July 12, 2005 — -- There are two important and distinct lenses through which Karl Rove's possible connection to the leaking of a CIA operative's name must be viewed -- the legal and the political.
The investigation into who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to the media has recently focused on Rove, one of President Bush's closest advisers, after reports surfaced that Rove had spoken to a Time magazine journalist about Plame.
The legal portion of the story is largely in the hands of the special prosecutor investigating the leak, Patrick Fitzgerald. The outcome will rely on the facts of the case and Fitzgerald's judgment. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, continues to assert his client's innocence and that Rove is neither a target nor a subject of the investigation. Luskin has also emphasized that the purpose of Timereporter Matthew Cooper's phone call to Rove was to discuss welfare reform and that Rove had no intention of bringing up the Wilson/Plame story until Cooper raised the issue.
The political lens provides an entirely different view as best exemplified by the contentious briefing Scott McClellan provided for reporters Monday at the White House, where he was asked more than 30 questions about Rove's involvement in the story and all he was able to offer up was a refusal to comment on an ongoing investigation.
The most important thing to watch going forward is how members of the president's party respond to the swirling controversy. If some Republicans begin to get nervous that the Rove controversy may cause them problems moving their agenda forward, they may begin to speak a bit off-message.
The Republican message, for now, is to label the questions surrounding Rove as purely partisan in nature and to assert that he was simply trying to steer a reporter away from what he saw as a story based on a false premise from a questionable source -- Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador who had been critical of the White House.
Whatever else one thinks, these facts are not in dispute:
A. Rove's attorney has acknowledged that he talked about Plame with Cooper, without mentioning her name, days before Robert Novak's column publicly revealed her identity.
B. Rove (and Rove via McClellan) has repeatedly suggested that he had nothing to do with this story at all.
C. The White House has suggested that any person found to have anything to do with the improper leaking of Wilson's name to the press would be fired.
Some Republicans with standing believe he'll have to make a full and unfettered accounting for his actions, and soon.
Saying he didn't "say her name" or was trying to "wave off" Cooper is, for many, hairsplitting. It may save Rove from legal trouble, but it certainly does not get him free and clear of the political responsibility.
Another sign of potential trouble for Rove is that part of what makes an inside-the-beltway Washington story resonate outside-the-beltway is if it is easily understood by Americans going about living their busy lives.
This story line seems pretty simple: Guy hits administration on Iraq, so the White House potentially breaks the law (or, at least, breaks the rules of decorum in Bush's White House) and gives up his wife, the CIA agent.
Legalese aside, early on in this process, Rove and the White House went out of their way to make it appear as if Rove had absolutely nothing to do with the Plame story.
It now seems clear that he did indeed have some involvement in getting the story into circulation -- or, at least, in spreading awareness about Plame.
Dancing on that fine line between legally and politically questionable behavior is a completely legitimate line to dance on and one that should be noted by the press.
Of course, if no new information comes to light beyond Cooper's e-mail to his editor, the glare of the media spotlight could be quickly refocused on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Rehnquist could possibly announce his retirement or Bush may soon name a nominee to fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat.
Rove has a lot of friends and he understands exactly where the mindset of political Washington is right now, but it isn't clear how far those two advantages will carry him going forward.
Still, the panting on the Left that they may be within reach of bringing down the "architect," as Bush has called him, seems a bit of an overreach. As soon as Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., issues a press release demanding Rove's security credentials be removed -- or Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., calls for a congressional investigation -- the seriousness and legitimacy of the story seem to be cheapened a bit as it gives way to being the political football of the news cycle.
On the other hand, there are a lot of questions that aren't being answered just yet.
Did Rove mislead his colleagues? Where did he get the information? If he is not the target or subject of the investigation, who is? Can he continue to operate effectively or will everything he says publicly be seen through this lens? And that's just to name a few mysteries yet to be solved.
This analysis is a condensed of ABC News' "The Note."