Getting Worried at the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 14, 2005; 2:21 PM

President Bush's lackluster refusal to comment yesterday on his political guru's involvement in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame did nothing to ease growing worries at the White House that trouble may be around the corner.

There were no words of support for Karl Rove. No expression of confidence that the White House will come through all this unscathed. Speaking with exceptional restraint about an incident that occurred fully two years ago involving his longtime friend and confidante, Bush said he "will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports."

Jim VandeHei and Carol Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "White House officials acknowledged privately that they are concerned that the investigation will lead to an indictment of someone in the administration later this year."

And there may be good reason.

"Several people familiar with the investigation said they expect [special prosecutor Patrick J.] Fitzgerald to indict, or at least force a plea agreement with, at least one individual for leaking Plame's name to conservative columnist Robert D. Novak in July 2003," VandeHei and Leonnig write.

"A number of legal experts, some of whom are involved in the case, said evidence that has emerged publicly suggests Rove or other administration officials face potential legal threats on at least three fronts.

"The first is the unmasking of CIA official Valerie Plame, the original focus of special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's probe. But legal sources say there are indications the prosecutor is looking at two other areas related to the administration's handling of his investigation. One possible legal vulnerability is perjury, if officials did not testify truthfully to a federal grand jury, and another is obstructing justice, if they tried to coordinate cover stories to obscure facts."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The failure by Bush to publicly back Rove left some White House advisers privately wondering whether the president was distancing himself from his longtime adviser."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Republicans are nervously watching the fight over Karl Rove's involvement in a news leak that exposed a CIA officer's identity, fearing that President Bush's chief adviser has become a major political problem. . .

"[S]everal top GOP officials -- including some White House advisers -- said the fight was becoming a distraction to Bush's agenda. The GOP officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid looking disloyal, said the president may face a credibility problem because his spokesman said in September that anybody involved in the leak would be fired."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Thirty-two years into a relationship that has endured five campaigns and left its imprint on world history, President Bush demurred from defending longtime top adviser Karl Rove on Wednesday.

"The president who values loyalty above all else is, at least for now, hindered by two of the most feared words in Washington: special prosecutor. . . .

"In the past, Rove has used his political skill and ever-growing roster of connections to get him through scrapes that were relatively minor compared to this one, which could lead to prison time if it is found that he revealed the name of a covert CIA operative or obstructed the leak investigation."

Edward Alden writes in the Financial Times: "When Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, twice offered to resign amid the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, President George W. Bush refused. When Tom DeLay, the House Republican leader, was under a cloud for allegedly taking trips paid for by super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Mr Bush invited him aboard Air Force One.

"So it has been strange this week to watch Mr Bush avoid even the slightest expression of public support for Karl Rove, his political right hand and the man most responsible for the president being president. . . .

"Mr Bush's silence is a sign he could be facing a serious threat to his presidency."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "no one expects Bush to fire Karl Rove anytime soon, short of a grand jury indictment. . . .

"Czar of White House policy and message, mastermind behind Bush's winning campaigns for the Texas governorship and two presidential terms, architect of the 'new Republican majority,' Rove is nearly as central to Bush's presidency as Bush himself. . . .

"Privately, Republicans concede the controversy hurts and wonder why Bush does not simply say Rove did not break the law and clarify that when he said he'd fire anyone in his administration for revealing classified information, he specifically meant someone who broke the law."

This Reuters photo shows Rove hovering behind Bush during the Cabinet meeting yesterday.

John Roberts reports for CBS News: "It must have been uncomfortable for the deputy chief of staff today, in his usual seat in the Cabinet Room, while the president fielded repeated questions about his actions. . . .

"Perhaps Rove's greatest transgression, though is that he has become a nagging distraction for a White House that is desperately trying to stay on message this summer, anxious to get some part of the president's agenda through, by the August recess."

Political Pressure

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Democrats tried to keep up the pressure on Mr. Rove. Some, led by Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, began an uphill effort to force a House vote on a resolution demanding that the administration turn over any documents bearing on disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity.

"Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Mr. Bush seeking withdrawal of Mr. Rove's security clearance. Senate Democratic leaders sent their own letter to the White House, calling on the administration to conduct a new investigation into the leak given the disclosure about Mr. Rove."

And MoveOn, a liberal advocacy group, called a protest and picket in front of the White House this afternoon to demand Rove's firing.

Bad Time for a Credibility Crisis

Here's NBC's Tim Russert with Brian Williams last night, describing the results from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll -- which predates the roiling Rove imbroglio.

Says Russert: "The Bush White House always felt whether you agreed or disagreed with the president on any issue, there was a sense that he was honest and straightforward. The president may be losing some of that trust. Look at these numbers."

