As Karl goes ...

If Rove goes down, will the White House completely fall apart?

Published October 13, 2005 9:45PM (EDT)

By all rights, the day Time magazine's Matt Cooper agreed to give up his White House "double super secret" source should have been stressful for Karl Rove. The president's top political advisor had, after all, told the country that he had nothing to do with the leak of a covert CIA agent's name. Now he was on the verge of being revealed as a key player in the wide-ranging Valerie Plame investigation, an inquiry that threatened to bring indictments into the inner sanctum of the Bush presidency.

Yet, in the hours before Cooper made his court appearance, the most powerful political strategist of a generation had something else on his mind altogether -- Wendell Willkie, the failed Republican presidential candidate in 1940, who, like Rove, had a reputation for political trickery. At midday on July 6, while reporters swarmed blocks away at the U.S. District Court, Rove put in a call to Charles Peters, the veteran political journalist, who had just written a book on the 1940 Republican convention that made Willkie the GOP nominee. "This is Karl Rove from the White House," Rove said into Peters' voice mail, as if his name could be mistaken for anyone else. Peters, who once employed Cooper at the Washington Monthly, returned the call, and the two history buffs chatted amiably about the distant political past.

For those who have worked with and admire President Bush's top advisor, such coolness under fire is the rule, not the exception. Even under the greatest moments of stress during political campaigns -- like the days after Bush fumbled the first debate with John Kerry in 2004 -- Rove put forward a public face of energy and enthusiasm, his colleagues say. "Karl just does not get demoralized by adversaries or threats that arise," said a recently departed official of the Bush White House. "That is just not his style."

As early as Friday, Rove's mettle is expected to be tested by a fourth appearance before the grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's covert identity to the press. Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is expected to wrap up his investigation in the next two weeks, with broad speculation that he will bring indictments, either for perjury, conspiracy or the individual violation of various laws protecting classified information. The investigation is concluding at a time of political chaos for the White House and Rove. President Bush faces his lowest approval ratings ever, high gas prices, the continued fallout from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, a mounting death toll in Iraq and a growing conservative insurrection over Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.

Some White House supporters worry that the possible indictments of Rove or other officials could throw the presidency into even further disarray. "In this White House, everything is decided by a group of about five or six people," says Peter Ferrara, a conservative activist who worked in the Reagan White House. The group includes Rove, President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff Andy Card and Joshua Bolten, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. "If you lose a central player in that central counsel, it upsets the whole operation."

But others say much of this speculation is overblown. Just as Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has continued to hold onto power despite an indictment that stripped him of his majority leader title, an indicted Rove would survive as well, they say. "If somebody thinks they are going to get Karl Rove out of the process by chasing him out of the White House, I don't think they understand him and I don't think they understand the president," the former White House official said. "Whether you are inside the White House or outside the White House is not all that important."

In the end, the lasting damage to President Bush and his legacy could come from another source altogether -- a revelation of the lengths to which the White House went to sell, and defend, false pretences for the Iraq war.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that "lawyers familiar with the situation" believed that Fitzgerald's investigation now includes scrutiny of the White House Iraq Group, an inner council of presidential advisors who first gathered in August 2002 to craft a strategy to sell the war in Iraq. The Journal report suggests that Fitzgerald has broadened the scope of the investigation to possibly include a conspiracy to punish Wilson and his wife that predates by months the articles in which journalists mentioned Plame's identity.

This report is bolstered by claims made last year by Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, the husband of Valerie Plame. Wilson was hired by the CIA to travel to Africa to investigate claims that Iraq sought to procure uranium from Niger, allegations he found highly doubtful. He later went public with his concerns that the White House had misled the nation about the validity of these charges, prompting White House officials to discuss his wife's role at the CIA and causing the current criminal investigation.

In his book, "The Politics of Truth," Wilson writes that the White House had been concerned about him long before he ever wrote a July 2003 Op-Ed in the New York Times questioning the Niger uranium claims. In March of 2003, Wilson appeared on CNN, where he claimed that the U.S. government knew far more about the questionable validity of the Niger claims than a State Department spokesman had suggested. Such a comment could easily have been seen as a threat by White House boosters of the Iraq war.

Wilson wrote in his book that a "respected reporter" and source close to the House Judiciary Committee told him that within weeks of his March appearance on CNN, I. Lewis Libby, an advisor to Vice President Cheney who participated in the White House Iraq Group, chaired a meeting in the White House "where a decision was made to do a 'workup' on me." (Libby, like Rove, has testified before the grand jury investigating the leak of Plame's name.) This meeting would have preceded by at least three months the initial publishing of Plame's name by journalist Robert Novak. It also suggests that there was a long-standing effort to punish Wilson, if not his wife, for crossing the Bush White House, a claim the Bush administration has denied.

Whether or not these claims will result in a criminal prosecution is still a matter of pure speculation. Washington reporters have spilled buckets of ink to spin out the permutations of the outcome of Fitzgerald's investigation. Several laws may have been broken or none at all. Several of the most powerful political advisors in the country may be indicted and charged with felonies or the investigation will be closed without any charges. Every new theory that emerges is cause of another round of guesswork. On Wednesday, the Washington Post even noted the number of times President Bush blinked after being asked on a televised interview about the Plame investigation.

As for Wilson, he told Salon on Wednesday that he is withholding any speculation about what will happen over the coming weeks. "My view on this is that it's interesting speculation but the person who knows what he is going to do isn't speaking yet," said Wilson. "I am going to wait to see what Mr. Fitzgerald has to say."

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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