Cloud Remains Over Rove’s Situation

Times Staff Writers

At first, there were almost audible sighs of relief among White House aides and Republican leaders in Congress: Karl Rove, President Bush’s closest political advisor, was not indicted.

Instead, the prosecutor’s target Friday was a far more obscure figure: Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

“Most people who have commented on this thought it was very good news for Karl Rove,” said influential Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). “Well, if it’s good news for Karl Rove, it’s good news for me.”


But as the day wore on, a more sober reality became clear: The decision by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to continue pondering a possible indictment for Rove left Bush and his aides stranded under much the same cloud of uncertainty as before.

“If anybody is popping champagne bottles, they ought to be putting them back into the refrigerator,” conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich said. “In the conservative community, we are very divided -- but there is one thing we all agree on: Rove is brilliant and gave Bush, through the first term ... good advice.”

A former administration official who still advises the White House -- and so insisted on anonymity -- said that the continuing doubt over Rove’s legal fate had reduced the White House from a fearsome political juggernaut to a hesitant and distracted bureaucracy.

“They’ve all been hunkered down,” he said. “You can’t talk to them about what’s going on.... We desperately need to get this thing resolved, one way or another, so we can move on and fix things.”

Officially, Bush and his aides dismiss such talk. They insisted that the 22-month investigation that stemmed from the public disclosure of the name of a CIA operative had had no effect on the work of Libby and Rove -- two of the administration’s most powerful men.

But an increasing number of leading Republicans say they are worried that Bush’s second-term agenda is sputtering and that his staff may be running out of gas. They point to the White House’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in August and its clumsy handling of the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers as evidence that all is not well.

Many of the critics are GOP moderates who have never liked Rove’s strategy of embracing the most conservative factions in the Republican base and imposing tight party discipline on Congress to produce narrow victories.

“This is clearly a trough for the Republican Party today,” said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), a centrist. “As a party, the Republicans are going to have to go through some rethinking.... It could be Republicans in Washington are out of step with the great mainstream center of the country.”

But the ranks of the worried also include conservatives such as Weyrich, who fear that the possibility of an indictment may prevent Rove from representing their interests as effectively as before.

“Assuming that Rove has dodged the bullet, it will be helpful, because Rove has been preoccupied with all of this,” Weyrich said. “Rove is really essential to the White House doing anything that is creative.”

Weyrich warned that the GOP, bruised by the Miers battle, still faced tough challenges: not only the next Supreme Court nomination, but the continuing investigation into allegedly improper gifts to members of Congress by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“I’ve been talking to some members who are scared to death” by the Abramoff affair, Weyrich said. “That one has the potential for blowing into something far larger.”

Some former officials from Bush’s first term say they believe the president needs to take dramatic action if he hopes to alter a climate that has seen his popularity plunge to record lows.

These former officials -- speaking anonymously to avoid endangering their access to the White House -- suggest it may be time for a management overhaul that would replace Rove and his putative boss, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

“The problems the White House has go beyond the indictment of Scooter,” one former top official said. “The uncertainty hanging over Karl certainly doesn’t help. [But] there are other questions about what the White House does, how it rights the ship.

“It has been a very hard year; they get blamed for everything and credit for nothing,” he said. “They need to go to a long-term, thoughtful, offensive mode.... They need an outside defining event.”

Several former officials have suggested possible replacements for Bush’s top aides: budget director Joshua B. Bolten or former Commerce Secretary Don Evans for Card’s job as chief of staff; Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman or former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie -- or both -- for Rove’s job.

But they said they didn’t know whether Bush, who rarely fires aides for any reason, shared their belief that major changes were needed.

Instead, one said, Fitzgerald may be the man who decides whether the Bush White House changes course -- or continues on its current path.

“If the only person indicted is Scooter Libby, this story will be forgotten in 10 days,” predicted the former official. “But if [Rove] is indicted, the story has legs ... and the president may have to do something dramatic, like fire [Card].”

Rove is no ordinary staff aide. Bush has declared the strategist the most important contributor to his success, calling him “the architect” of his 2004 reelection.

Some GOP leaders have even suggested that Rove’s preoccupation with his legal troubles -- plus a painful bout of kidney stones -- were the main reasons for the White House’s shaky performances on Katrina and the Miers nomination.

Whether Rove remains in the White House under a cloud or not, the Libby indictment added to the administration’s political troubles.

It gave Democrats a new talking point on their favorite anti-GOP theme: the charge that Republican rule had resulted in legal and ethical problems in Congress and the White House.

Several Democrats made references Friday to the Watergate scandal, which began with lower-level White House aides and led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said: “The charges [against Libby] really beg the larger question: What did the president and vice president know about these and related matters, and when did they know it?”

Administration aides and GOP lawmakers focused on trying to change the subject -- the standard strategy for administrations mired in troubles.

Dreier said: “This is a great day when you look at the 3.8% [economic] growth rate” announced Friday. “That, to me, is something worth celebrating.”

But one political scholar, John Kenneth White of the Catholic University of America, said he wasn’t sure the strategy of spotlighting other matters could work as long as ethical and legal issues remained in the news.

“This question of wrongdoing goes to the heart of Bush’s strength, which is honesty and integrity,” he said. “The one strength the Bush family has always had is its reputation for honesty and probity.”