Republicans Outside White House Are Talking

Times Staff Writers

The White House won’t talk about Karl Rove. But as the furor over President Bush’s chief political strategist continues, Republican leaders have found other ways to get their points across.

For the second straight day, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan refused to answer questions about Rove’s possible role in disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA operative, saying Tuesday -- as he had the day before -- that comments might damage an ongoing criminal investigation into the matter.

“I want to be helpful to the investigation. I don’t want to jeopardize anything in that investigation,” McClellan said during another contentious briefing as reporters bombarded him with questions about the White House deputy chief of staff.

Yet, at the same time, the Republican National Committee -- closely allied with the White House and chaired by Rove protege Ken Mehlman -- distributed a 3 1/2 -page set of talking points defending the president’s chief political strategist and attacking Democrats and the CIA operative’s husband, an outspoken critic of the administration’s Iraq policy.

A case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing?


Hardly, old Washington hands said: The White House’s strategy appears to be a textbook example of trying to change the subject by shifting the focus.

“The RNC is trying to get the attention off the White House,” said David Gergen, a Harvard University government professor who has worked for presidents of both parties. “A week ago, this was all about the press. Now it’s back to the White House, which is not what they want.”

The controversy exploded in recent days after disclosures that Rove was a source for a July 17, 2003, article on Time magazine’s website. That article questioned whether the Bush administration had “declared war” on former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had traveled to Africa in 2002 to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase weapons-grade uranium.

On July 6, 2003, the New York Times published an op-ed article by Wilson criticizing those claims -- a key underpinning for the White House’s case for invading Iraq. The article on Time’s website, co-written by reporter Matthew Cooper, cited “some government officials” as identifying Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA officer and saying that she had been involved in dispatching her husband to Africa.

In a court proceeding last week, Cooper said his source had authorized him to reveal his identity to a federal grand jury investigating whether Plame’s public outing violated a federal law barring disclosure of a covert agent’s identity. The decision allowed Cooper to avoid a jail term for refusing a special prosecutor’s order to reveal his source. New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing a similar order.

Although Cooper did not publicly identify Rove as his source, Newsweek magazine on Sunday published the contents of a 2003 e-mail from the reporter to his editors, saying Rove had told him that Wilson’s trip had been authorized by his wife.

McClellan refused to square the latest disclosures with his previous assertions in September and October of 2003 that Rove was not involved in leaking Plame’s identity to the press. “The president knows that Karl Rove wasn’t involved,” McClellan said at the time.

But now, McClellan said Tuesday, it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the matter because of the investigation.

However, GOP officials had no such reservations. The RNC talking points, distributed to Republicans on Capitol Hill and to party operatives across the country, provided a detailed point-by-point defense of Rove’s role in the Plame case, saying he only discussed the situation with Cooper to prevent him from writing something inaccurate.

Appearing on CNN’s “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” Mehlman cited Rove’s previous statement that he had not identified Plame by name.

“The fact is, Karl Rove did not leak classified information,” Mehlman said. “He did not, according to what we learned this past weekend, reveal the name of anybody. He didn’t even the know the name.... He tried to discourage a reporter from writing a story that was false.”

RNC spokesman Brian Jones said the committee decided to issue the talking points after Democrats on Capitol Hill began attacking Rove, some calling for his resignation and others saying that his security clearance should be revoked.

“It’s appropriate that we push back and take existing information and lay out what the reality is. Part of the reality is that Democrats are engaging in blatant political attacks,” Jones said. “There was a need for it to be done, and we did it.”

The RNC’s aggressive stance in the face of mounting Democratic criticism suggests that Republicans hope the public will dismiss the complex controversy as a partisan “food fight,” in the words of one Republican senator’s chief of staff, who requested anonymity. “They’re trying to dilute the matter,” the aide said.

Bush was asked about Rove at the end of an Oval Office photo session with Singapore’s prime minister Tuesday morning, but did not reply to a shouted question as aides quickly ushered reporters out of the room. Later in the day, a senior administration official said only: “We’ve lived with the investigation for two years, and we’re not changing approach or focus now.”

But Gergen, who began his career in politics as an assistant to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, questioned the White House strategy.

“They ought to do an about-face and put out the full facts and quell the storm,” he said. “Their danger is, if they allow this to keep whipping up in the press, Rove could be wounded. And this president does not want to lose Karl Rove. Rove is his right arm.”

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.