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McClellan’s Momentum Killers

whgaggle1.jpgWhen he’s decided he’s had enough of the question of the day, Scott McClellan needs to look no further than the second row of the press briefing room. At the end of the row most days sits a mysterious foil known to everyone in the room as Goyal. He can always be counted on to ask something off-topic–generally something about India or Kashmir.

It changes the subject, albeit momentarily, and that’s all it takes to suck the wind from the sails of the the mainstream press. This week, McClellan has been repeatedly using Goyal (Full moniker: Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe) to get out of the tough questioning he’s facing on the Rove leak investigation. After nearly ten minutes today of grilling by various TV networks and other top news organizations, he turned to Goyal:

McCLELLAN: It doesn’t change what I just said. Go ahead, Goyal.

GOYAL: Scott, two questions. One, this morning at the National Press Club, John from the Heritage Foundation was speaking. This is — my question is in connection with the Prime Minister of India’s visit on Monday, next Monday. He said that the U.S. should change its policy as far as India, China and U.S. is concerned because China is getting away…..

Blah, blah, blah. As he blathers on, the moment passes. It takes some time to wind the conversation back to the topic of the day, and more often than not the questioning never reaches the intensity it once had.

Yesterday, after a brow-beating the likes of which McClellan has rarely seen in his two years at the podium, he also turned to Goyle to escape:

Q Well, you haven’t responded to that. Do you think you went too far two years ago?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.

GOYAL: Scott, for the first time on Capitol Hill, two day’s conference — on Kashmir is going on. But for the first time group is saying that they are showing the other side of the Kashmiris being brutalized and killing — killed in Kashmir like Kashmiri — Kashmiri Hindus. And several congressmen — Congressman Wilson, and he said that he just came back from Cuba prison and talking with the prisoners and all that, and he said that those prisoners are there to stay because those are the one who killed 60,000 Kashmiri — in India, and those are the ones who killed 9/11 — or thousands in America and killing around the globe. So he said they are there to stay. But he said that now the time has come that India and U.S. should work together to fight against terrorism because common enemies are — of the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest and richest democracy. Will the President agree with him or just what he said yesterday –

You might remember that among the whole Jeff Gannon kerfuffle earlier this year, many accused the White House of using him to deflect and distract from harsh lines of questioning. While it sounds silly (why doesn’t someone right after just ask a follow-up question?), the argument actually carries a lot of weight.

Just as assuredly as the mood ends the moment someone answers a cell phone call mid-coitus, a barrage of questioning can be ended by just a few non-sequitors.

In addition to Goyle, McClellan knows he can always have Les Kinsolving make everyone lose interest in the briefing. Here are Les’ offers in recent days:

  • Scott, in the event of nuclear terror on American soil, an event that has been characterized by some, including Vice President Cheney as inevitable, what would the U.S. response be?
  • Washington’s Weekly Standard reports that when they asked the President to identify the Supreme Court justice who is his model for what a justice should be, he said Antonin Scalia. And he told the same thing to Tim Russert. And my question: Does the President disagree with Justice Scalia’s strong dissent with the 5-4 majority on the Lawrence v. Texas case?
  • The news that the G8 nations offered the Palestinian Authority $9 million inevitably recalls the 2003 International Monetary Fund report that Yasser Arafat diverted $900 million to a special bank account he controlled. And my question: Considering Mammoud Abbas’s long association with Arafat, plus his refusal to dismantle any terrorist groups like Hamas, in accordance with the road map, how on earth did the President allow nearly a billion to Abbas without U.S. protest?
  • Does the President believe that it is outrageous for a Los Angeles advertising man to be conducting a campaign to persuade the town selectmen of Weare, New Hampshire, to approve the building of a hotel on the land where Justice Souter’s house is located? Or does he regard this as an historic irony resulting from Souter’s vote in the case of Kelo versus the City of New London?

Even Les seems to know his role. Today, as McClellan faced down a second attempt by a group of reporters to force some answers on the Rove leak investigation (the first being ended, of course, by calling on Goyal), Les’ booming voice rung out: “Scott, I have a non-Rove question.” Of course, he got the nod.

Yesterday, one regular White House reporter explained how desperate McClellan was to escape the Rove grilling by saying, “He really dove for Goyal today.” When Goyal starts speaking, the press corps knows, their real work is over. The rest of the briefing is going to just be play.

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