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Another Rove Fake-Out?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 20, 2007; 1:50 PM

I'm used to my readers ascribing all sorts of convoluted motivations to White House political mastermind Karl Rove. But now several upstanding mainstream media outlets are raising the possibility that Rove's attacks on Hillary Clinton are a colossal head fake.

Ever since he announced his resignation in the Wall Street Journal last week, President Bush's close adviser has been attacking Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, right and left. She's a "fatally flawed candidate," Rove told Journal editorial-page editor Paul A. Gigot. She's weak on national security, he told Rush Limbaugh. She carries too much baggage from her husband's White House years, he told Steve Holland of Reuters.

But taking Rove at face value has often proved to be a big mistake. And on Sunday morning, just before Rove set off on a round of television interviews, Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times kicked off a round of informed MSM conspiracy-theorizing.

"Why did Rove, who often stays in the background, step forward to deliver such public attacks -- especially when the Democrats haven't begun to choose their presidential candidate for 2008 and when the general election is more than a year away?

"The answer might seem obvious: Rove saw Clinton as a formidable opponent and wanted to get his licks in early.

"For high-level campaign professionals like Rove, however, that kind of thinking may be too simple.

"The decision to focus on the New York senator to the exclusion of other potentially formidable Democratic standard-bearers such as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois offered a rare glimpse into a world where things are not always what they seem -- the world of modern-day electioneering. . . .

"In this case, Rove's weeklong broadside against Clinton . . . looks suspiciously like an exercise in reverse psychology that his team employed three years ago when it was preparing for President Bush's reelection bid."

Wallsten recalls what Rove lieutenant Matthew Dowd apparently acknowledged during a conference at Harvard shortly after the 2004 election. During the primaries, Rove was considerably more afraid of then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina than of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Dowd said. "Whomever we attacked was going to be emboldened in Democratic primary voters' minds," Dowd said.

So they attacked Kerry.

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press picked up the new meme, writing: "Master GOP strategist Karl Rove won't let up in his attacks on Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the intriguing question is why.

"Is it a sign that Rove, who masterminded Bush's two presidential victories, is worried about Clinton? Or a calculation that the GOP attacks will get Democrats to rally to her side because the GOP would prefer not to take on Democrats John Edwards or Barack Obama?"

When Rove took up the Clinton critique again on the Sunday talkers, two of his three interlocutors raised the head-fake charge. His denials were limp.

On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked: "Her campaign says the more you attack her, the more the Democrats love her. So why are you helping Hillary Clinton?

"ROVE: Didn't know that I was. Don't think that I am.

"WALLACE: What does that mean?

"ROVE: Exactly that.

"WALLACE: In fact, I mean, is there a certain amount of -- don't throw me into the briar patch here -- that you'd like to see her as the Democratic candidate?

"ROVE: Look. It is going to be what it's going to be. I mean, you know, the Democrats are going to choose a nominee. I believe it's going to be her. That's their business. Maybe I made the mistake of trying to be -- audition for a member of the Fox panel by opining about what might happen. But I think she's going to be the nominee."

On Meet the Press, NBC's David Gregory noted, when Rove refused to talk about Obama: "You haven't shied away from talking about Hillary Clinton.

"MR. ROVE: Well, I'm just, I'm just going to let, I'm going to let -- I've said enough. I've got to, I've got to save a little bit more for later.

"MR. GREGORY: Do you really fear Barack Obama? That's why you're spending all this time attacking Hillary Clinton?

"MR. ROVE: You know, I -- you know, I read that in the LA Times this morning. Those, those guys really out in LA have got to get clued in. I mean, come on."

Rove's Parsing

In a typical Rove maneuver, he ridiculed -- but didn't actually deny -- the conclusions of the LA Times story. In that same Fox News interview, Rovian hairsplitting was on full display in his response to tough questioning about his now amply documented role in the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative.

