July 25, 2005,
Recent news reports and commentary have suggested that top White House adviser Karl Rove might be under investigation for perjury in the Plamegate affair. But sources familiar with the probe say the most frequently cited evidence for such speculation an apparent inconsistency between Rove's and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper's accounts of a July 11, 2003, telephone conversation falls far short of being the basis for any prosecution, much less a perjury charge.
Two days ago, in a front-page story headlined "Testimony By Rove And Libby Examined; Leak Prosecutor Seeks Discrepancies," the Washington Post reported that Plamegate special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald "has been reviewing over the past several months discrepancies and gaps in witness testimony in his investigation of the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame." One such discrepancy, the Post reported, involved vice-presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby. The other involved Rove:
Prosecutors have also probed Rove's testimony about his telephone conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in the crucial days before Plame's name was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak.
The apparent discrepancy, first reported by Bloomberg News, is, according to the Post, evidence that Fitzgerald's investigation "has ranged beyond his original mission to determine if someone broke the law by knowingly revealing the identity of a covert operative." Another Post account, citing the Cooper-Rove discrepancy, quoted an informed source saying that Fitzgerald is now " looking at a coverup: perjury, obstruction of justice, false statements to an FBI agent.'"
But speculation that Rove's conversation with Cooper might somehow form the basis of a perjury charge has no basis, according to knowledgeable sources. There are two reasons. The first is that there is solid evidence to support Rove's version of events. The second is that, even if Rove's account were incorrect, a conflict in testimony about welfare reform is not material to the Plamegate case.
First the evidence. Two weeks ago, Rove lawyer Robert Luskin told NRO that Cooper called Rove on July 11, 2003, and that Cooper began the conversation by talking about welfare reform. After a brief talk about that issue, Luskin explained, Cooper then changed the subject to WMDs and the controversy surrounding former ambassador Joseph Wilson.
But when Cooper testified before the grand jury, he said he did not recall talking to Rove about welfare reform "I can't find any record of talking about it with him on July 11," Cooper wrote in his Time account of his testimony, "and I don't recall doing so." That, plus Cooper's statement that he was questioned closely about the issue during his grand-jury testimony, led to the current speculation that Rove might have given a false account of the conversation before the grand jury.
But there is more to the story. Just moments after finishing his conversation with Cooper, Rove wrote a description of the talk in an e-mail to Stephen Hadley, who was then the deputy national-security adviser. The e-mail indicates that the two men did indeed begin their conversation with welfare reform. "Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he's got a welfare reform story coming," Rove wrote in the e-mail, which was first reported by the Associated Press. "When he finished his brief heads-up he immediately launched into Niger..."
The e-mail appears to be solid, at-the-time evidence that the two men discussed welfare reform. "It appears that Rove's recollection of a conversation having been initiated about welfare reform is consistent with a contemporaneous e-mail he wrote to Hadley moments after he hung up the phone with Cooper," says a knowledgeable source.
In addition, in a less-quoted section of his article in Time, Cooper himself acknowledged that he might have inquired about welfare reform. Cooper wrote that after reviewing his e-mails from the days in question, "it seems as if I was, at the beginning of the week, hoping to publish an article in Time on lessons of the 1996 welfare-reform law." Cooper also wrote that, "I may have left a message with his office asking if I could talk to him about welfare reform." (The welfare story, Cooper wrote, was ultimately pushed aside by other news.)
It was not until Cooper went before the grand jury and was questioned at length about the welfare-reform issue did he discuss it with Rove? that Cooper got the idea that the topic might be important. The questioning, Cooper wrote, "suggested that Rove may have testified that we had talked about welfare reform." But Cooper had no memory of that being part of the conversation.
Hence the conflict. But it is a conflict, at least from what is publicly known, between an account Rove's that is supported by an e-mail written at the time, and an account Cooper's that is based on a lack of recollection, hedged by Cooper's concession that he had, in fact, been working on a welfare reform story. That is not, experts suggest, the stuff of perjury.
"Even if [Rove] didn't have that contemporaneous e-mail, it has to be about something material," says Victoria Toensing, a former federal prosecutor who also, as a Capitol Hill aide, helped draft the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. "Whether [Cooper] called [Rove] about welfare reform or the price of milk, it wasn't at the heart of what the testimony was about, which was Valerie Plame. It would never be considered material."
Rather, Toensing says, the difference between Rove's and Cooper's account of their conversation falls within the normal differences in recollection that often occur when two people are asked about the same event. And if such differences were the basis for a perjury prosecution, Toensing says, one might as well speculate that Matt Cooper could face such charges. Both scenarios, she suggests, are ridiculous. "Somebody remembers something as happening on Tuesday, and somebody remembers it happening on Wednesday. People differ in their memory. It's not perjury."
Byron York, NR's White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President and Why They'll Try Even Harder Next Time.