The end-of-term pardons of George W. Bush have already begun, with pardons granted for everything from tax evasion, to killing endangered wildlife, to cocaine possession.
But one of the hottest topics in Washington these days is whether Karl Rove—the “architect” of Bush’s political career and one of the most controversial figures of his presidency—will get a pardon. At present, Rove, who withstood five grand jury appearances in the case concerning the illegal outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, has not been charged with a crime. But he has been linked to the case involving Justice Department firings of U.S. Attorneys which is still under investigation. He also could face legal exposure on a number of other incidents—ranging from a Texas money laundering scandal to the Abramoff case—if newly empowered Democrats attempt to prosecute wrongdoing during the Bush era down the road.
For Bush, pardoning Rove could put his loyalty to a longtime adviser at odds with his desire to protect his legacy.
A pardon by Bush would be pre-emptive. “It would be very Nixonian,” says Roger Stone, the Republican political consultant. “You know—‘I, Gerald Ford, pardon this guy for any crimes he may have committed.’ It’s certainly been done before.”
For Bush, pardoning Rove could put his loyalty to a longtime adviser at odds with his desire to protect his legacy. The controversial pardons issued by President Bill Clinton on his way out of office in January 2001 still haunt him—a blemish on his record he probably didn’t fully foresee when he issued them. As a result, Bush may consider more carefully the pardons he gives, in an effort to keep from further sullying a legacy defined by disappointment on both the national and international fronts.
So what crimes may have Rove committed, for which he could be pardoned? When Rove left the Bush administration in the summer of 2007, insiders believed he was touched by a handful of scandals that contributed to the air of controversy that had come to define his time in Washington. The political seminars orchestrated by Rove in the White House, complete with PowerPoint side shows indicating how Republicans could win certain key races for seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives, were an obvious violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids the use of government property for political activity.
There was the strong belief among insiders that Rove had additional exposure to the polit ical money-laundering scandal in Texas, where corporate contributions were improperly made by the national Republican Party to state campaigns in Texas, which had ended the career of Tom DeLay, the Majority Whip and a political powerbroker. In addition, Rove may have had a deeper entanglement in the illegal business-dealings that sent flamboyant lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison—the reason Rove had his assistant Susan Ralston alter his calendar to cover up meetings he had had with Abramoff. Both Rove’s association with Abramoff and his orders to Ralston to alter his calendar were sources of deep concern.
But the scandal that presents Rove with the greatest legal peril was the purging of several United States attorneys at the beginning of Bush’s second term—as well as Rove’s manipulation of the US attorney system in general, as represented by the case of former Governor Don Siegelman of Alabama, whose conviction and imprisonment for an act that was not a crime is now viewed by many observers as nothing short of a political prosecution. Rove had some knowledge of that prosecution, if not outright complicity. Fear over what he might have to reveal concerning his knowledge of or participation in the Siegelman prosecution, not to mention his apparent proclivity to influence US attorneys, seemingly prevented Rove from appearing before the House Judiciary Committee this summer, even after that committee had subpoenaed him to testify. As yet, Rove has still refused to comply with the committee’s subpoena—a flagrant obfuscation by a former government official.
Then, in September, an internal investigation at the Department of Justice concluded that the 2006 firings of the US attorneys was problematic, which prompted Attorney General Michael B. Mukasy to appoint Nora Dannehy, an acting US attorney in Connecticut, as a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. In particular, Dannehy was charged with seeking information concerning Rove’s participation, if any, in the scandal, since Rove had refused to be interviewed for the Justice Department inquiry. “It’s an ongoing investigation at the moment,” says Tom Carson, a spokesman for the special prosecutor. “Miss Dannehy has to submit a status report within sixty days [of commencing the investigation], but I don’t know the extent to which that will be made public.”
Should Rove be indicated by the special prosecutor before January 20, 2009 (unlikely) or should the House Judiciary Committee seek and receive a contempt of Congress charge, which it could do ( very unlikely), that would make Bush’s decision to pardon Rove easier. “I think Bush pardons Rove on his last day in office regardless,” says George Shipley, a longtime political foe of Rove in Texas. “Bush has to pardon a hundred guys—washboarders, torturers, lawyers who wrote the opinions on torture, the White House political staff who violated the Hatch Act. And Rove.”
Others disagree. “I would think Bush would not want to further damage his presidency by clearing the hired help,” Roger Stone says. “Bush Senior’s pardoning of Casper Weinberger is different. Weinberger was secretary of defense and a social peer of the Bush family. Karl is still the hired help.” What’s more, Bush may not be pleased with the way his presidency has turned out. “Rove is the architect of Bush’s current unpopularity,” Stone says. “He is the architect of failure. Bush might want the judgment of history to be on Karl as well as himself.”
As such, Rove may have worries separate from potential indictments or a possible presidential pardon: his legacy. Within the Republican Party, he is now viewed by many as the mastermind behind one of the greatest collapses of a political party in American history—losing both chambers of Congress in 2006, now the presidency.
That dislike, however, has not necessarily translated to the public. Rove is a highly-paid television commentator and a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, evidence his opinions are still valued, even sought after. He also earns hefty fees for speaking engagements, in part because few political figures can draw a crowd like Rove.
But the overwhelming reality remains. At this time, Bush looks to have had a failed presidency. So is Rove still glad Bush called him the “architect,” since it now appears that what he helped create was years of unmitigated disaster?
Paul Alexander is the author of Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove and Man of the People: The Life of John McCain , among others. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The Nation, New York, The Village Voice, Salon, George, The New York Observer, The Advocate, Men’s Journal, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone. A member of The Authors Guild and PEN American Center, he has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.