A little loose on his facts

The Plame story may move beyond Karl Rove, but Ken Mehlman will defend his man in the meantime.

Published July 18, 2005 5:21PM (EDT)

The Valerie Plame story may be moving past Karl Rove -- not because he wasn't involved, but because so many other people were, too. As Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times are reporting, the White House was engaged in an all-hands-on-deck effort to discredit Joseph Wilson in July 2003, and it now seems that Scooter Libby joined Rove in making sure journalists had whatever they needed to out Wilson's wife. But while Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation may end up being about much more than what Karl Rove said to reporters, Rove is the personification of the story for now. It's Rove's head Democrats want on a platter, Rove's face on the cover of Time ("The Rove Problem") and Newsweek ("The World According to Karl Rove").

And it's Rove whom Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman is trying so hard to defend. Mehlman's loyalty is understandable -- as Newsweek notes, his "entire career is a Rove creation" -- but he seems to have lost in it his ability to recognize the difference between what is true and what is false, what is known and what is not. On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Mehlman offered a spirited defense of his mentor, but virtually every point he made is either undercut or undersupported by the facts we know so far.

Let's break it down.

When Tim Russert asked Mehlman if it isn't clear now that Rove engaged in "a leak of something that should not have been leaked," Mehlman said no. "Two stories have come out this week, both of which have the effect of exonerating and vindicating Mr. Rove, not implicating him." First, Mehlman says, the press reports about Rove's July 8, 2003, conversation with Robert Novak indicate that "Karl Rove was not Bob Novak's source, that Novak told Rove, not the other way around."

Not exactly. While Rove may not have been Novak's only source on the Plame story, press reports say he was at least one of Novak's sources. The New York Times, relying on a report from a source who has been "officially briefed" on the case, reported last week that Rove was Novak's "second source." And the Rove-Novak phone call wasn't the sort of one-way communication that Mehlman would have TV viewers imagine. As the Times and the Washington Post have both reported, when Novak told Rove that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee and that she had had a role in arranging his trip to Niger, Rove confirmed the story for him. Moreover, Matthew Cooper says that Rove leaked the story about Wilson's wife to him -- not as the confirmation of something Cooper had already heard, but as something new he had not.

What say you, Mr. Mehlman? "These same stories also suggested that Karl Rove heard the first time about it from another reporter."

Well, sort of, maybe. The Times' source says Rove told the investigators that Rove had heard parts of the Plame story from other journalists before. But other reports are more equivocal. The Associated Press is reporting that its source -- a lawyer familiar with Rove's grand jury testimony -- says that Rove "learned about the CIA officer either from the media or from someone in government who said the information came from a journalist."

The Washington Post's story? Well, it said two different things. In an early version of the story, the Post quoted a source who said Rove doesn't have a "clear recollection" about where he first heard the Plame story, but that he told investigators "that he believes he may have heard it from a journalist." A subsequent version of the Post story paraphrased the source as saying unequivocally that Rove told investigators "that he first learned about the operative from a journalist." We're told that the Post's source on the Plame story "said it a lot of different ways."

In his final defense -- at least for now -- Mehlman tried to suggest Sunday that the Novak-Rove call was just some kind of informal, agenda-free conversation among friends. "Bob Novak never said, 'I'm asking for corroboration,'" Mehlman said. "There was a chat going on." While it's true that the two men have "chatted" before -- George H.W. Bush once fired Rove amid suspicions that he had leaked information to Novak -- a news report out today suggests that Rove was "intensely focused" on discrediting Wilson at the time he talked with Novak. Maybe Novak never uttered the words, "I'm asking for corroboration," but Mehlman knows that that's not the way the game is played. Novak says he called his second source -- the one we know now as Rove -- "for confirmation" of the Plame story, and Novak says he got it.

By Tim Grieve

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

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