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The Fifth Visit

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 3:04 PM

Karl Rove has a long history of doing his best work when he's facing disaster, and that's where he was again yesterday as he made a startling fifth appearance before grand jurors investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity.

Was he able to clear up the contradiction in his previous sworn testimony? Or did he provide the grand jurors with further evidence of perjury or obstruction?

The tea-leaf reading is at a fever pace.

But there's so much we still just don't know. For instance, everything we're hearing this morning about what happened inside the courthouse yesterday is coming from Rove's camp, and is therefore presumptively spin. Even if Rove's people were out-and-out lying, grand jury secrecy rules would prohibit special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald from publicly setting the record straight.

The central motivation behind Rove's fifth visit remains unclear. Was it Rove trying desperately to avoid indictment -- even at the risk of possibly adding to the conflicting statements that could be held against him should he come to trial? Or was it Fitzgerald just trying to tie up a few loose ends with Rove's help, so he could get back to prosecuting former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby?

Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, released a statement yesterday saying that "Karl Rove appeared today before the grand jury investigating the disclosure of a CIA agent's identity. He testified voluntarily and unconditionally at the request of the Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to explore a matter raised since Mr Rove's last appearance in October 2005. . . .

"In connection with this appearance, the special counsel has advised Mr. Rove that he is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Fitzgerald has affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges," Luskin said.

But reading between those carefully crafted lines, it still seems possible that yesterday's session was Rove's idea, and that he is still very much in danger of being indicted.

The Coverage

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove sought to convince a federal grand jury yesterday that he did not provide false statements in the CIA leak case, testifying for more than three hours before leaving a federal courthouse unsure whether he would be indicted, according to a source close to the presidential aide.

"In his fifth appearance before the grand jury, Rove spent considerable time arguing that it would have been foolish for him to knowingly mislead investigators about his role in the disclosure of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame to the media, the source said. His grand jury appearance, which was kept secret even from Rove's closest White House colleagues until shortly before he went to court yesterday, suggests that prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald remains keenly interested in Rove's role in the case. . . .

"Rove's testimony focused almost exclusively on his conversation about Plame with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in 2003 and whether the top aide later tried to conceal it, the source said. Rove testified, in essence, that 'it would have been a suicide mission' to 'deliberately lie' about his conversation with Cooper because he knew beforehand that it eventually would be revealed, the source said. Lawyers involved in the case said yesterday that they expect a decision on Rove's fate soon."

Rove reportedly testified that he remembered talking to Cooper only after he found an e-mail that mentioned the conversation. That was also, coincidentally or not, after it started to look like Cooper would testify.

So here are the two possibilities grand jurors would appear to be considering: Either Rove honestly didn't remember the conversation until he found that e-mail -- or he lied under oath on the assumption that Cooper would keep quiet.

In the New York Times, which put a three-column picture of Rove over the fold of its front page , Anne E. Kornblut puts the case in its political context: "The appearance came at a politically sensitive time for Mr. Rove, who was relieved of his policy portfolio at the White House in a staff reshuffling earlier this month and now faces the challenge of helping Republicans maintain their primacy in the midterm elections this fall. . . .

"It was unclear on Wednesday whether the decision by the new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, to remove domestic policy from Mr. Rove's portfolio preceded the scheduling of his latest grand jury testimony."

(And here's a little unattributed mini-bombshell in -- I kid you not -- the very last sentence of Kornblut's article. It refers to Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist who first published Plame's name, but has been sphinxlike on the subject ever since: "Mr. Novak has testified to the grand jury since Mr. Rove's last appearance in October 2005.")

Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times: "At the time of the change in Rove's portfolio, White House aides said it was part of a broader reorganization and unrelated to Rove's ongoing legal vulnerability. But the request for him to testify again is believed to have come several weeks ago, and the White House may have been aware that his legal troubles were likely to flare again.

"Coincidentally or not, last week's action helped inoculate the White House against Rove's latest appearance before the grand jury. If Rove is indicted and forced to resign, the White House can say that Rove's substantive policy responsibilities have already been transferred."

Martin Schram of the Scripps Howard News Service wrote for Wednesday papers -- in other words, before anyone knew Rove was off to testify again -- that there was something fishy about Rove's change in responsibilities.

"When governments or the politicians who run them make announcements that are highly unusual, the journalist's job is to begin asking: 'Why this?' and 'Why now?' " Schram wrote.

"Now put yourself in the boots of the president. You are enduring bottom-dwelling poll numbers and unending bad news from Baghdad and beyond. Do you really want to risk one more potentially shattering development? Do you want to see headlines everywhere that say the beleaguered Bush White House was suddenly shattered by the indictment of its chief overseer of all policies, foreign and domestic? Do you want to endure a tsunami of chattering pundits cascading doom all over the nonstop TV news?"

The only problem with this theory, however, is that Rove is still, by all accounts, a tremendously influential figure in the White House -- and still very much on the payroll. If Bush wants to inoculate himself from a Rove indictment, he'll have to push Rove a heck of a lot further away than this.