Asked if they consider Bush honest and straightforward, 41 percent said yes, 45 percent no. It was 50-36 in January. "That is a net loss of 9 points," Russert says. The cause? Iraq is now considered the top priority, having surged ahead of jobs, Russert said -- and the public sees a gulf between the White House rhetoric and the realities on the ground.

The poll also found Bush's overall job approval rating down to 46, with 49 percent disapproving. It was 47-47 in May, according to this poll.

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows how much Mr. Bush's political standing has been weakened as he confronts controversy over a top aide's discussion of a Central Intelligence Agency operative's employment, a Supreme Court vacancy, his Social Security plan and Iraq. Majorities of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the economy, foreign policy and Iraq. And a plurality rates Mr. Bush negatively on 'being honest and straightforward' for the first time in his presidency.

"Nevertheless, the president continues to benefit from resilient support for the U.S. presence in Iraq even after two years of insurgent attacks. By 57% to 42%, Americans say it is important to maintain the nation's military and economic commitment to Iraq until it can govern and control itself. And by 61% to 34%, they agree with Mr. Bush's assertion, which he recently reiterated in a nationally televised speech, that the war in Iraq is part of the broader war against terrorism."

But take a close look at the poll results .

A majority of those polled disapprove of how Bush is handling the economy, foreign policy -- and Iraq. A plurality -- 49 percent -- agree that "we should set a deadline for withdrawing our troops from Iraq." And asked "If the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq there will be more terrorist attacks in the United States," only 36 percent agree -- compared to 54 percent who disagree.

Finally, it's not just honesty where Bush is taking a hit. Only 50 percent of those polled gave him high ratings for being easygoing and likeable, down from 57 in January; 43 percent gave him high ratings for being smart, down from 50; 40 percent gave him high ratings for being compassionate enough to understand average people, down from 47; and only 29 percent gave him high ratings for being willing to work with people whose viewpoints are different from his own, down from 33.

What Was Cooper Asked?

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who for months had refused to disclose private conversations with Rove, testified for more than two hours before Fitzgerald's grand jury yesterday.

Cooper wouldn't say how it went, vowing to tell all in his magazine later. (Online? Soon? Please?)

Editor and Publisher has the complete transcript of his remarks, along with those of his lawyer, Richard Sauber

But Laurie P. Cohen and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal: "Much of the grand-jury testimony focused on Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to President Bush, a person who talked to Mr. Cooper said.

"The tenor of the questions suggests that the special prosecutor, who has kept even the most basic details of his investigation under wraps, is interested in finding out exactly what Mr. Rove told Mr. Cooper, and the accuracy of notes Mr. Cooper took on the conversation."

Freeing Judith Miller

Blogger Digby points out that Cooper's lawyer says in those remarks that he felt it would have actually been a breach of confidentiality to contact Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer -- until Luskin was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "If Matt Cooper is going to jail to protect a source, it's not Karl he's protecting."

Digby complains: "Rove could have made it clear, though legal channels, during the solid year that Fitzgerald was litigating this, that he didn't expect Cooper to keep his confidence, if that's what he was doing. He obviously knew that there was a battle royale going on between Time magazine and the special prosecutor and he knew that he'd spoken to Cooper. He could have let it be known that if Cooper was going to all this trouble over him, he needn't bother."

But here's what that makes me think: if reporters want to help get New York Times reporter Judith Miller out of jail, let's contact every conceivable person who might have been her source, and ask them (or their lawyers): if for some reason Judy Miller were in jail thinking that she's protecting you, would that be a mistake? Would you tell that to her lawyer?

Let's start with Rove, Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams, Cheney national security adviser John Hannah, counselor Dan Bartlett, press secretary Scott McClellan, former press secretary Ari Fleischer -- and every other person's name who has ever even remotely been attached to this story in the past.

What have we got to lose? Is anyone with me, or shall I get going myself.

Yesterday's Grilling

Here's the text of yesterday's briefing , Day Three of the McClellan pinata party.

"I think we've exhausted discussion on this the last couple of days," McClellan said early on, evidently hoping the corps would stop asking him about Rove.

"You haven't even scratched the surface," said one reporter. "It hasn't started," said another.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek.com that the history of what are now clearly inaccurate statements about Rove's involvement "leaves White House aides with only one escape route, short of telling the full story about what Rove said and what Bush knew. That escape route is to fall back on personal charm and goodwill. The only problem is that five years into this administration, and three years after the searing experience of the run-up to war in Iraq, there's not a lot of goodwill left to go around. . . .

"The frustration over McClellan's silence this week has reached fever pitch not just because of the feeling that the White House may have misled the media about Rove's role, but also because reporters have become increasingly fed up with what they see as the White House's stonewalling on other issues, including Iraq, Social Security and, most recently, Bush's search for a Supreme Court nominee. "

Actually, McClellan has at least one more escape route: stay away from the press! He's taking advantage of today's trip to Indiana to hold neither a gaggle nor a briefing today. And tomorrow, Bush is off to North Carolina.

