Top White House aides are privately discussing the future of Karl Rove, with some expressing doubt that President Bush can move beyond the damaging CIA leak case as long as his closest political strategist remains in the administration.
If Rove stays, which colleagues say remains his intention, he may at a minimum have to issue a formal apology for misleading colleagues and the public about his role in conversations that led to the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame, according to senior Republican sources familiar with White House deliberations.
While Rove faces doubts about his White House status, there are new indications that he remains in legal jeopardy from Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's criminal investigation of the Plame leak. The prosecutor spoke this week with an attorney for Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper about his client's conversations with Rove before and after Plame's identity became publicly known because of anonymous disclosures by White House officials, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
Fitzgerald is considering charging Rove with making false statements in the course of the 22-month probe, and sources close to Rove -- who holds the titles of senior adviser and White House deputy chief of staff -- said they expect to know within weeks whether the most powerful aide in the White House will be accused of a crime.
But some top Republicans said yesterday that Rove's problems may not end there. Bush's top advisers are considering whether it is tenable for Rove to remain on the staff, given that Fitzgerald has already documented something that Rove and White House official spokesmen once emphatically denied -- that he played a central role in discussions with journalists about Plame's role at the CIA and her marriage to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Iraq war.
"Karl does not have any real enemies in the White House, but there are a lot of people in the White House wondering how they can put this behind them if the cloud remains over Karl," said a GOP strategist who has discussed the issue with top White House officials. "You can not have that [fresh] start as long as Karl is there."
A swift resolution is needed in part to ease staff tension, a number of people inside and out of the White House said. Many mid-level staffers inside have expressed frustration that press secretary Scott McClellan's credibility was undermined by Rove, who told the spokesman that he was not involved in the leak, according to people familiar with the case.
Some aides said Rove told Bush the same thing, though little is known about the precise nature of the president's conversations with his closest political adviser.
McClellan relayed Rove's denial to reporters from the White House lectern in 2003, and he has not yet offered a public explanation for his inaccurate statements. "That is affecting everybody," said a Republican who has discussed the issue with the White House. "Scott personally is really beaten down by this. Everybody I talked to talks about this."
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, will be arraigned today on five counts, involving three felony charges, in the leak probe. Libby also told McClellan two years ago he was not involved, a denial that was also relayed to the public.
White House communications director Nicolle Wallace said that there have not been any White House meetings to discuss Rove's fate, and that the senior adviser is actively engaged and "doing an outstanding job." She said "there is no debate" over Rove's future.
Rove has long been regarded as the most influential and feared Bush aide and has enjoyed the fervent backing of the president and influential conservatives. Republicans with firsthand knowledge of the private talks about Rove's political problems said there have been informal discussions involving people inside and outside the White House, and that they reflected the views of a large number of administration officials who are concerned about Bush's efforts to start anew in 2006 with as little interference from the scandal as possible.
In U.S. District Court today, Libby is expected to plead not guilty to the five-count indictment that charges him with obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements.
Anticipating intense media interest, court officials arranged for the arraignment to be held in the oversized Ceremonial Courtroom, which can seat hundreds and is the largest courtroom in the federal courthouse here.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, randomly selected among the trial judges, will preside over Libby's case. The judge has recently overseen the civil lawsuit of former bioweapons scientist Stephen J. Hatfill against the Justice Department for linking him to the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Libby, whose friends have begun raising money for his legal defense fund, is expected to be represented in court by Joseph A. Tate, a partner in his former law firm. But intermediaries for Libby have in recent days contacted several law firms with extensive white-collar criminal defense experience about possibly representing Libby in the near future, according to legal sources.
Rove remains in legal limbo.
Fitzgerald made it clear to Rove's attorney in private conversations last week that his client remains under investigation. And he signaled the same in his indictment of Libby on Friday, in which he identified a senior White House official who had conversations related to the Plame leak as "Official A." White House colleagues say Rove is clearly "Official A," based on the detailed description.
That kind of pseudonym is often used by prosecutors to refer to an unindicted co-conspirator, or someone who faces the prospect of being charged. No other administration official is identified in this way in Fitzgerald's indictment.
Rove was interviewed by FBI agents in the fall of 2003. He subsequently testified four times before the grand jury, which legal experts say is an unusually large number of appearances given that he was told he was a subject of the investigation and his actions were being scrutinized as possible criminal violations.
Sources close to Rove say one pressing problem for him is that he initially did not tell investigators he had a conversation with Cooper, then he produced an e-mail to a colleague in which he reported he had spoken to Cooper. He told the grand jury he could recollect very little of the conversation other than a discussion of welfare, sources said.
According to sources who were made aware of the conservation, Fitzgerald has been speaking with Cooper's attorney, Richard Sauber, by telephone in the past three days. He is said to have posed several questions to clarify whether Cooper had other conversations with Rove before and after the crucial July 12, 2003, discussion during which Cooper said Rove told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.
The aim was apparently to discern how common conversations were between Rove and the reporter, then a newcomer to the White House beat. Sauber, reached at his office late yesterday, declined to comment on any conversations he had with the prosecutor's team.
Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn declined to comment.
Sources close to Rove said they do not believe the strategist is in the clear, but are confident the prosecutor will determine Rove did nothing illegal.
White House critics said Rove's continued presence would expose Bush as a hypocrite. They cite his campaign promise in 2000 to run an ethical government that asks "not only what is legal but what is right" and his 2004 pledge, later softened, to fire anyone involved in the CIA leak.
Political pressure is rising from the outside. A few conservatives have suggested it is time for Rove to go. William A. Niskanen, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, told Reuters on Tuesday that Bush has to "sacrifice" some top aides starting with Rove, who he said has given good campaign advice but poor guidance on getting legislation passed.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said on MSNBC's "Hardball" the same day, "The question is, should he be the deputy chief of staff for policy under the current circumstances?"
Democrats have been more blunt. "It is totally unacceptable that anyone involved in the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a CIA officer, including your Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, should remain employed at the White House with a security clearance," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) wrote Bush yesterday.