In the private dining room off the Oval Office, a president who does not watch much television sat glued to the special prosecutor's news conference. President Bush already had one top aide's resignation letter. But the other one he worried about remained on duty.
It was a day of trauma and relief at the White House, as a secretive two-year investigation finally chose its target and spared another, at least for now. It was a day that was almost anticlimactic in one sense and strangely dramatic in another, as one of the key players of the Bush presidency unceremoniously departed and another kept his desk just a few feet from the Oval Office.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, showed up for the morning staff meeting, while Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, did not. Libby said nothing about what was about to happen, according to participants, nor did anyone else in the room. About midway through, he got up on the crutches he has been using since an accident and slipped out. Within hours, he had surrendered his White House pass and left the West Wing. Rove, who arrived at work late, stayed behind, neither charged nor discharged.
"Everybody's exhaling," said one senior official, "not because we're pleased with what happened today, but just because to have knowledge, just the unknown" had been so nerve-racking. "Over the last few weeks, there were some very surreal moments. This was the elephant in the room, and you couldn't talk about it." Although Libby is gone, this official said, Rove's lawyers "feel very optimistic about where they are."
But if the White House believed the damage had not been as severe as it could have been, some allies worried about premature celebration. "This is not a time to clink champagne glasses that Karl was not indicted," said a Republican strategist with ties to the White House. "There's a huge political cloud as well as a legal cloud." With Rove still under investigation, "now you're in purgatory for a while."
Even with Rove's survival, the Libby indictment capped what was clearly the worst political week of the Bush presidency. With the president's popular standing already near an all-time low, a Supreme Court nomination flamed out and the U.S. military death toll in Iraq topped 2,000. Now the prospect of a trial against Libby threatens to revive the debate over how Bush decided to launch the invasion of Iraq in the first place and put internal White House operations on glaring public display.
Bush emerged from the Oval Office yesterday and vowed to keep his battered White House focused on his economic and security agenda and to name a new Supreme Court nomination "pretty soon." Just as predecessor Bill Clinton emphasized his focus on the job during the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, Bush spent the day making the same point, first flying to Norfolk for a speech on the war and later releasing a budget plan for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction.
"While we're all saddened by today's news, we remain wholly focused on the many issues and opportunities facing this country," he told reporters on the South Lawn. "I got a job to do, and so do the people who work in the White House. We got a job to protect the American people, and that's what we'll continue working hard to do."
Bush noted that with Libby's indictment, the Fitzgerald investigation now "moves into a new phase," and his aides were determined to make sure the White House does the same. The first step in their political recovery program: a new candidate for the high court.
After finishing his statement on Libby, Bush boarded Marine One and flew off to Camp David, where he will be joined this weekend by aides to discuss possible nominees. Among those who will be there at the Maryland mountain hideaway to help him pick a new justice will be White House Counsel Harriet Miers, whose own nomination crashed spectacularly on Thursday amid Republican friendly fire. Aides said Bush may announce a new nominee within days.
In a memo to White House employees, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. noted Libby's departure and advised that "the President expects everyone to work hard to advance the optimistic agenda he has laid out to ensure peace and prosperity for future generations."
The sudden turn in Libby's fortunes was made plain in another memo, which suggested the well-liked and hugely influential aide is now virtually a persona non grata. After Libby turned in a resignation letter to Card and left without speaking to Bush, Miers's office wrote that "all White House staffers should not have any contact with Scooter Libby about any aspect of the investigation," said spokesman Scott McClellan.
Beyond the court, the White House has mapped out an aggressive schedule in hopes of recapturing momentum. Bush next week will outline a new federal strategy for addressing the threat of an influenza pandemic, host Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Prince Charles, and then leave Thursday for a trip to South America. Soon after returning, he will leave again for a week-long trip to Asia. At the same time, aides are developing a new agenda for 2006 to unveil in his State of the Union address, including an overhaul of the tax code.
"The most important thing for them to do is to get this thing behind them -- and I know it's not easy -- and get on with the day-to-day business," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman and a White House ally. "It's important for them to focus on a couple things that need to be done."
Some aides call it a return to fundamentals. "We need to buckle down and demonstrate to the American people that we can block and tackle," a senior official said.
"These guys just keep getting up every day and moving forward," said Bill Paxon, another former House Republican. "Some days aren't easy. They've had a tough run here lately. But the secret of their success through all of these twists and turns in the road is to just keep moving forward."
The White House must find a replacement for Libby, who was Cheney's chief of staff and his national security adviser, and was perceived within staff councils as the vice president's alter ego. White House officials said the job probably will be split and replacements could be announced next week.
Rove's continued presence, however, may mean there will not be a major staff shakeup beyond the vice president's office anytime soon, according to advisers inside and outside the White House. Many Republicans lately have been discussing the value in bringing in a fresh team, not just because of the CIA leak probe but because of all the missteps of the second term, from the failed Social Security initiative, to the clumsy hurricane response, to the Miers nomination.
But now, some advisers said, any significant changes may wait until later, perhaps during the holiday season, so it does not look like a response to the investigation. "It would be a sign of panic and surrender," said a Republican close to the White House. "They're not panicked. The panic has passed."