President Bush appeared to be standing by chief political adviser Karl Rove on Tuesday, but for a second day he resisted pressure to address a growing controversy over what role Rove played in the leaking of a CIA operative’s identity two years ago.
Democrats, meanwhile, began calling on the president either to dismiss Rove, who is a White House deputy chief of staff, or go public with details that could clear him in connection with leaks in 2003 that revealed that Valerie Plame, the wife of a former ambassador, Joe Wilson, was a CIA officer.
And former White House officials from past Democratic and Republican administrations said the president would be well advised to address the matter head on.
“I would not be surprised to see Karl Rove resign,” said Lyn Nofziger, a former aide to President Nixon and former campaign press secretary and political adviser to President Reagan. “That does not mean he’s going to, or that he should, but the pressures put on him and the president sometimes don’t leave you much of an alternative.”
Nofziger said that even if the controversy was being hyped by Democrats out to embarrass the president, given the nature of the subject matter, “This is turning out to be a much more serious problem for the Bush White House than they thought it would be.”
Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton, said Rove should voluntarily take a leave of absence until an independent investigation of his role is conducted, or, if the White House feels it already is satisfied that it knows whom he talked to and what he told them, the administration should make its findings public.
“There’s a lesson that’s never learned in Washington, which is when you get in trouble, you’re better off telling the truth from the beginning than to stonewall,” Panetta said. “Now, in the face of statements they made earlier that no one (from the administration) was involved (in the leaks), they’re clearly caught in a situation in which they, either deliberately or not, misinformed someone.”
Deliberately revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent is a crime.
The 2-year-old leak is making news again because of a special prosecutor’s investigation into the case. Wilson had charged that his wife was outed as payback for an opinion piece he wrote in the New York Times that suggested the Bush administration overhyped the weapons of mass destruction argument to make the case for invading Iraq.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who lost to Bush in last year’s election, said at a news conference Tuesday with other Democrats that Rove “ought to be fired.” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2008, nodded in agreement. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said later in the day that he was “not ready to go that far at this point,” but he said that Rove needed to answer publicly for whatever role he played.
Republican lawmakers were neither jumping to Rove’s defense en masse nor writing him off. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told CNN, “Somebody is always looking for somebody’s scalp around this town” and that he was “not paying too much attention to it.”
Last week, Judith Miller of the New York Times was jailed for refusing to disclose with whom she spoke in the administration about Plame. Another reporter, Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, avoided jail time after a source gave him permission to testify to a grand jury. Newsweek reported that Rove’s lawyer confirmed that source was Rove _ but not that Rove knew or shared Plame’s name or covert status. Rove last year told CNN he did not know or leak Plame’s name. This week, he is not talking with reporters.
At a brief morning appearance with the visiting prime minister of Singapore, Bush declined to respond to a reporter’s shouted-out question on Rove’s future.
Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan would say only that anyone on the president’s staff “wouldn’t be working here at the White House if they didn’t have the president’s confidence.”
A day earlier, reporters besieged McClellan with questions, including whether the White House would make good on earlier promises to fire anyone inside the administration who leaked Plame’s identity. Repeatedly, McClellan avoided answering questions directly, saying he would not talk about an ongoing criminal investigation.
Panetta, recalling the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals of the Clinton administration, said of the Plame leak that it would be “better to get it out now then to have it come out in this slow water torture we’ve seen from past scandals. The president can’t ignore it. He can try to bob and weave but at some point he’s going to have to say, ‘This is what happened.’ ”
Nofziger said he has long believed that if Nixon had forced out a couple of key aides early in Watergate, he might have saved his presidency.
“You can’t afford to protect your friends in this damn town,” he said.
Nofziger said he has no direct knowledge of Rove’s involvement but that, from his own experience, “Presidents have to look after what is best for their administration and their country. You might come to a time when the president says, ‘This is destroying my ability to get things done and the only way I can do this is sacrifice Karl.’ ”
As a lame-duck president, Bush doesn’t need Rove for another campaign. Nofziger said Rove’s liability in terms of an ongoing investigation also might be lessened if he left his post, and that, given his engineering of Bush’s successful campaigns, he would be much in demand in the private sector.
“He’d be hired in a flash by people out there,” Nofziger said.