Wallace showed a video clip from Sept. 30, 2003, of Bush saying: "I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action."

Then he showed a clip from a Sept. 29, 2003, press briefing:

"QUESTION: You said this morning that, quote, 'The president knows that Karl Rove wasn't involved.' How does he know that?

"SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, public knowledge. I've said that it's not true, and I have spoken with Karl Rove."

Wallace then asked Rove: "Did you mislead the present and Scott McClellan?"

Rove's response: "No, I didn't. In fact, the president said classified information. I was very clear right from the beginning on this with both the counsel's office and with the FBI. And look. If I had leaked classified information, Peter (sic) Fitzgerald would have done something different. And what I told Scott McClellan was I didn't know her name, didn't know her status at the CIA."

Classic Rovian deception. And it also raises the question: Is Rove implicating Bush in an attempt to mislead the public?

On NBC, when Gregory asked Rove whether he was a "confirming source" for Robert Novak (which Novak has said he was), Rove replied with another non-denial: "[T]he point is, if, if, if a journalist had said to me, 'I'd like you to confirm this,' my answer would have been, 'I can't. I don't know. I've heard that, too.'"

And, once again, he implied that Bush knew about his role from the get-go:

"MR. GREGORY: It, it, it's important to point out that the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, declined to bring any criminal charges against you. But given the president's emphatic statement about getting to the bottom of this, were you ever held to account by the president for what you did?

"MR. ROVE: You know, I acted in an appropriate manner, made all the appropriate individuals aware of, of, of my contact. I met with the FBI right at the beginning of this, told them everything."

But Rove didn't tell the FBI about his interview with Matt Cooper, then of Time magazine. Rove didn't mention that until his fifth visit to Fitzgerald's grand jury, in October 2004. (See, for instance, this 2005 John Dickerson story in Slate.)

Gregory had Cooper on the show after Rove:

"MR. GREGORY: Matt Cooper, let's pick up on an aspect of the interview with, with Karl Rove having to do with the leak case, the CIA leak case, that you were part of as well. And something's that's very interesting, he, he went out of his way to say, 'I would not have been a confirming source on this kind of information' and taking issue with, with Novak's testimony in his column that he knew who Valerie Plame was. He said he would never confirm that information. That's different from your experience with him.

"MR. MATT COOPER: Yeah, I, I think he was dissembling, to put it charitably. Look, Karl Rove told me about Valerie Plame's identity on July 11th, 2003. I called him because [her husband,] Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson was in the news that week. I didn't know Ambassador Wilson even had a wife until I talked to Karl Rove and he said that she worked at the agency and she worked on WMD. I mean, to imply that he didn't know about it or that this was all the leak --

"MR. GREGORY: Or that he had heard it from somebody else --

"MR. COOPER: -- by someone else, or he heard it as some rumor out in the hallway is, is nonsense.

"MR. GREGORY: But he makes no apologies to Valerie Plame.

"MR. COOPER: Karl Rove never apologizes. That's not what he does."

Rove's Circuit

Zachary Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post: "Days after announcing that he will depart the White House, Karl Rove appeared on three Sunday shows for goodbye interviews and practiced what he has long preached: sticking doggedly to his message, exuding confidence about the appeal of the Republican Party at every opportunity and defending his and the president's every decision."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "The strategist who looms in the public imagination as a political mastermind and West Wing Svengali used a rare appearance on camera to deliver an exiting White House aide's most time-honored Washington message: mistakes were not made, and it's not my fault."

More Excerpts

After Rove defended his decision not to testify before Congress about his role in last year's firings of U.S. attorneys as a Constitutional prerogative of the executive branch, Wallace persisted:

"WALLACE: All right. The Constitution does not prevent you from speaking to me so, in fact, I'll ask you some questions. Why did you push to fire some U.S. attorneys in the president's second term?

"ROVE: Nice try. You -- the president has prerogatives that stand up not only to Congress, but also to you.

