Won't Defend? Then Attack!

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 13, 2005; 12:54 PM

How do you defend Karl Rove? The way he himself has so effectively defended President Bush over the years, of course. You attack.

The White House yesterday officially stayed mum regarding Rove's role in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, its only concession being a generic expression of confidence in all who serve the president.

And this morning , asked directly if he had spoken to Rove about the matter and whether he felt Rove's conduct was improper, Bush simply refused to say, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

"I will be more than happy to comment on this matter once this investigation is complete," he said, joining in the White House stonewall that began on Monday.

But Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman yesterday began a pro-Rove media charge. His message, summed up by these talking points , is not as much a defense of Rove against the various charges leveled against him as it is an attack on the credibility of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV -- Plame's husband, and the person who Rove was trying to discredit when he mentioned Plame in the first place.

Mehlman won't say whether he talked to Rove about his approach, but either way, his methodology is tried and true Rovian genius.

As I wrote in my June 24 column , back when some Democrats were calling on Rove to apologize for describing the liberal approach to national security as being weak and possibly even treasonous: "Rove has a brilliant and so far unbeatable strategy when it comes to political warfare." He doesn't defend, he doesn't apologize, he attacks.

But there are some warning signs this time.

For example, not everyone in the Republican Party is playing along. An awful lot of senior members of Bush's party are sitting this one out for now.

And Rove and the White House face adversity on three fronts:

There's a possible criminal charge looming.

There's a credibility issue based on all the denials that Rove was involved in any way with the Plame case.

And there's the context in which this took place: Rove, after all, was attacking a report by Wilson that cast doubt on the administration's case against Saddam Hussein's quest for weapons of mass destruction. The White House was at the time desperately -- and effectively -- waving the media away from any doubts about Bush's rationale for war. But Wilson was ultimately proven right on the issue of WMD, and the White House was ultimately proven wrong.

The pro-Rove attacks don't really engage on any of those three fronts -- but rather attempt to open a fourth. Will the public's focus shift so easily? It's an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, the unofficial scuttlebutt from the White House is that the only way Bush will ever jettison his friend and chief adviser is if he is criminally indicted.

But the furor shows no signs of abating. And all sorts of interesting developments that will keep media coverage at a fever pitch just keep on coming.

Among the latest: Byron York of National Review Online's revealing interview with Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin.

Luskin has previously said that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald had told him that Rove was not a "target" of the criminal investigation. All that would mean, however, is that Fitzgerald was at that point not ready to actually declare his intention to indict Rove.

But Luskin has now told that National Review that Fitzgerald identified Rove, among others, as a "subject."

In grand-jury talk a subject -- unlike an ordinary witness -- is someone who faces possible indictment.

And investigative reporter Murray Waas blogs today that his sources tell him that columnist Robert Novak -- the first person to publish Plame's identity -- has in fact spoken at length to prosecutors.

That would explain why Novak isn't in jail.

But, Waas reports, the prosecutors don't necessarily believe what Novak told them, which is why they want to talk to other reporters about what Novak's sources told them.

Read on.

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The GOP Strategy

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "The emerging GOP strategy -- devised by Mehlman and other Rove loyalists outside of the White House -- is to try to undermine th[e] Democrats calling for Rove's ouster, play down Rove's role and wait for President Bush's forthcoming Supreme Court selection to drown out the controversy, according to several high-level Republicans. . . .

"Mehlman, who said he talked with Rove several times in recent days, instructed GOP legislators, lobbyists and state officials to accuse Democrats of dirty politics and argue Rove was guilty of nothing more than discouraging a reporter from writing an inaccurate story, according to RNC talking points circulated yesterday."

As for what's going on behind closed doors: " 'No one has asked him what he told the grand jury. No one has deemed it appropriate,' said a senior White House official, who would discuss the Rove case only on the condition of anonymity. 'What you all need to figure out is, does this amount to a crime? That is a legitimate debate.' Still, some aides said they were concerned about the unknown. 'Is it a communications challenge? Sure,' the official said."

