Don't you love the way scandal-impaired Washingtonians always seem to be exuding such unmitigated joy when they pay a visit to the grand jury? Take Karl Rove, for instance. This week, the architect of President Bush's political career waltzed along to the courthouse door like a guy who was holding box-seat tickets for a big ballgame on the Fourth of July.
Such is the requisite pose for a power guru under constant threat of indictment. We're getting some reports that Rove's legal status will finally be resolved this spring -- he could be charged with perjury in the Valerie Plame leak case, or he could be absolved despite evidence that he did participate in the leak -- but, politically speaking, the damage has already been done. Rove's long battle to elude special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's dragnet has clearly contributed to the Bush administration's widening credibility gap.
In 2003, the story broke that somebody in the White House had leaked Plame's identity as an undercover CIA official, as an act of retaliation against her husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. When Rove's name was floated as a possible culprit, the White House quickly dismissed such talk as "totally ridiculous." Press flak Scott McClellan told the press that Rove had personally told him the same thing; as McClellan put it, Rove "didn't condone that kind of activity and was not involved in that kind of activity."
But the cover story blew up when Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper told the grand jury that Rove was involved in that kind of activity. Because he had discussed Plame's CIA status with Cooper, on the phone.
Which brings us to this week's Rove appearance before the grand jury, his fifth.
Maybe he was just helping Fitzgerald tie up a few loose ends, so that the prosecutor could concentrate on Scooter Libby, the ex-vice presidential aide, who faces trial on a perjury charge in the Plame case. But it's quite plausible that Rove could wind up with Libby in the docket as a criminal defendant, because, by all indications, Rove this week was still trying to explain why, during a 2004 grand jury appearance, he had somehow failed to mention his conversation with Cooper.
His lawyer last autumn told Fitzgerald's sleuths that Rove's amnesia was genuine, that his conversation with Cooper had simply slipped his mind. But now the word (from sources in the Rove camp) is that Rove has added a new explanation: it would have been a "suicide mission" to deliberately conceal his chat with Cooper, because he knows that as a rule such information always surfaces in the end.
Will Fitzgerald and the grand jurors buy that defense?
Here's the problem with it: Back in 2003, the general assumption at the White House was that such information would not surface in the end -- because reporters always stay mum and never name their leakers. How do I know this? Because Bush himself said so.
On Oct. 7, 2003, Bush said: "I have no idea whether we'll find out who the (Plame) leaker is -- partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers."
In other words, at the time Rove failed to mention his talk with Cooper, he had no reason to believe that Cooper would give him up. Cooper only did so -- much later, in July 2005 -- because Fitzgerald put the squeeze on him.
And the record shows that Rove began to revise his initial testimony only after it became clear that Fitzgerald was single-mindedly determined to get Cooper's side of the story.
Rove reminds me of a character in Bullitt, the famous Steve McQueen cop movie. Just a little, anyway. Steve is trying to interview a flophouse hotel manager who may know something about a crime that had been committed upstairs, but the manager isn't talking. Finally Steve says he's going to take the manager downtown because he's "not trying hard enough," and suddenly the manager's eyes light up and he says, hey, wait a sec, as a matter of fact, I do remember a few things...And he wriggles off the hook.
Maybe Rove wriggles off the hook; maybe Fitzgerald will conclude that Rove has seen the light. That may not help repair the political damage at the White House, but at least Rove would be freed up to address the GOP's number one priority: figuring out a way to minimize the electoral damage in November.
And who else believes in Bush more than Rove? As Rove said back in 2004, his client is "one of the most educated, thoughtful, brightest presidents we've ever had."