Karl Rove's "Out to Lunch" defense.

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Dec. 14 2005 7:26 PM

The "Out to Lunch" Defense

Karl Rove's story doesn't make sense.

Rove: Shifting memories and BLTs 
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Rove: Shifting memories and BLTs

Another of my former Time magazine colleagues has talked to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. This time it's Viveca Novak, with whom I worked on some stories about the Valerie Plame leak case. According to news reports, Karl Rove's lawyer Robert Luskin has told Fitzgerald that a conversation he had with Novak led his client, Rove, to change his testimony to the grand jury in the CIA leak case.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

I'm not buying it.

Rove first testified before the grand jury in February 2004. In that first visit, he said nothing about talking to Time's Matt Cooper. He also didn't mention Cooper in an earlier interview with the FBI. Then, eight months later, in October 2004, Rove returned to the grand jury to alter his earlier account and volunteered that he had talked to Cooper.

According to several witnesses who have been interviewed by Fitzgerald and who have talked to me about their testimony, he appears to be suspicious about that change in Rove's narrative. The special counsel seems to think Rove remembered his conversation with Cooper all along but only testified about it when it became clear that Cooper was going to be forced to give up Rove as his source. If Fitzgerald thinks Rove willfully held back on him, it could be the basis for a perjury or obstruction of justice charge.

Rove's lawyer says there's an innocent explanation. He says it was Viveca Novak's suggestion that Rove might have been her colleague Cooper's source that sent Rove and his lawyer to re-examine Rove's records. In their search, they found an e-mail Rove had sent, shortly after speaking with Cooper, to Stephen Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, telling Hadley about the conversation. After finding the e-mail, Rove revised his account to the grand jury.

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But this doesn't add up. For months before Luskin and Novak talked, the subject of whether Rove had spoken to reporters about Plame was the center of intense national fuss and grand jury scrutiny. Through all of that, Rove failed to remember his conversation with Cooper. Why would his lawyer's conversation with Viveca Novak kick the recollection free?

Rove is relying on the "what I had for lunch" defense. Who among us, Rove defenders have argued to me, hasn't had the experience on a busy day where we can't remember what we had for lunch, or whether we had lunch at all? Bush's top political adviser has a lot on his plate. Rove can't reasonably be expected to remember conversations that may have had no special relevance in his mind at the time they took place with a reporter he was talking to for the first time. Scooter Libby seems likely to rely on a version of this defense, too, though, unlike Rove, he has to prove he forgot about many discussions.

It's true. Karl Rove is a very busy man. He is never at rest even in his own office chair. He spins between multiple computers. His assistants know that in an instant he can be hovering over their shoulders making sure they have the formatting for a document just right. His portfolio seems to include everything but the thickness of the marzipan on the White House Christmas candies. Rove does have a reputation for extraordinary recall when it comes to political facts. But anyone as busy as he is might have forgotten a single conversation with a reporter.

But wouldn't a man who has such a busy life filled with so many distractions have been extra careful to examine his memory and his files when the question of who revealed the identity of Joe Wilson's wife started to become an issue? Lots of important people in Washington were asking, and some of them had subpoena power.

The first time Rove must have considered the question of whether he'd talked about Joe Wilson and his wife was on July 14, 2003, just three days after he spoke to Cooper. That's when a story appeared by Bob Novak (no relation to Viveca) revealing that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. A source close to Rove confirmed to me the widely held speculation that Rove was one of Novak's sources. The story caused a stir because it was a tantalizing new detail in the ongoing White House effort to undermine Wilson's report. Inside the White House it created a little nervousness, because aides had been treating Plame's identity very gingerly. When Bob Novak's piece was printed, wouldn't Rove have wondered whether he'd created a bit of a problem for himself not just by talking to Novak, but by talking to Cooper as well?

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