Republicans mounted an aggressive and coordinated defense of Karl Rove yesterday, contending that the White House's top political adviser did nothing improper or illegal when he discussed a covert CIA official with a reporter.
With a growing number of Democrats calling for Rove's resignation, the Republican National Committee and congressional Republicans sought to discredit Democratic critics and knock down allegations of possible criminal activity.
"The angry left is trying to smear" Rove, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, a Rove protege, said in an interview.
A federal grand jury is investigating whether anyone in the Bush administration unlawfully leaked the name of a CIA official, Valerie Plame, to the news media. Although the White House has previously said Rove was not involved in the episode, a recently disclosed internal Time magazine e-mail shows that Rove mentioned Plame, albeit not by name, to reporter Matthew Cooper before her name and affiliation became public in July 2003. The grand jury is scheduled to hear from Cooper today.
The emerging GOP strategy -- devised by Mehlman and other Rove loyalists outside of the White House -- is to try to undermine those 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.
The White House said Bush retains full confidence in Rove, but for a second day officials would not answer a barrage of questions about Rove's role in the leak scandal on the grounds that the investigation is not complete. But the RNC -- effectively Bush's political arm -- weighed into the controversy in a major fashion.
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.
"Republicans should stop holding back and go on the offense: fire enough bullets the other way until the Supreme Court overtakes" events, said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.).
Rove has not been asked by senior White House officials whether he did anything illegal or potentially embarrassing to the president and he spent most of the day strategizing on Bush's Supreme Court nomination, aides said.
"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.
Privately, even Rove's staunchest supporters said the situation could explode if federal prosecutors accuse Rove or any other high-level official of committing a crime. William Kristol, a conservative commentator with close White House ties, said it would be hard to imagine a prosecutor conducting an investigation that has landed one reporter in jail and challenged the constitutional rights of the journalism profession without indicting someone. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald "is the problem for the White House, and we have no idea what he knows," Kristol said.
Bush has said if any White House officials were involved, they would be fired. The president yesterday twice refused to answer questions on whether Rove should be dismissed.
The controversy involves former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had been sent by the CIA in February 2002 to Niger to investigate allegations that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy nuclear material. Wilson subsequently became a critic of administration policy in Iraq and after the invasion in March 2003 questioned whether Bush had exaggerated the threat from Hussein.
After Wilson went public with his concerns, columnist Robert D. Novak reported that he had been told by two administration officials that the Niger trip had been suggested by Wilson's wife, Plame. It is a federal felony to knowingly identify an active undercover CIA officer, but legal experts said such a crime is very difficult to prove.
Whatever the legal considerations in the case, the emerging record suggests that the administration was involved in an effort to discredit Wilson after he went public with his criticism.
According to the Time magazine e-mail, the conversation between Cooper and Rove took place a few days before Novak's column appeared in July 2003. Cooper says Rove raised questions about Wilson's credibility, offering a "big warning" not to "get out too far on Wilson," Newsweek has reported.
The e-mail comports with a previously reported conversation between a Washington Post reporter and an administration official two days before the Novak column ran. The administration official, who has not been identified, described the Wilson trip as a boondoggle that was set up by his wife and was not being taken seriously by the White House.
Rove has maintained he neither knew Plame's name nor leaked it to anyone. In an interview yesterday, Wilson said his wife goes by Mrs. Wilson, so it would be clear who Rove was talking about, and noted how Rove attends the same church as the Wilson family. Wilson said Rove was part of a "smear campaign" designed to discredit him and others who undercut Bush's justification for war.
Wilson was a chief target of the new GOP offensive designed to take some pressure off Rove. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the White House did not have to discredit Wilson. "Nobody had to do that," he said, adding that "he discredited his own report" by including unfounded allegations. The RNC talking point memo included a list of anti-Wilson lines.
"In all honesty, the facts thus far -- and the e-mail involved -- indicate to me that there is not a problem here," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). "I have always thought this is a tempest in a teapot."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, "I have always thought this is a tempest in a teapot."