It's a central theme of the Republican Party's Karl Rove talking points -- repeated by RNC chairman Ken Mehlman on CNN yesterday, by Republican Rep. Peter King on MSNBC last night, and by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal today: When Karl Rove told Time's Matthew Cooper that Joseph Wilson's wife sent him off to investigate the Iraq-Niger connection, Rove was simply rebutting Wilson's public claim that he had been sent by Vice President Dick Cheney himself.
There's just one flaw with this spin: The Republicans' evidence doesn't come close to supporting it.
In their talking points, the Republicans say: "Karl Rove discouraged a reporter from writing a story based on a false premise. The false premise was Joe Wilson's allegation that the vice president sent him to Niger." In the Journal's telling of the tale, Rove "told the press the truth that Mr. Wilson had been recommended for the CIA consulting gig by his wife, not by Vice President Dick Cheney as Mr. Wilson was asserting on the airwaves."
What's the Republicans' evidence that Wilson made such a claim? The talking points list two items. First, there's Wilson's July 6, 2003, New York Times Op-Ed. But Wilson doesn't say there that Cheney sent him to Niger. What he says is this: "In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report ... The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office."
So Cheney's office asked for a report, and "officials at the CIA" -- which is to say, not Cheney -- asked Wilson to investigate. Strike one.
OK, but what about the second bit of evidence? The Republican talking points seem to hang Wilson with words he uttered himself in a CNN interview on Aug. 3, 2003. Now, as an initial matter, one might observe that Aug. 3, 2003, is almost a month after July 11, 2003, the date on which Rove spoke with Matthew Cooper. And having made that observation, one might further observe that it is chronologically impossible for Rove to have been refuting a statement that Wilson hadn't made yet.
But that would just be the beginning. As Josh Marshall points out today, the talking points quote just a little bit selectively from what Wilson actually said on CNN. In the talking points, Wilson is quoted as saying: "What they did, what the office of the vice president did, and, in fact, I believe now from Mr. Libby's statement, it was probably the vice president himself." In the CNN transcript, however, Wilson says this: "Well, look, it's absolutely true that neither the vice president nor Dr. Rice nor even George Tenet knew that I was traveling to Niger. What they did, what the office of the vice president did, and, in fact, I believe now from Mr. Libby's statement, it was probably the vice president himself ... They asked essentially that we follow up on this report -- that the agency follow up on the report. So it was a question that went to the CIA briefer from the Office of the Vice President. The CIA, at the operational level, made a determination that the best way to answer this serious question was to send somebody out there who knew something about both the uranium business and those Niger officials that were in office at the time these reported documents were executed."
So Wilson didn't tell CNN on Aug. 3 that Cheney sent him to Niger; he told CNN that he thought Cheney wanted some answers about Niger, and that the CIA asked him to go find them. We'd call that strike two.
Is there a strike three? Not yet -- but only because the Republicans have swung only twice. If they've got more evidence -- which is to say, any evidence -- that Wilson claimed that Cheney sent him to Niger, then we'll stand corrected. But if they don't, then we trust that the Republicans, Ken Mehlman, Peter King and the Wall Street Journal will correct themselves.