President Bush once said he would fire any White House staffer who had leaked the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. But if that source turns out to be Karl Rove, the president’s longtime political guru, a firing would be a devastating blow to the White House.
Rove, after all, is more than just a top presidential aide: He was the architect of Bush’s rise to power. He orchestrates policy initiatives and is aggressively charting a course for long-lasting Republican dominance.
But Rove is facing a barrage of questions over his conversation with a reporter about the case. His lawyer denies any criminal wrongdoing and any intent to leak the name of an undercover CIA employee. The disclosure this week that Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper talked in 2003 with Rove on “double super secret background” about Plame, as Cooper wrote in an e-mail to his bureau chief, revealed one aspect of Rove’s vast White House duties that had been rarely discussed publicly: press relations.
As the Cooper e-mail indicates, Rove has duties beyond his official role of working on foreign and domestic policy development. He has the broadest portfolio of any presidential aide in history: He micromanages policy, leads outreach efforts to key GOP constituencies and supervises election strategy down to the precinct level, not only for the president but for congressional candidates as well.
Rove also maintains contacts at leading news organizations and often provides background guidance to top reporters and editors, as he did for Cooper. These contacts are part of Rove’s less-discussed role of crafting Bush’s image, enforcing the strict Bush code of discipline and jumping hard on perceived opponents of the president.
“If you are at a senior level in Washington these days, you inevitably must deal with the media,” said Terry Holt, a former spokesman for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, speaking of Rove. “He has good relationships [with reporters], and he’s good at it. He has great credibility with the people that he deals with.”
As Democrats and reporters continued to press the Bush administration about Rove’s role in the Plame disclosure, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Bush continued to have confidence in every staff member. “They wouldn’t be working here at the White House if they didn’t have the president’s confidence,” he said.
Cooper’s e-mail, which suggests that Rove did not mention Plame by name even while referring to her CIA role, became public this week when it was published by Newsweek. Cooper is scheduled to testify this morning before a grand jury in Washington, possibly detailing his conversation with Rove. In some cases, revealing the name of an undercover CIA worker is a violation of law.
Cooper’s conversation with Rove occurred following a July 2003 New York Times op-ed piece written by Plame’s husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who questioned administration claims that Iraq had attempted to buy materials from Niger used to build nuclear weapons. Critics have claimed that the White House leaked Plame’s CIA role in retribution.
Rove’s most significant relationship in Washington is the one he has with Bush. The symbiotic partnership not only helped Bush win the Texas governor’s mansion and the White House twice, but has also fueled a national political transformation that has made the GOP dominant in a growing number of states.
While Bush has used the bully pulpit of the White House to rally public support for his response to terrorism, his tax cuts, and his proposed overhauls of Medicare, education and Social Security, Rove has used the power he accumulated to micromanage presidential policy decisions.
He has also overseen electoral politics down to individual congressional races. Rove, who carries the title deputy chief of staff, helped steer the Republicans to victory in 2002 midterm elections and Bush to reelection in 2004, and has actively recruited candidates for key races. Most recently, he met at the White House with a potential challenger to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
Those who observe the interplay between Bush and the man he dubbed “the architect” of his 2004 reelection, say the relationship is something like that of an old married couple. There is bickering, rivalry, dependency and a sense of fun.
Deborah Dombraye, a campaign aide who traveled with the two during Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign, says Rove and Bush “are like twin brothers.” They have a joshing bonhomie and communicate with each other so intimately that much of it is unintelligible to outsiders.
“They finish each other’s sentences,” says Dombraye, who now works for the Ohio Republican Party.
Despite the closeness, the two men came from very different worlds. Bush is the scion of wealth and power, a graduate of the nation’s most prestigious schools. Rove grew up the son of an oil geologist who moved frequently around the West. He never graduated from college.
They came together during young adulthood, when an ambitious former Texas congressman, George H.W. Bush, held the job of chairman of the Republican National Committee. It fell to the elder Bush to investigate allegations that Rove had used dirty tricks in a campaign for president of the College Republicans. The RNC chairman eventually cleared Rove, and was so impressed by the young operative that he hired him as an assistant.
Although Rove was an advisor ostensibly working behind the scenes, his name continued to be associated with public controversy. During George H.W. Bush’s second presidential campaign, Rove was fired from the campaign team because of suspicions that he had leaked information to columnist Robert Novak -- the same columnist who first reported Plame’s CIA role in 2003, citing anonymous administration sources.
At the time, Bush’s campaign was in trouble, and there was concern that the president might not even win his home state of Texas. The Novak column described a Dallas meeting in which the campaign’s state manager, Robert Mosbacher, was stripped of his authority because the Texas effort was viewed as a bust.
Mosbacher complained, expressing his suspicion that Rove was the leaker. Rove denied the charge, but was fired nevertheless.
But Rove developed an increasingly close relationship with the president’s son George -- a relationship that began on a spring day in 1973, when the elder Bush asked Rove to pick up his son at Washington’s Union Station to give the visiting Harvard Business School student the keys to the family car. By Rove’s own description, young Karl Rove was awed at first sight.
“He was exuding more charisma than any one individual should be allowed to have,” Rove told a writer for the New Yorker magazine in 2003.
A collaboration didn’t take root immediately. But the two men, both attached to the elder Bush, would come to see the political world and its prospects in similar ways, building such catch phrases as “compassionate conservatism” in 2000 and the creation of an “ownership society” in 2004 into lures for many who had never voted Republican.
Republican strategists credit Rove not only with his constant preparations for the next election but also with laying a foundation for GOP success in future campaigns. Critics say he has brazenly pushed his obsession with electoral politics into the deepest levels of the executive branch.
For example, he and Ken Mehlman, his onetime deputy who now heads the Republican National Committee, made a point of visiting nearly every Cabinet agency before the 2002 midterm elections, providing polling data and election priorities for top agency managers.
In early 2002, Rove personally addressed the 50 most-senior employees of the Interior Department at a retreat in West Virginia. He showed them a slide presentation summarizing presidential polling and key races. Then, from the podium, he mentioned upcoming Interior Department decisions that could influence the midterm elections.
At the time, Rove noted that Oregon’s incumbent Sen. Gordon H. Smith, a Republican, faced a difficult reelection. The Interior Department was then questioning whether to allow drought-stricken farmers to pull more water from Oregon’s Klamath River, endangering the state’s salmon population. Farmers are a critical part of the Oregon GOP base.
An inspector general’s report subsequently concluded there was no inappropriate pressure on the decision makers in the Klamath case. But the controversial decision to release water to farmers resulted in the largest fish kill in the West and still angers Indian fishermen and environmentalists. Smith won reelection.
In addition to mastering regulatory issues that can affect key races, Rove also calls potential candidates for Senate seats, encouraging his favorites to run and urging others to stand down. Last month, he met privately at the White House with the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Allan Bense, hoping to entice Bense to challenge Sen. Nelson next year.
The meeting with Bense came even though another prominent Republican, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, had already announced her intention to run.
Rove serves, too, as Bush’s ambassador to the conservative movement, and occasionally attends meetings of leading activists hosted by Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist. Rove helped mastermind a new GOP strategy of treating national elections like a series of county commission contests. He can recite precinct-by-precinct data in key battleground states and counties from memory, and he developed the 2004 plan of finding new voters in the fast-growing exurbs.
“If you view politics as the art of getting things done, then Karl is clearly an extraordinary success,” said David Winston, a GOP pollster who works closely with senior Republicans on electoral strategies. “If you view the mixture of politics and policy as a negative thing, then Karl is not your cup of tea.”
Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt and researcher Benjamin Weyl contributed to this report.