The Curse of Iraq

David Gregory answers questions on NBC.

Q. "Is this a case of the curse of the second-term scandal?"

Gregory: "No, it would be the curse of the first term. This happened in the first term. This is perhaps the curse of a controversial basis for going to war.

"Really what this is about is the case for going into Iraq. The issue is really the debates about the war, the evidence that was used to go to war, and the claims that were made by this administration that proved to be false."

As I wrote in yesterday's column , the heart of the GOP strategy in defense of Karl Rove is attacking the credibility of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson, Plame's husband, is the person who Rove was trying to discredit when he mentioned Plame in the first place.

But Holly Rosenkrantz and William Roberts write for Bloomberg: "Two-year old assertions by former ambassador Joseph Wilson regarding Iraq and uranium, which lie at the heart of the controversy over who at the White House identified a covert U.S. operative, have held up in the face of attacks by supporters of presidential adviser Karl Rove. . . .

"The main points of Wilson's article have largely been substantiated by a Senate committee as well as U.S. and United Nations weapons inspectors."

Opinion Watch

USA Today editorial: "Bush should decide whether Rove or anyone else in his administration acted unethically and whether he'll countenance it."

New York Post editorial: "[T]he bottom line here is that Karl Rove acted to protect the president against a partisan, blatantly false smear on a matter with grave national security implications. . . . It is simply outrageous that he is cast as the villain in this episode -- while Joseph Wilson, a disgraceful liar, skates."

Richard Cohen in The Washington Post: "The inspired exaggeration of the case against Iraq, the hype about weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda's links to Hussein, makes everything else pale in comparison. It was to protect those lies, those exaggerations, that incredible train wreck of incompetence, ideologically induced optimism and, of course, contempt for the quaint working of the democratic process, that everything else stems from."

Margaret Carlson via Bloomberg: "Two years ago, he could have come clean, orchestrated his own redemption, saved millions in taxpayers' dollars, and spared everyone a lot of agony. Instead, we've had a two-year investigation to find out what President George W. Bush could have walked across the hall and learned."

Timothy Noah in Slate: "Why aren't the major newspapers running editorials calling for Karl Rove's resignation? The Washington Post is silent. So is the Los Angeles Times. Maybe they're waiting for more information. But what more do they have to know?"

Live Online

I was Live Online yesterday, for an exceptionally lively session.

The Importance of Being Karl

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: " 'Rove is not just any White House staffer. He is the man,' said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant with close ties to the White House. 'They haven't named it the "Roval Office" at this point, but that's coming down the pike. At least they should call it the "Rove Garden." ' "

Deficit Watch

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The White House predicted on Wednesday that the federal budget deficit would drop sharply this year and that it would continue to shrink for the next four years. . . .

"President Bush and his supporters used the report to claim victory for their supply-side philosophy of cutting taxes to spur economic growth and ultimately tax revenues. . . .

"Democratic leaders said the results, though a welcome improvement, omitted many looming costs and had done little to improve the long-term fiscal problems that are expected as more baby boomers begin to retire at the end of the decade."

Today's Calendar

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush is skipping this week's annual NAACP convention for the fifth straight year, but that isn't preventing the White House and Republican Party from waging a drive to woo African-American voters.

"The outreach effort, which began shortly after Bush's re-election, will be on display Thursday as the president addresses about 3,200 people at the Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration luncheon in Indianapolis and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman speaks at the NAACP convention in Milwaukee."

Gonzales Watch

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "White House officials weighing the nomination of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to the Supreme Court are considering whether a federal ethics law would require him to sit out cases of critical importance to the Bush administration once he was on the court, according to Republican sources who have discussed the issue with administration officials."

Ask the White House

Christopher Cooper writes in the Wall Street Journal about Ask the White House : "In some ways, the virtual chats on the White House Web site resemble drunken cocktail conversations that veer in all directions. . . . But Ask the White House is also used to prop up the flagging items on Mr. Bush's agenda."

Twins Watch

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "First lady Laura Bush's trip to Africa this week has brought her 23-year-old daughters back into the spotlight that they have shunned for most of their father's presidency. . . .

"Back in Washington, Jenna has followed her mother into the teaching profession, and will continue this year working at a public charter school that serves inner-city elementary-age students. . . .

"As for Barbara, Mrs. Bush said she was due to return to the United States later this month after spending several weeks working in the South African hospital with some friends. She didn't elaborate on what was next, and the White House wasn't revealing what -- if any -- plans Barbara has made."

Helen Kennedy writes in the New York Daily News: "The 23-year-old twins, who gave the White House headaches in their father's first term by causing spectacles of themselves in bars -- falling down, getting busted with fake IDs and generally carrying on -- appear to be settling down."

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