Blogger Dissection

Kevin Drum and Jane Hamsher provide some pithy analysis. The Booman Tribune writes: "Predictably, Rove has attempted to take advantage of Fitzgerald's reticence to spin, in order to place his version of his testimony in the papers of record."

We also talked a bit about Rove in my We also talked a bit about Rove in myLive Online discussion yesterday.

Snow Day

Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's decision to hire conservative commentator Tony Snow as his chief spokesman reflects a consensus among the president and his top advisers that his White House operation has been too insular and needs to be more aggressive in engaging with the news media and other Washington constituencies, according to Bush aides and outside advisers. . . .

"White House officials also said Mr. Snow had been given leeway to be looser and to make more of a show of the daily news briefings, while trying to make nice to a press corps that has grown increasingly assertive as Mr. Bush's political strength has ebbed. . . .

"White House aides said there is now broad agreement that the first-term strategy of largely ignoring the mainstream Washington media was a mistake."

And wait, there're more to come: "Bush aides said at least one more well-known Republican will join the White House as early as next week as part of a shake-up also aimed at improving the president's lower-than-ever approval ratings and limiting GOP losses in congressional elections this fall."

James Gerstenzang and Ronald Brownstein write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush appointed Fox News commentator Tony Snow as his press secretary Wednesday, signaling that in its final 1,000 days, his White House plans significant changes in the way it reaches the American people. . . .

"He also is the first outsider given a top position during the White House shake-up engineered by Bolten, who has been chief of staff for less than two weeks."

Gerstenzang and Brownstein also note a distinction about Snow's resume that seems to have been lost on a lot of people: "Snow has largely made his living in the news business, but his experience has been as a commentator and editorial writer, not as a news reporter."

In fact, Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "In formally naming the Fox News commentator Tony Snow to be his press secretary on Wednesday, President Bush completed a decade-long transformation of the role of the presidential spokesman from behind-the-scenes functionary to daily on-camera personality.

"Mr. Snow is something the White House briefing room has not yet had at the lectern: a star of the opinionated cable news era. But he is also something Mr. Bush has never had: a free-wheeling outsider in a very public position, and one with a history of sharing critical opinions of the president."

Steve Gorman writes for Reuters: "Conservative talk radio has gone where it's never gone before -- to the briefing podium at the White House. . . .

"Now for the first time, one of [pioneering syndicated talk show host Rush] Limbaugh's fellow broadcast partisans has been installed as the official public face, and voice, of a Republican administration."

In His Own Words

Here is video of Snow's "exclusive interview" on -- surprise -- Fox News.

Snow initially took a pretty darn pro-press corps position:

"The people in that room want information, and if they don't get it, they're going to get cranky, so it's important to make sure that there's a flow of information."

But it didn't last long. Anchor Brit Hume's next question was scornful: "Well, is it important to keep the press from getting cranky, in your view?"

Snow replied: "Enh -- no. I don't think it's important."

So much for that, huh?

Hume: "Do you anticipate and hope to be liked by the press corps?"

Snow: "I think the most important thing is to be respected by the press corps. As you know, being chummy is one thing, but if I'm chummy and they're not getting information, or they're getting a quality of information that they don't think is worthwhile, it's not going to do you any good. So the idea I think is to do a competent job of getting information to the press corps so they respect you: You never lie, you never shade the truth. But on the other hand, you've got to keep in mind that the guy I'm working for is the president."

So on the one hand you do a competent job and don't lie. On the other hand, you're working for the president? Is he suggesting those are at odds?

There were conflicting reports yesterday on just how much say-so Snow will really have at the White House. Bush himself seemed to make it pretty clear yesterday when he said: "My job is to make decisions, and his job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people."

Hume asked: "Is it your expectation that you'll be at the table when policy decisions are made and that you'll have a voice?"

Snow replied: "Uh. That's one of those things that I'm just going to have to wait and see.

Hume: "Would you like that?"

Snow: "Yeah, probably. But, on the other hand, one of the things you have to do is figure out what the president likes, what the president wants."

Hume then confronted Snow with just one of the critical statements he's made about Bush: "No president has looked this impotent this long when it comes to defending presidential powers and prerogatives."

Snow seemed to recant.

"There are probably a lot of people in the press room who from time to time say, 'Hoo! I wish I hadn't written or said that,' " he said.

Snow also took some questions from Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers yesterday:

"Q. Your criticism of him in the past, are you free to keep telling him that kind of stuff now that you are on the payroll?

"A. Probably not in those exact words.

"Q. But the same message? They want to hear it?

"A. Yeah. They want people to express their opinions. You're not coming here to drink the Kool-Aid. You're coming here to serve the president. And at this particular juncture I think what you want is as much honest counsel as you can get. So when I agree I'm going to agree but when I disagree, I disagree. But on any opinion his vote is the tie-breaker."

"Q. On Iraq, you're still fully on board with what's going on over there?

