed aside candor and honesty as needed.
McClellan says he shares some blame for getting caught up in the culture of spin and passing on information he later learned to be untrue.
On other topics from his book, McClellan said Sunday:
- He was part of a White House effort to shade the truth about the case for war in Iraq. "I was part of this propaganda campaign, absolutely," he said.
- His tone for the book changed and grew sharper as he wrote it, and he reached different conclusions than he anticipated. "I believe I have gotten to the truth, from my perspective."
- He anticipated the fierce reaction he has received from critics, including former Sen. Bob Dole, who called McClellan a "miserable creature" motivated by greed. "This book takes aim at Washington, and there are many in Washington that were not going to be happy with it. I knew that going in," McClellan said.
McClellan was Bush's press secretary from July 2003 to April 2006. The White House says Bush was surprised, saddened and disappointed about the book, which is titled, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."
McClellan appeared on "Meet the Press" on NBC.