Edwin Chen and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House's strategy appears to be a textbook example of trying to change the subject by shifting the focus.

" 'The RNC is trying to get the attention off the White House,' said David Gergen, a Harvard University government professor who has worked for presidents of both parties. 'A week ago, this was all about the press. Now it's back to the White House, which is not what they want.' . . .

"The RNC's aggressive stance in the face of mounting Democratic criticism suggests that Republicans hope the public will dismiss the complex controversy as a partisan 'food fight,' in the words of one Republican senator's chief of staff, who requested anonymity. 'They're trying to dilute the matter,' the aide said. . . .

"Later in the day, a senior administration official said only: 'We've lived with the investigation for two years, and we're not changing approach or focus now.' "

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Current and former White House officials who know both men say they have no doubt that as long as Mr. Rove faces no serious legal charges -- and so far he has yet to be charged with anything, and may never be -- Mr. Bush will defend him. . . .

"It is impossible to know whether any closed-door conversations have begun in the White House about whether to find a graceful way for Mr. Rove to exit partially, or as one former official said, to 'get the benefit of the brain without the proximity of the body.' "

John King had this to say on CNN: "Rove tells friends he is certain he broke no laws and is not a target of the investigation. And he also tells those friends he's quite confident this storm will pass when the investigation comes to a close.

"But some Republicans are getting more than a little nervous. And as one close Rove associate put it after spending time with him this week, quote, 'He knows he's going to be a pinata for a while here.'

"If Rove take as political beating, it ultimately may have less to do with the leak in question and more to do with the administration's changing statements about it."

Mehlman's Message

Mehlman spoke about Rove with Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday: "The fact is, this is someone who serves our president, serves our country incredibly well. It's incredibly unfortunate that there are other people out there, while he fully cooperates with the investigation, that try to smear him and thereby smear the investigation."

Blitzer asked if he'd talked about the matter with White House officials, and Mehlman wouldn't say. "My conversations today have been focused on CAFTA, on judges," Mehlman said, inconclusively.

Blitzer gave Mehlman credit for coming on camera: "You had the guts to come out and speak on these sensitive issues, but at the White House, they seem to be putting up this stonewall. They're not answering any questions."

And yet here are some of the questions Blitzer asked that Mehlman didn't answer:

"When you say the story was false, is there any evidence Niger was sending uranium, enriched uranium to Iraq?"

"Were you called before a grand jury?"

"Why can't you tell us if you've been asked to testify?"

"Do you believe Judy Miller should be sitting in jail right now?"

"As far as you know, are other White House officials being investigated right now as a potential source for this leak?"

Luskin Speaks

Byron York got Rove lawyer Luskin to open up more than he has before.

York writes that Luskin "addressed the question of whether Rove is a 'subject' of the investigation. Luskin says Fitzgerald has told Rove he is not a 'target' of the investigation, but, according to Luskin, Fitzgerald has also made it clear that virtually anyone whose conduct falls within the scope of the investigation, including Rove, is considered a 'subject' of the probe. 'Target is something we all understand, a very alarming term,' Luskin says. On the other hand, Fitzgerald 'has indicated to us that he takes a very broad view of what a subject is.' "

For the record, according to the United States Attorneys' Manual : "A 'target' is a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant. . . .

"A 'subject' of an investigation is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury's investigation."

Subjects, unlike ordinary witnesses, face possible indictment. So, for instance, targets and subjects get their rights read to them before they testify before grand juries.

