Republicans Testing Ways to Blunt Leak Charges


Republicans Testing Ways to Blunt Leak Charges
White House Letter
All Is Just Fine in the White House These Days, or Is It?
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
Published: October 24, 2005
WASHINGTON

Sometimes things seem almost normal.

Last week Karl Rove talked to Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, about Harriet E. Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court, the Iraqi Constitution and the 2006 midterm elections. He multitasked on his BlackBerry during a domestic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room. He even popped in to hear a few moments of President Bush's get-tough-on-illegal-immigrants speech in the East Room.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Karl Rove slipped in and out of the East Room on Tuesday before a ceremony for President Bush's signing of a spending bill.
But as everyone in the anxiety-ridden West Wing knows, things are about as normal as waiting for a special prosecutor to decide whether to bring criminal charges against two of the most powerful men at the White House: Mr. Rove, the deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's political alter ego, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

Lawyers involved in the case say that the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, is focusing on whether Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby sought to conceal their actions and mislead prosecutors in the C.I.A. leak case. Among the charges he is considering, they say, are perjury and obstruction of justice - both peripheral to the issue Mr. Fitzgerald was appointed to investigate, which is whether anyone in the administration revealed the identity of a covert intelligence officer, a potential crime.

Mr. Fitzgerald is expected to make up his mind this week. Associates of Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby continue to express hope that the evidence is too fragmented for indictments.

Still, the triumphant and combative "architect" of Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election victory, as the president anointed Mr. Rove less than a year ago, has kept an unusually low profile. Mr. Rove was not with the president last Friday in California, where Mr. Bush attended a $1 million Republican fund-raiser in Bel Air and spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Mr. Rove helped plan for the event a year ago, when it seemed a natural trip for the person in the White House who has worked hardest to tie Mr. Reagan's legacy to Mr. Bush.

Mr. Rove also canceled plans to attend a Republican Party fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., last Monday, a Virginian Republican Party fund-raiser on Oct. 15 and a speech to the conservative Hudson Institute on Oct. 11.

But even as White House officials and Republicans say that Mr. Rove is human and that the leak investigation has taken an enormous toll on his family, they also insist that everyone is focused on the work at hand, and that Mr. Rove is good at compartmentalizing his life.

At the domestic policy meeting last week, Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director, said that Mr. Rove "went from asking probing questions to checking his BlackBerry to taking notes to popping out to take important calls." Mr. Mehlman said that the White House "is focused on the people's agenda" and that a staff that has faced huge challenges, like a terrorist attack and two wars, can handle this one.

Allies of the administration who talk regularly to top West Wing officials paint a less happy picture. "The general mood is one of grim determination to conduct business as usual, even though it's clearly not possible," said a Republican close to Mr. Rove who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to antagonize the White House by talking about internal thinking. "It colors the mood, it colors everything that people do, say and think about."

Already there is debate in Republican circles about how a possible departure by Mr. Rove would affect the White House and the presidency, with some saying that it would be a major loss and others saying that everyone, Mr. Rove included, is expendable.

"The president's agenda will go forth, and staff changes all the time," said Brad Blakeman, Mr. Bush's scheduler for most of the first term, when asked at the Reagan Library last week about the impact of a possible departure by Mr. Rove. "It's quite healthy to have staff turnover."

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who was also at the Reagan library, took an equally optimistic view about any toll from the investigation on the White House or Mr. Bush. "We all remember low points in presidencies, and this president is doing very well, and he'll recover," Mr. Meese said.

Another Republican close to White House said that some in the party were viewing a possible departure by Mr. Rove as a potential positive. "He is a political genius, but he controls too much, and the cabinet is irrelevant," said the Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to alienate Mr. Rove. "And maybe there will have to be some other policy people in there, and maybe that will help the president."

The consensus among some Republicans in Washington was that Mr. Mehlman was a logical replacement for Mr. Rove, should he depart, because Mr. Mehlman, a former White House political director, managed Mr. Bush's 2004 campaign with guidance from Mr. Rove. Mr. Mehlman, who was with Mr. Bush in California, a trip he might have taken regardless of Mr. Rove's legal distractions, declined to respond to any questions about the speculation.

For now, photographers are staked out in front of Mr. Rove's house, Mr. Fitzgerald is thinking, and the White House is waiting.