Politics & Policy

The Road to Rove’s Departure

Why the president's brilliant strategist is leaving.

There were a lot of people to thank for George W. Bush’s reelection, and in Washington’s Ronald Reagan Building on November 3, 2004, the day after the voting, the president took the stage to recognize key players like Ken Mehlman and Ed Gillespie. They had played important roles, but the one who got a special nod was top political aide Karl Rove, to whom Bush gave what would become a lasting label, “the architect.”

Looking back, that day was the high point of Rove’s influence and power. After Bush’s victory in 2000, and, nearly as important, the Republican party’s precedent-defying pickup of House and Senate seats in 2002, Rove had engineered a Bush reelection victory in the face of troubles in Iraq and a newly energized Democratic opposition.

In 2004, Democrats and their 527-group supporters poured millions of dollars into elaborate voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts. The papers featured story after story about the intimidating Democratic turnout machine, fueled by 527 money and anti-Bush passion. But Rove, much more quietly, had built a better machine, and Democrats didn’t know they’d been bested until election night. As a strategist, Rove was simply smarter than anyone on the other side, and in 2004 he proved it once and for all.

But after reelection, the White House encountered rough going. The Social Security initiative failed, the war effort struggled, Hurricane Katrina hit, and immigration became a nagging problem. There was success with the Roberts and Alito nominations, but it was accompanied by the oddity — to some conservatives, the outrage — of the Miers affair. The White House seemed strangely discombobulated. More than one observer wondered whether Rove was really on his game.

He wasn’t. Beginning in late 2003, Rove became increasingly distracted by the CIA-leak investigation that would lead to his appearing not one, not two, not three, not four, but five times before prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury. Rove was first interviewed by the FBI in October 2003, first appeared before the grand jury in February 2004, and appeared for a fifth and final time in April 2006. He would have to wait until June 2006 before Fitzgerald informed him that he would not be indicted.

“Nobody on the inside would ever admit it on the record, and Karl would never admit it,” says one well-connected observer, “but when the full force of the U.S. government is bearing down on you and trying to put you in jail, trying to ruin you, and you know in your heart that you have done nothing wrong, and it drags on and on and on, and the politicians and prosecutors are coming after you — it can’t help but drain you.”

It did. In 2005 and 2006, by several accounts, Rove spent a significant amount of time accommodating the demands of the leak investigation. And any time he spent doing that was time that he did not spend looking after the needs of the White House. “Everybody in Washington who knew Karl and knew how the White House worked knew that when he was under that cloud, things started to go a little awry,” the observer says. “He had to spend a lot of time dealing with it.”

Rove’s distraction was a victory for Democrats, who worked hard to create the political pressure for a CIA-leak investigation, culminating in the Bush Justice Department’s decision to appoint Fitzgerald even though investigators knew the sources of the CIA leak. (Rove was the second, confirming source for the Robert Novak column that started it all, something that Rove acknowledged to prosecutors from the very beginning.) Former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who occasionally consulted with Democratic leaders on anti-Bush strategy, famously said he hoped to see Rove “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” Democrats did not get that wish, but they did succeed in throwing Rove off-stride, with the political benefits that came from it.

It was a big victory, but it could not have been accomplished without a criminal investigation stemming from the rather bizarre circumstances of the CIA-leak case. Now, however, having won control of the House and Senate, Democrats can conduct their own investigations and issue their own subpoenas, and Rove is again in their sights. Getting Rove would be getting the president, and Democrats are pushing hard to force Rove to testify in the U.S. attorneys matter. So far, the White House has refused, setting up a confrontation that won’t change whether Rove is on or off the administration payroll. (As for Rove himself, he’ll still have to deal with congressional investigators, but he won’t have to deal with them and with his full-time White House job.)

Amid all the investigating, the White House as a whole has entered the unavoidable slump that comes as a president approaches the second half of his second term. Some long-time staff members have left, and others are thinking about it. Against that backdrop, Rove’s departure is not a surprise, nor is it all that unusual. He really is tired, and he really wants to spend more time with his family. But this day has its roots in a series of events that no one could have fully anticipated during that celebration on November 3, 2004.  


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