Luskin complained to York about how Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper used Rove's statements about Plame. " 'By any definition, he burned Karl Rove,' Luskin said of Cooper. 'If you read what Karl said to him and read how Cooper characterizes it in the article, he really spins it in a pretty ugly fashion to make it seem like people in the White House were affirmatively reaching out to reporters to try to get them to them to report negative information about Plame.' "

Also: "Luskin declined to say how Rove knew that Plame 'apparently' (to use Cooper's word) worked at the CIA. But Luskin told NRO that Rove is not hiding behind the defense that he did not identify Wilson's wife because he did not specifically use her name. Asked if that argument was too legalistic, Luskin said, 'I agree with you. I think it's a detail.' "

Speaking of Subjects

Richard Keil and Holly Rosenkrantz write for Bloomberg: "Rove is not the only potential subject for Fitzgerald's probe. . . .

"People familiar with the inquiry say Fitzgerald also is reviewing testimony by former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, though it is not clear whether the prosecutor is focusing on him or seeking information about higher-ups. Fleischer last night refused to comment.

"Other Bush aides who have testified to the grand jury or been questioned by prosecutors include [White House press secretary Scott] McClellan; Rove; former Deputy Press Secretary Adam Levine; Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff; and Dan Bartlett, a Bush communications adviser.

"Bush himself was questioned by Fitzgerald in the Oval Office on June 24, 2004."

Novak Spoke?

Investigative reporter Murray Waas writes in his blog: "Columnist Robert Novak provided detailed accounts to federal prosecutors of his conversations with Bush administration officials who were sources for his controversial July 11, 2003 column identifying Valerie Plame as a clandestine CIA officer, according to attorneys familiar with the matter. . . .

"Novak had claimed to the investigators that the Bush administration officials with whom he spoke did not identify Plame as a covert operative, and that use of the word 'operative' was his formulation, and not theirs, according to those familiar with Novak's accounts to the investigators. . . .

"Federal investigators have been skeptical of Novak's assertions. . . . That skepticism has been one of several reasons that the special prosecutor has pressed so hard for the testimony of Time magazine's Cooper, and New York Times reporter Judith Miller. . . .

"Also of interest to investigators have been a series of telephone contacts between Novak and Rove, and other White House officials, in the days just after press reports first disclosed the existence of a federal criminal investigation as to who leaked Plame's identity. Investigators have been concerned that Novak and his sources might have conceived or co-ordinated a cover story to disguise the nature of their conversations. That concern was a reason -- although only one of many -- that lead prosecutors to press for the testimony of Cooper and Miller, sources said."

McClellan: Beaten Like a Dusty Rug

John Roberts had this to say on the CBS Evening News last night: "The White House has got to come up with something other to say on this, politically at least, than just: 'We're not going to talk about an investigation.' Because for the last two days, the press secretary has just been hung up on a clothesline and beaten like a dusty rug."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing.

"Some of you asked a couple of questions about does the President still have confidence in particular individuals, specifically Karl Rove," McClellan said. "I don't want to get into commenting on things in the context of an ongoing investigation. So let me step back and point out that any individual who works here at the White House has the confidence of the President. They wouldn't be working here at the White House if they didn't have the President's confidence."

But that was about all he would say on the matter.

Blogger Wonkette wrote: "The live White House feed included an engineer calibrating the cameras by holding up a blank sheet of paper. In the movies they call this 'foreshadowing.' "

Odds and Ends

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank was Live Online yesterday:

Q: "What odds would you give at this point that this will lead to Rove's firing?"

Milbank: "My predictions are often comically off, but here goes: This is Karl Rove's town, and the rest of us -- President Bush included -- are just living in it."

Tim Russert had this to say on NBC's Today show yesterday: "As one Republican said to me last night, if this was a Democratic White House, we'd have congressional hearings in a second."

FishbowlDC blogger Garret M. Graff chatted with members of the White House press corps yesterday: " 'You don't want to be in trouble in the summertime,' one veteran White House correspondent said. 'There's something about a scandal in the summer that people don't generally survive.' "

Opinion Watch

Wall Street Journal editorial: "Democrats and most of the Beltway press corps are baying for Karl Rove's head over his role in exposing a case of CIA nepotism involving Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame. On the contrary, we'd say the White House political guru deserves a prize -- perhaps the next iteration of the 'Truth-Telling' award that The Nation magazine bestowed upon Mr. Wilson before the Senate Intelligence Committee exposed him as a fraud."

