Rove Goes One-for-Two in Game of Spin
All you need to know about the current state of the ever-so-slowly-churning U.S. Attorney investigation can be summed up in the headlines offered Thursday afternoon by two of the best and most dogged newspapers of American history. Both the Washington Post and The New York Times were trying to make meaning of the conclusion of the still-private testimony of Karl Rove, the famous former senior advisor to President George W. Bush, before the House Judiciary Committee.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Both papers, evidently, were granted "exclusive," conditional interviews with Rove, the condition being that the contents of those interviews could not be published until after the completion of Rove's testimony. In those interviews, naturally enough, Rove downplayed his role in the scandal, telling the papers that he was merely a "conduit" passing along from lawmakers to the Justice Department grievances (often silly, unwarranted ones, by the way) about the federal prosecutors (who ultimately were fired).
This is how things work in Washington. Team Rove obviously was hoping to steer post-deposition spin his way, to minimize the damage from Committee leaks that are sure to follow. And if you only read the Times on Thursday, or today, you would certainly agree that the plan worked. The Times ran a piece by David Johnston titled: "Rove Says His Role In Prosecutor Filings Was Small," a story that took Rove's comments, looked at a few of his old emails, and concluded that there were no smoking guns.
Not so much at the Post. Here is the headline on its story: "Rove Had Heavier Hand In Prosecutor Firings Than Previously Known." The piece took Rove's comment from that "exclusive" interview, cited several seemingly contradictory emails, and clearly concluded that serious questions remain about Rove's credibility and role in a scandal which destroyed the credibility of the Justice Department and ultimately resulted in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. If you only read the Post on Thursday, or today, you would have a vastly different impression of Rove's involvement in the affair.
The lawyer in me can try to explain the discrepancies in the two stories. It's clear, and logical, that Rove would try to downplay his role in the politicized firings of the nine federal prosecutors. And certainly different people—the Times' David Johnston and the Post's Carrie Johnson—theoretically could reach different conclusions from listening to the same Rove interview and reviewing the same emails. After all, jurors listen all the time to the same cases and come into the deliberation room with completely different impressions.
But the contradiction between the two stories—and the evident contradictions in Rove's own stories about his role in the firings—highlight the challenges that Committee lawyers, and federal prosecutor Nora R. Dannehy, face as they continue to pursue an investigation. Was Rove confronted with the apparent discrepancies during the course of his Committee deposition this week? Is the gulf between Rove's spoken words in his Committee deposition and his written words in the emails vast enough to support a criminal or civil charge of perjury or obstruction of justice or anything else? Does the Post story alone warrant a new round of testimony by Rove? If not, why not?
Nearly four years after this sorry mess began, there are still more questions than answers. And I'm sure there are more questions than answers at the papers, too, where both Johnston and Johnson had to explain to their bosses why their competitor's stories were so vastly different than their own. Me? I give this round to the Post, for refusing to give Rove the benefit of any more doubts, and to Rove himself, for massaging at least one noted paper into buying his story. The man whom President George W. Bush lovingly called "Turd Blossom" sure shoveled it well this time.
Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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