"A. The president is the guy who runs the place. I'll speak for him and some other point I'll speak for myself. How's that?"

Wait: Bush is the tie-breaker? Not the decider? Snow might want to rephrase that one, too.

The Fox Angle

Matea Gold writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The selection of Fox News host Tony Snow on Wednesday as the next White House press secretary reignited a debate about the network's political leanings. . . .

"Snow's White House appointment reinforces for some the perception that Fox News is the go-to network for the administration, media observers said.

" 'Much of the public will say, "Suspicions confirmed," ' said Robert Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism department, adding that such sentiments understandably ruffle the network. 'The essence of journalism is independence and not hewing to any particular line.' "

Claire Shipman was euphemistic but snarky on ABC's Good Morning America: "This White House has long been familiar with Mr. Snow's talents because in the West Wing, Fox News is the channel to watch.

"There is just something about Fox News. Not only does the cable giant have more than twice as many primetime viewers as the closest competition, but it is often the network of choice for the administration in terms of big name interviews. And now, it turns out the network is home of the next White House press secretary. For his only interview of the day, he went to -- you guessed it -- Fox."

That Paper Trail

The New York Times publishes some excerpts from Snow's critical writings about Bush.

But the critiques really are few and far between. More typical were Snow's robust defenses of the White House, even when defenders were few and far between. For instance, here he is on the aftermath of Vice President Cheney's shooting accident, blaming the press corps: "In this case, some reporters, openly gleeful about Dick Cheney's predicament, became unwittingly Shakespearean -- fools telling tales, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

He even jumped to the administration's defense on the Dubai ports deal here : "Washington was wracked last week by a spasm of Know-Nothingism, starring Democratic and Republican members of Congress whose hysterics confirmed the Founders' view that the president, and not the legislature, ought to handle matters of national security."

When the New York Times broke the story of Bush's warrantless domestic spying, he wrote here : "Add 'domestic spying' to the long list of botched attempts to unseat George W. Bush."

Nancy Benac writes in the Associated Press that Snow has been much rougher on Democrats: "He's dismissed them as 'reduced to a state of unshakable hysteria' and faulted their 'righteous ignorance.' He's labeled Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid 'wheezy prophets of the Defeatocrat Party.' "

Too Extreme for the Briefing Room?

In fact, rather than focusing on Snow's critiques of Bush, a more appropriate question might be: Is he so ultra-conservative that he's out of the mainstream?

For instance, Peter Wallsten and Joel Havemann write in the Los Angeles Times: "His voice is quiet and authoritative. Even critics concede he has a talent for articulating policy issues and political philosophy. What has set Snow apart, however, is his penchant for making his points by walking close to the line in areas where others play it safe, including race.

"In 1991, Snow, then a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, defended some ideas of Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke at a time when Republicans were trying to distance themselves from the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Snow suggested that Duke was espousing some good conservative ideals, including family values and opposition to welfare dependency.

"In 2001, Snow wrote a column defending another former klansman, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), for his use of a racial epithet. . . .

"White House aides seemed unconcerned on Wednesday that race might become an issue for Snow. 'An overall look at Tony's record on race shows someone who has a long record of reconciliation and acceptance,' spokeswoman Erin Healy said in an e-mail."

On Keeping the Press Informed

David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post opinion column about the "reluctance of this president and his administration to accept a broad and continuing responsibility to keep the public and the press informed on the reasons for the policies they have adopted. . . .

"Unless the president comes to understand that it is in his interest -- as well as the country's -- to conduct a more open governing process, the new press secretary, Tony Snow, will find himself inevitably as much of a punching bag as [Scott] McClellan became. Only George Bush can signal to the White House staff and administration that he wants a government ready and eager to explain itself to the people it is trying to lead."

Poll Watch

Mark Murray of NBC News reports on the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: "According to the poll, Bush's approval rating fell by one point from last month to 36 percent, his lowest mark in the survey. But the troubling news for Bush doesn't stop there: [Democratic pollster Peter D.] Hart explains that Bush has now spent nine consecutive months at 40 percent or below in the poll, a feat exceeded only by Richard Nixon (13 months) and Harry Truman (26 months).

"[Republican pollster Bill] McInturff adds that it will be difficult for the president to substantially improve his standing, barring an increase in stability in Iraq or some kind of 'extraordinary' event taking place."

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Amid continued violence in Iraq and a looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Americans disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of foreign policy by roughly 2 to 1."

Here are the complete results .

Et Tu, Cato?

Gene Healy and Timothy Lynch write in a report for the Libertarian Cato Institute: "With five years of the Bush administration behind us, we have more than enough evidence to make an assessment about the president's commitment to our fundamental legal charter

"Unfortunately, far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power."

Courthouse Ducks

ABCNEWS.com has gripping footage of the mother duck and ducklings that -- at least visually -- upstaged Karl Rove at the federal courthouse yesterday.

And for those of you who think the press is heartless, watch as members of the corps help the little family cross a busy street.

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