John Podhoretz in the New York Post: "Karl Rove didn't 'out' Valerie Plame as a CIA agent to intimidate Joe Wilson. He was dismissing Joe Wilson as a low-level has-been hack to whom nobody should pay attention. He was right then, and if he said it today, he'd still be right."

Michael Goodwin in the New York Daily News: "The intense grilling that White House reporters inflicted on presidential spokesman Scott McClellan Monday over whether political guru Karl Rove leaked the name of a CIA operative was no ordinary give-and-take. It was a hostile hectoring that revealed much of the mainstream press for what it has become: the opposition party."

New York Times editorial: "Mr. Rove could clear all this up quickly. All he has to do is call a press conference and tell everyone what conversations he had and with whom. While we like government officials who are willing to whisper vital information, we like even more government officials who tell the truth in public."

Harold Myerson in The Washington Post: "Rove did not become George W. Bush's indispensable op only because of his strategic smarts. He's also the kind of ethically unconstrained guy Bush has wanted around when the going gets tough -- when the case Bush is making is unconvincing on its own merits, when he needs to divert attention from himself with a stunning attack on somebody else. . . .

"You can go pretty far with this kind of modus operandi, particularly if the press is complaisant. Sometimes, you can go too far, as Joe McCarthy discovered when he leveled his woozy allegations against the Army. As Karl Rove is discovering, with ever clearer indications that in his zeal to bring down Wilson he went after a CIA agent, too."

Cragg Hines in the Houston Chronicle: "If Bush attempts to temporize or to protect Rove by parsing legalisms, he will be no better than Bill Clinton dancing around what 'is' means."

San Jose Mercury News editorial: "McClellan's credibility has been shredded. Consider this assertion Monday: 'No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States.'

"Really? Has the president talked with Rove?"

Bob Ray Sanders in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "[I]f the president doesn't get this fox out of the White House, he may find a few wolves at his own door."

Financial Times commentary: "The dust-up over Karl Rove's role in the Valerie Plame leak affair has the usually docile White House press corps smelling blood. . . .

"It was left to Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the Washington press corps and usually the toughest of McClellan's interrogators, to throw a rare softball. 'Has Karl Rove apologised to you?' she asked. McClellan would not comment."

Chris Lehmann in the New York Observer: "Hounding a suit as empty as Mr. McClellan's into submission is far from a ringing vindication of the press' power. Indeed, like virtually everything else in the ghastly, backwards-spooling Plame saga, it exposes the press' sallow, retiring weakness in affairs of state."

The Miller Puzzle

So, why is Judy Miller, alone among all the reporters, in jail?

Other reporters have spoken to prosecutors after receiving explicit releases from Libby and Rove -- and, in the case of The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, Libby and someone else but we don't know who.

So is Miller's source someone else? Is that person not willing to provide the explicit release? Has she asked?

Or was Miller, who critics have accused of carrying water for war hawks before and during the war, spreading the news about Plame herself?

Just a few days before the Plame leak, Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post about several ways in which Miller's conduct was unusual for a reporter. For instance: "[A] half-dozen military officers said that Miller acted as a middleman between the Army unit with which she was embedded and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi."

Now John Podhoretz writes in National Review's blog: "What if -- and here's where it gets really interesting -- what if the real object of interest where Fitzgerald's investigation is concerned is now none other than the jailed Judith Miller of the New York Times? What if she let it all slip and in the giant game of telephone around the nation's capital, Miller was the original source of the 'Plame's in the CIA' info?"

Bush Calls For Jailed Reporter's Release

No, not that one, silly.

Here's Bush's statement .

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush called Tuesday for the release of an Iranian journalist jailed for writing articles linking government officials to murder."

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