Karl Rove is known at the White House as “the architect,” the strategist behind President Bush’s political victories. Sometimes he’s even called “Bush’s brain.” Now “the leaker” may become his new nickname, and some wonder if the White House deputy chief of staff will survive.
For someone whose reputation is based on maneuvering behind the scenes, Rove has left himself open to attack with revelations about his role in leaking information two years ago about a CIA officer. The leak is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
Democrats are demanding Rove’s resignation or firing. Some Republicans are nervously wondering whether he went too far and whether he was honest with Bush about what he had done.
At a minimum, Rove’s actions have proven to be an embarrassment for a White House that put its credibility on the line and previously insisted, with no equivocation, that Rove had played no role in the leak.
With Democrats waiting to pounce on Bush’s Supreme Court nomination, “there’s a void in politics right now and everybody seems to be jumping on Rove,” says GOP consultant Scott Reed. However, some Bush loyalists see Rove’s unwanted attention as just a passing summer political squall.
The disclosure that Rove had discussed the role of CIA official Valerie Plame with Time reporter Matthew Cooper _ even if not using her name _ has presented a political dilemma for Bush, who previously pledged to fire anyone in his administration found to have been a leaker in the case.
Rove has been one of the president’s closest longtime advisers. The president dubbed Rove “Boy Genius” after he ran Bush’s two successful campaigns for Texas governor and helped shape the modern Texas Republican Party.
It isn’t the first time Rove has found himself the unwelcome center of attention.
His business dealings with Enron, his counsel to Republicans to “run on the war” and his master plan for the 2002 midterm elections _ found on a computer disc accidentally dropped in the street by a White House intern _ set off earlier tempests.
Rove has also been accused of political dirty tricks. In the 1986 Texas governor’s race, his Republican client, Bill Clements, and Democratic incumbent Mark White were running neck and neck when Rove announced he’d found an electronic listening device in his office. The controversy helped deliver the election to Clements. Many Texas Democrats believe Rove concocted the whole story.
Some White House officials and Bush advisers are privately expressing doubts about whether Rove can survive the latest flap. Others say they’ve been assured that Bush solidly supports Rove, and they are braced to defend him. Their strategy is to accuse Democrats of being on a witch hunt.
“At the moment, he’s a sitting duck,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. “They’re circling the wagons and trying to figure out what to do. That to me is the best measure of the importance of this.”
For nearly two years, White House officials have maintained that Rove had nothing to do with the exposure of Plame’s identity. White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not repeat that assertion this week in light of comments by Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, acknowledging that Rove spoke to the Time magazine reporter.
Still, Charles Black, a longtime GOP strategist, predicts Rove will survive.
“It’s good fodder for a feeding frenzy. And Democrats are pouncing on Karl because they fear and hate him. But, based on what we know that Karl did, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Black said.
“The question at the time that was put to McClellan in 2003 was did Karl or these other guys intentionally leak the woman’s name, which is a criminal offense. He didn’t do that,” said Black.
A 1982 law prohibits the deliberate leaking of CIA agents’ names. Plame is the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson, who accused the administration of manipulating intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq. Wilson suggests his wife’s name was leaked as retaliation.
At an Oval Office session on Tuesday, Bush ignored a reporter’s question on whether he would fire Rove.
For the second day, McClellan refused to comment on new information on Rove’s involvement. Asked if Bush had full confidence in Rove, McClellan said, “All of these questions are coming up in the context of an investigation that continues at this point.”
Later, the presidential spokesman revised his answer. “Any individual who works here at the White House has the president’s confidence. They wouldn’t be working here if they didn’t have the president’s confidence,” McClellan said.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Tuesday that “Karl Rove ought to be fired.” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. a possible 2008 presidential contender, agreed with him. “I’m nodding,” she told reporters.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman launched an aggressive defense of Rove, but support from top Republican congressional leaders was more muted.
“I support Karl Rove,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan who received White House support on his own ethics issues.
“I support Karl Rove,” echoed Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Told that some were calling for Rove’s resignation, Specter said, “Well I’m not one of them.”
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.