White House Memo Rove Case May Test Bush's Loyalty to His Closest Aides
Loyalty has long been the most hallowed virtue in the Bush White House, but rarely has it been tested the way it has this week.
WASHINGTON, July 12 - Loyalty has long been the most hallowed virtue in the Bush White House, but rarely has it been tested the way it has this week.
No one has been closer to the president longer, or bailed him out of more tight spots, than Karl Rove, his chief political adviser. Now the question is whether President Bush can protect Mr. Rove from a gathering political storm, no matter how furious it becomes.
Current and former White House officials who know both men say they have no doubt that as long as Mr. Rove faces no serious legal charges - and so far he has yet to be charged with anything, and may never be - Mr. Bush will defend him. They point to the words Mr. Bush used to silence conservative critics of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales last week, warning them curtly, "I'm loyal to my friends."
Mr. Bush, who once said he would fire anyone on his staff who had knowingly leaked the name of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Wilson, also known by her maiden name, Valerie Plame, ignored a question about Mr. Rove posed to him on Tuesday by a reporter on the edges of an Oval Office meeting with the prime minister of Singapore.
But hours later, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, who on Monday declined to answer any questions about the matter, broke briefly out of no-comment mode to come to Mr. Rove's defense. He noted that reporters had asked whether the president still had "confidence in particular individuals, specifically Karl Rove." He answered his own question, saying, "Any individual who works here at the White House has the confidence of the president. They wouldn't be working here at the White House if they didn't."
Mr. Bush's loyalty has limits, however, especially for those unlucky enough not to be part of the tight inner circle of this White House. Paul H. O'Neill discovered what happens to those on the outside looking in when he was abruptly removed as treasury secretary. Others have suffered similar fates.
It is impossible to know whether any closed-door conversations have begun in the White House about whether to find a graceful way for Mr. Rove to exit partially, or as one former official said, to "get the benefit of the brain without the proximity of the body."
It is too early to know whether that is where this is headed, but on Tuesday the Republican National Committee put in motion the political machine Mr. Rove has built up over the last four and a half years to rally to his defense. It offered detailed rebuttals to any suggestion that Mr. Rove had done anything wrong, and that there was an organized White House effort to leak Ms. Wilson's identity in retaliation for criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy by her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV.
"He wasn't talking at all about her identity," said Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the committee and a protégé of Mr. Rove's, accusing Democrats of playing an unseemly game in criticizing the chief strategist of Mr. Bush's victory last year.
Speaking of Mr. Rove's conversations on July 11, 2003, with Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine correspondent who wrote about the case, he added: "He was saying, this is a bum story, you shouldn't write this story. He didn't use her name because he didn't know her name."
Mr. Rove can take heart in one fact: so far every other senior official caught up by the cascading series of questions that were touched off by 16 words in Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address has survived, even prospered. Three of Mr. Bush's closest advisers were involved in the drafting or reviewing of the now-discredited language, which said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The most senior of them, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser at the time, accused the Central Intelligence Agency of feeding bad information to the White House. In an interview earlier this year, she said that "I was the national security adviser and the president said something that probably shouldn't have been in the speech, and it was as much my responsibility" as anyone else's. Mr. Bush not only stuck by her, he made her secretary of state.
Stephen P. Hadley, Ms. Rice's deputy, stepped into the Oval Office in August of that summer to tell the president that he, not Ms. Rice, was the one responsible for letting the language into the speech, and by several accounts he offered to resign. Mr. Bush refused, and gave him Ms. Rice's old job late last year.
And George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who had been sent a copy of the speech but did not read it before it was delivered, reluctantly issued a statement two years ago this week saying that "These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president." He later resigned, for unrelated reasons. Last December Mr. Bush rewarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But Mr. Rove's case is a lot more complicated. By all accounts he had nothing to do with the wording in the speech. Instead, it appears he may have been part of the White House effort to push back after Mr. Wilson wrote a July 7, 2003, Op-Ed article in The New York Times declaring that Mr. Bush's description of Mr. Hussein's search for uranium was false, and that it ignored information that he passed on to the C.I.A. casting doubt on the story about an Iraqi search for uranium.
The entire contretemps at the White House this week centers on whether Mr. Rove tried to discredit Mr. Wilson by suggesting that his mission to Niger was the product of nepotism, and that Ms. Wilson had arranged for it. Why a mission to Niger would be such a plum assignment is still a mystery, but the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a report last year, quotes a State Department official as saying that Ms. Wilson had suggested sending her husband. She denies it.
Mr. Wilson was the first to accuse Mr. Rove of outing his wife. "The political director of the White House, Karl Rove, condoned the attack on Valerie and was retailing it to reporters, whether or not he had actually been the source behind it," Mr. Wilson wrote in the opening pages of his book, "The Politics of Truth," a 513-page account of his role and his accusations that the White House had betrayed a covert agent.
But until this week, it was Mr. Wilson's word against the White House's insistence that Mr. Rove was not involved. That is what has changed. An e-mail message that Time magazine turned over to the prosecutor investigating the naming of Ms. Wilson asserts that Mr. Rove discussed Ms. Wilson's role, though apparently without naming her or suggesting she was a covert officer. If that version is correct, it is not clear that anything Mr. Rove said could be considered a crime.
It could also save his job. Mr. Bush was asked in June 2004 whether he would fire anyone who leaked Ms. Wilson's name. Without hesitation, he said "yes." But if Ms. Wilson was discussed - but not named - current and former White House officials say Mr. Bush may not feel he is violating his pledge by keeping the political engineer who, as deputy chief of staff, is now formulating much of the domestic policy agenda of Mr. Bush's second term.
In the end, a former official and others said, Mr. Rove's fate at the White House is tied to the investigation by the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
But those who know Mr. Bush say that sticking with his old friend would be completely consistent with his personality.
"He is as set in his way about people as he is to his principles," David Gergen, an adviser to many presidents and now a lecturer at Harvard, said in Washington on Tuesday. "Karl is his right arm."
A former official who has worked for Mr. Bush said: "This president is Mr. Alamo. He sees the hordes coming over the hill and he heads for the barricades. And not to raise a white flag."
David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson contributed reporting for this article.