"WALLACE: Well, I'm simply asking you what you did.

"ROVE: And what I advised the president is protected by that prerogative. Nice try, Chris. . . .

"WALLACE: I mean, executive privilege involves the separation of powers with Congress. It doesn't involve what you talk to me about.

"ROVE: It involves the right of a president to receive candid advice from his aides without being subjected to -- called by the Congress to come up and testify. I know you don't understand you're being an agent of Congress when you ask me that question, but you are."

On the various congressional investigations, Rove told Wallace: "They'll keep after me. Let's face it. I mean, I'm a myth, and they're -- you know, I'm Beowulf. You know, I'm Grendel. I don't know who I am. But they're after me."

On Meet the Press, Gregory probed Rove about any mistakes he might be willing to acknowledge.

"MR. GREGORY: And what -- when you, when you think about how the war was executed and you look at misjudgments: WMD, there were none; we'd be greeted as liberators, we were not.

"MR. ROVE: Can we -- could we just -- let's, let's take them one at a time.

"MR. GREGORY: Let me -- if I can just. . . .

"MR. ROVE: Can we take them one at a time?

"MR. GREGORY: Let me, let me just lay it out. The cost of the war was misestimated, the level of sectarian violence was wrong, the, the depth and, and the force of the insurgency, the idea that oil revenues would be used to pay for the war. Would you acknowledge there were fundamental misjudgments in the execution of the war? . . .

"MR. ROVE: [L]ook, it's one thing to rattle off all of these, and it's a nice tactic. I appreciate -- I applaud you for doing so. But if you take a moment and look at each one of these you'll find that in each one of these there is a reasonable -- you know, look, was everything done perfectly? No. But it -- was this the right thing to do? You bet."

On Face the Nation, CBS's Bob Schieffer asked an innocuous opening question and got a tantalizing response.

SCHIEFFER: "[Y]ou haven't been on any of the shows in a long, long time. Why did you decide suddenly to come out?

"Mr. ROVE: Well, somebody else made the decision for me, and I'm just doing what I was instructed to do."

Really? Who instructed him? And was he instructed to trash Clinton?

Rove's Legacy

John Solomon, Alec MacGillis and Sarah Cohen write in The Washington Post: "Many administrations have sought to maximize their control of the machinery of government for political gain, dispatching Cabinet secretaries bearing government largess to battleground states in the days before elections. The Clinton White House routinely rewarded big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and private coffees with senior federal officials, and held some political briefings for top Cabinet officials during the 1996 election.

"But Rove, who announced last week that he is resigning from the White House at the end of August, pursued the goal far more systematically than his predecessors, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, enlisting political appointees at every level of government in a permanent campaign that was an integral part of his strategy to establish Republican electoral dominance.

"Under Rove's direction, this highly coordinated effort to leverage the government for political marketing started as soon as Bush took office in 2001 and continued through last year's congressional elections."

Rove on Barney

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that "in an interview at an IHOP restaurant here, days after he announced his resignation as Mr. Bush's top political adviser, Mr. Rove defiantly dismissed the rash of fresh critiques that have come his way in the last several days, blaming the Democrats for the divisive tone that has dominated Mr. Bush's tenure and for which he has frequently taken the blame. . . .

"There was one stark sign that Mr. Rove was truly leaving. He expressed what no White House aide would express publicly, though many very senior officials have shared the sentiment privately: that is, distaste for the president's beloved Scottish terrier, Barney, who is seen by some as aloof and entitled. 'Barney's a lump,' he joked."

Rove Opinion Watch

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Karl Rove's departure was both abrupt and fast. . . . Inquiring Rove haters wanted to know: Was he one step ahead of yet another major new scandal? Was a Congressional investigation at last about to draw blood?

