Karl Rove's designated hitter

Scott McClellan can't bring himself to repeat the lie that Rove wasn't involved in the outing of Valerie Plame. Ken Mehlman has no such compunction.

Published July 13, 2005 4:37AM (EDT)

After the revelations of the last few days, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan can no longer bring himself to stand before the TV cameras and repeat the lie that Karl Rove wasn't involved in the outing of Valerie Plame. But lucky for Rove -- and for the man who still employs him -- Ken Mehlman has no such compunction.

Mehlman, the former White House political director who now serves as chairman of the Republican National Committee, is boldly going where McClellan is either too embarrassed or too scared to go anymore. Early Tuesday, Mehlman issued a statement in which he dismissed Rove's legal entanglements -- brought to the public eye by a federal prosecutor nominated to his job by George W. Bush and assigned to investigate the Valerie Plame case by a deputy to John Ashcroft -- as "blatant partisan attacks" by the "far-left, MoveOn wing" of the Democratic Party.

And then he really got going.

Mehlman told the New York Times Tuesday that Rove "wasn't talking at all about [Plame's] identity" when he spoke with Time magazine's Matthew Cooper in July 2003. Mehlman went a little further on CNN, telling Wolf Blitzer that Rove has stated "very clearly" that "he was not the leaker."

The only problem -- the problem even Scott McClellan apparently now recognizes -- is that these statements by Mehlman simply aren't true. Plame's identity may or may not have been the focus of Rove's telephone conversation with Cooper, but it was plainly a part of it. Cooper's email message says that Rove told him that Joe Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife, "who apparently works at the agency on wmd issues." To say that Rove "wasn't talking at all about her identity" is just false.

And unless there's a Rove statement out there that we haven't seen, it's also false to suggest that Rove has stated "very clearly" that "he was not the leaker." Yes, Rove seemed to deny to an ABC News producer in September 2003 that he'd had "any knowledge" about the leaking of Plame's name to the press. But a year later he offered a much more nuanced denial: "I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name." More to the point, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, concedes that Rove informed Cooper that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. And Luskin has apparently abandoned the distinction-without-a-difference argument that Rove is somehow off the hook because he referred to Wilson's wife as Wilson's wife and not by her name, Valerie Plame. When the National Review's Byron York asked Tuesday if that defense weren't a little legalistic -- another interviewer might have called it "Clintonian" -- Luskin said, "I agree with you. I think it's a detail."

So Rove wasn't "the leaker"? No one's saying that "very clearly" anymore. No one but Ken Mehlman.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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