Democrats demanded yesterday that President Bush fire Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and that the White House fully account for Vice President Cheney's role in the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame, as Republicans acted to limit the political damage from Friday's indictment of Cheney's chief of staff.
Using the forum of the Sunday television talk shows, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats sought to portray the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on Friday as part of a broader pattern of unethical -- if not illegal -- conduct by the administration. Republicans, while not defending Libby, asserted that the lack of other indictments indicated there was no conspiracy in the White House to punish an administration critic by identifying his wife as a CIA operative.
Reid, speaking on ABC's "This Week," called for apologies from Bush and Cheney, and sought Rove's resignation because of Bush's vow to dismiss anybody involved in the leak. Later, on CNN's "Late Edition," Reid repeated his call for Rove's dismissal four times.
"The president said anyone involved would be gone," Reid said. "And we now know that Official A is Karl Rove. He's still around. He should be let go." Reid added that if Bush "is a man of his word, Rove should be history."
In the indictment, "Official A" is a senior White House official who discussed with syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak the identity of administration critic and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife as a CIA covert agent; that person has been identified as Rove by senior administration officials.
On June 10, 2004, Bush, responded affirmatively when asked in a news conference if he would "fire anyone found" to have leaked Plame's name (although Bush has qualified that pledge on other occasions). On Sept. 29, 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of the leak: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."
Republicans and White House officials expressed relief that Rove was not indicted Friday, and they take it as a sign that his chances of being indicted are remote.
Rove's attorney provided Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald with a last-minute flurry of material and evidence supporting Rove's contention that he simply forgot his conversation about Wilson's wife with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper -- rather than lied about it, according to people close to Rove. The sources said it gave Fitzgerald "pause" about his earlier intentions to charge Rove with false statements to the FBI, and he agreed to continue investigating.
But two legal sources intimately familiar with Fitzgerald's tactics in this inquiry said they believe Rove remains in significant danger. They described Fitzgerald as being relentlessly thorough but also conservative throughout this prosecution -- and his willingness to consider Rove's eleventh-hour pleading of a memory lapse is merely a sign of Fitzgerald's caution.
The two legal sources point to what they consider Fitzgerald's careful decision not to charge Libby with the leak of a covert agent's identity, given that the prosecutor had amassed considerable evidence that Libby gave classified information, which he knew from his job should not be made public, to reporters. Another prosecutor might have stretched to make a leak charge, on the theory that a jury would believe, based on other actions, that Libby acted with bad intentions.
Another warning sign for Rove was in the phrasing of Friday's indictment of Libby. Fitzgerald referred to Rove in those charging papers as a senior White House official and dubbed him "Official A." In prosecutorial parlance, this kind of awkward pseudonym is often used for individuals who have not been indicted in a case but still face a significant chance of being charged. No other official in the investigation carries such an identifier.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a vigorous defender of the administration, said on ABC: "I think what we found out this week is that any alleged wrongdoing is really confined to a single individual. Those who were expecting an indictment, indicating a broad conspiracy to out a covert CIA agent or -- are going to be disappointed because there is no evidence to support that."
Of Rove, Cornyn said: "The question was not only was there a crime committed in outing a covert CIA agent, which apparently there was not, but did someone cooperate and tell the truth to the grand jury? And so far, it appears the special counsel is satisfied that's been the case."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the first to call for a probe into the Plame matter, said Bush should have an "internal investigation of the vice president's office" and Rove. "The standards shouldn't just be escaping indictment," Schumer said on CBS's "Face the Nation." On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) made similar arguments, saying Cheney "has an obligation now to come clean."
A Democratic Senate aide said yesterday that the party would continue to put pressure on Rove and Cheney over the Plame affair.
Some White House consultants are preparing for what potential laundry could be aired about the vice president if Libby's case goes to trial. Fitzgerald's case is expected to focus, to some degree, on conversations that Cheney and Libby had about Wilson's criticisms -- especially on June 12. On that day, Cheney is alleged to have told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division -- and Libby first told a reporter this information two weeks later.
Not all Republicans were quick to defend Rove. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said of Rove, "If this is going to be ongoing, if he has a problem, I think he's got to step up, and, you know, acknowledge that and deal with it."
Interviewed on Fox News, Lott said Bush should be looking for "new blood, new energy, qualified staff, new people." The senator added, "I'm not talking about wholesale changes, but you've got to reach out and bring in more advice and counsel."