WASHINGTON — 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.