"Perhaps, but the Republican reaction to Mr. Rove's departure is more revealing than the cries from his longtime critics. No G.O.P. presidential candidates paid tribute to Mr. Rove, and, except in the die-hard Bush bastions of Murdochland present (The Weekly Standard, Fox News) and future (The Journal), the conservative commentariat was often surprisingly harsh. It is this condemnation of Rove from his own ideological camp -- not the Democrats' familiar litany about his corruption, polarizing partisanship, dirty tricks, etc. -- that the White House and Mr. Rove wanted to bury in the August dog days."

Gary Younge writes in the Guardian: "Rove, Bush's consigliere for the past 30 years, left last week in much the same manner as he had stayed: misleading the public. He told the nation that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Maybe he should have checked with his family first. His only son leaves for college in just a few days.

"Rove is leaving because there is nothing more for him to do; Bush is letting him go because he no longer has any use for him. His departure effectively marks the end of the Bush presidency -- from hereon in Bush's tenure is about keeping the troops in Iraq and as many of his administration out of handcuffs as possible."

Juan Cole writes for Salon: "Among Rove's techniques was to identify every stance, every word, in every piece of legislation put forward by President Bush as identical with the welfare and security of the United States, and therefore any opposition to any jot or tittle of it as inimical to the country's essential interests. That is, he inscribed the nation on the person of George W. Bush, so that opposition to the president was coded as betrayal of America."

Bill Moyers writes on his PBS Web site: "Karl Rove figured out a long time ago that the way to take an intellectually incurious, draft-averse, naughty playboy in a flight jacket with chewing tobacco in his back pocket and make him governor of Texas, was to sell him as God's anointed in a state where preachers and televangelists outnumber even oil derricks and jack rabbits."

Kurtz the Contrarian

Howard Kurtz asks in his Washington Post media column: "[W]hat if journalists are part of an unspoken conspiracy to inflate Rove's importance -- not for ideological reasons but because it makes for a better narrative? . . .

"Or perhaps there's a cruder explanation: that some journalists believe Bush lacks the intellectual heft to achieve big things on his own, so they attribute his most consequential decisions to a powerful Svengali at his side. . . .

"[W]as Rove's decision to quit, 17 months before the end of Bush's term, truly deserving of lead-story status in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the three nightly newscasts?"

On his CNN media show, Kurtz found support in his argument from former New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller.

"I have always said that the real Karl Rove is George Bush," Bumiller said.

But Newsweek's Michael Isikoff didn't go along: "I actually don't think the media has overplayed Rove's significance," he said. "If you actually look at the arc of the Bush presidency, he was critical in ways that go far beyond just the narrow, political brief that people thought he had. For instance, in the war in Iraq, Rove played a critical role in the selling of the war through the White House Iraq Group, but also in making a very strategic decision in 2002, first to politicize the terrorism issue. That was something that was not expected after 9/11, when the country was united. . . .

"It was a brilliant strategic short-term move, but, of course, a lot of people will, when they look back at the Bush presidency, say, that's what -- that's what led to the quagmire that we're in Iraq right now."

Democracy Watch

The Washington Post's Peter Baker sets up a long and important story of the decline and fall of Bush's "freedom agenda" with a scene from a democracy conference Bush attended in Prague in June

"'You're not the only dissident,' Bush told Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leader in the resistance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 'I too am a dissident in Washington. Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change. It seems that Mubarak succeeded in brainwashing them.'"

Baker explains: "Two and a half years after Bush pledged in his second inaugural address to spread democracy around the world, the grand project has bogged down in a bureaucratic and geopolitical morass, in the view of many activists, officials and even White House aides. Many in his administration never bought into the idea, and some undermined it, including his own vice president. The Iraq war has distracted Bush and, in some quarters, discredited his aspirations. And while he focuses his ire on bureaucracy, Bush at times has compromised the idealism of that speech in the muddy reality of guarding other U.S. interests.

"The story of how a president's vision is translated into thorny policy is a classic Washington tale of politics, inertia, rivalries and funding battles -- and a case study in the frustrated ambition of a besieged presidency."

The quote of the day comes later on, when Bush cites an administration official on the losing side of an argument with the vice president's office as saying: "OVP has this little-girl crush on strongmen."

Blogger Laura Rozen, however, writes that The Post story "missed a few important insights in its piece on why Bush's democracy vision has stalled. The two biggest: Bush's vision of overturning tyranny and bringing democracy to Iraq has been dashed in massive sectarian bloodshed, loss of life, turmoil, insurgency, uncertainty and heartbreak and a massive devotion of US resources that might have gone to promoting grand things lots of places, and secondly, that in many targeted countries, promoting democracy would mean allowing Islamist groups, some designated as terrorist groups by the Bush administration, to prevail."

Wiretapping Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "The White House on Friday asked a Senate panel for more time to produce subpoenaed information about the legal justification for President Bush's secretive eavesdropping program. "

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Broad new surveillance powers approved by Congress this month could allow the Bush administration to conduct spy operations that go well beyond wiretapping to include -- without court approval -- certain types of physical searches on American soil and the collection of Americans' business records, Democratic Congressional officials and other experts said. . . .

"The dispute illustrates how lawmakers, in a frenetic, end-of-session scramble, passed legislation they may not have fully understood and may have given the administration more surveillance powers than it sought."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A secret U.S. intelligence court has ordered the Bush administration to register its views about a records request by the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants the court to release a series of pivotal orders issued earlier this year about the National Security Agency's wiretapping program."

Iraq Watch

Bob Drogin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush sought to reassure the nation Saturday that he saw 'signs of progress' in Iraq, especially at the local level, despite a week that saw the deadliest suicide bombings since the American-led invasion in 2003.

"In his weekly radio address, Bush argued that 'Americans can be encouraged' by evidence of reconciliation in several provinces that suffered intense sectarian violence or served as hotbeds of the insurgency.

"'The rule of law is being restored,' he said."

Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier, Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy write in a New York Times op-ed: "To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. . . .

"The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the 'battle space' remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers' expense. . . .

"The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side."

No Love for the Surge

David Morgan writes for Reuters: "More than half of top U.S. foreign policy experts oppose President George W. Bush's troop increase as a strategy for stabilizing Baghdad, saying the plan has harmed U.S. national security, according to a new survey.

"As Congress and the White House await the September release of a key progress report on Iraq, 53 percent of the experts polled by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress said they now oppose Bush's troop build-up.

"That is a 22 percentage point jump since the strategy was announced early this year."

Another finding from the report: "President George W. Bush often says, 'The enemy would follow us home.'" But that's "a scenario that the index's experts say is unlikely. Only 12 percent believe that terrorist attacks would occur in the United States as a direct result of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Eighty-eight percent of the experts said that either such a scenario was unlikely or that they see no connection between a troop withdrawal from Iraq and terrorist attacks inside the United States."

Tony Snow Watch

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "White House press secretary Tony Snow said Friday he'll leave before the end of the Bush presidency because he needs to make more money."

In an interview with Hunt, Snow confirmed what he had told conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday: "'I'm going to stay as long as I can,' he said without elaborating on a departure date. . . .

"'I will not be able to make it to the end of this administration, just financially,' Snow said. 'This job has been such a pleasant surprise in how much I like it. I love it.'"

White House Wedding?

Katharine Q. Seelye writes in the New York Times: "The country is at war, of course, and Mr. Bush's popularity is low. So surely the White House itself is asking the logical question: How would a White House wedding go over?

"[Tricia] Nixon and Luci Baines Johnson (who actually got married in a church but held her reception at the White House) were married during wartime, and were boons to their father's political fortunes, at least temporarily. It always helps a president -- especially beleaguered presidents -- to be seen as a family man, and few moments are as poignant as when a father is giving his daughter away."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Cheney's next sales job; Jeff Danziger on Bush's sock puppet; Ann Telnaes on the wedding.

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