Ever since the election, and indeed starting from early October when it became clear that 2008 would be an anti-Republican blowout, the Beltway bloviators have focused their speculation on one question: who would assume the mantle of leadership for the Republicans after the catastrophe? Would it be their presidential nominee, John McCain? Or perhaps Mitch McConnell, a survivor of the massacre and the leader of the Senate Republicans? Their George Hamilton-look-alike House leader, John Boehner? Or their leader-in-the-wings, Newt Gingrich, prepared to make a return to center stage like DeGaulle’s trek from Colombey-les-deux-Églises as the Algerian conflict brought France to a fall? Today we have the answer. The man to whom the Republicans turn to lead them out of the Sinai is Karl Rove. He’s been the party’s brains and spirit for the last decade, and a large number of Republican elected officials are happy to adopt his schemes to help achieve a comeback. No need to reflect on the inherent merits of the policy decisions they implicate.
Where do we see the evidence of Rove’s rise? The Republican strategists have decided that they will wage a war over one of Obama’s cabinet picks: his nomination of Eric Holder to be Attorney General. Their basis for opposing the Holder nomination will be that he was instrumental in securing a pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich in the waning days of the Clinton administration. As Obama put the Holder nomination on the table, he received assurances from leading Republicans, including Judiciary Committee ranking member Arlen Specter, that, while there would be some questions about the Rich matter, Holder could expect smooth sailing. Suddenly, however, this has shifted, and it is increasingly clear why: Rove urged leading Senate Republicans to take on Holder. This weekend, we learn Rove’s advice was taken and Karl Rove had been tapped to serve as lead strategist in this effort. True to form, Rove was busy telling the Today Show’s Matt Lauer that Holder was the “one controversial nominee.”
ROVE: He was deeply involved as the Deputy Attorney General in the controversial pardon of Marc Rich. … I think it’s going to be clearly examined, if for no other reason that people want to lay down markers that that kind of behavior is inappropriate. … But again, there will be some attention paid to this.
Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post then announced that Rove had been tapped to manage the Republican attacks on Holder.
The ironies of the situation are, as usual, completely lost on the Washington insiders. Rove is widely rumored to now be pressing his former boss for a sweeping, preemptive pardon to avoid the pending criminal investigation into his conduct associated with the U.S. Attorneys scandal. And now he is supposed to coordinate attacks on Holder over another ill-advised pardon? It’s easy to see the Rove maneuver as part of an age-old Washington melodrama. Facing an incoming president who has Teflon qualities (Rovian tactics used against him in the presidential race actually caused his numbers to rise), the Republicans want at least to bloody him a bit by landing punches on his surrogates. Holder is by all accounts a highly qualified candidate, distinguished by his lack of partisan engagement among other things. But he does offer the Republicans an opportunity to relive the last days of Clinton and to link Obama to the campaign theme that the Republicans effectively wielded to secure a Congressional majority and then to take the White House: Clinton sleaze.
That, of course, is just politics. But there’s something fouler afoot here, I think. Karl Rove has his own agenda at Justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s report on the U.S. Attorneys scandal identified the individual whose manipulations produced the firings of eight of the country’s best U.S. Attorneys so they could be replaced with partisan hacks: Karl Rove. The Justice Department’s Inspector General hints at just the same conclusion, but notes that it was thwarted from completing its study by the refusal of Karl Rove and those who worked for him to cooperate with the probe. When the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Rove to testify on these same issues, and his nefarious role in the prosecution of Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman, Rove failed to appear, chosing instead to vacation with post-Soviet Mafiosi at a Crimean resort favored by Stalin. Now a special prosecutor is looking closely into Rove’s dealings and speculation that he may face criminal charges mounts.
This is not Rove’s first brush with the law. He clearly was also involved in the outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, and he lied about it to a grand jury. He narrowly escaped being indicted for this criminal conduct by Patrick Fitzgerald. And in all of these dealings, Rove has held an ace in the hole—political appointees at the Justice Department have undermined the inquiries into him and furnished him with highly improbable cover to avoid answering to Congress. Thus no one in Washington faces greater exposure as a result of the changing of the guard at the Justice Department than Karl Rove.
Thus it appears Rove has two objectives in taking on Holder. The first is to delay the turnover in the attorney general’s office as long as he can, providing more time in which his misconduct can enjoy the cloak of nefarious secret opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel and the attorney general’s own wink-and-nod. The second is to tar Holder as a political player, so that if charges are brought against Rove in the coming administration—as appears increasingly likely, unless Rove gets the pardon he wants for Christmas—Rove can bellow charges of “politics.” The charges would, of course, be brought by a special prosecutor appointed by Bush’s attorney general. But that’s just the sort of detail that frequently gets lost in the political belching that emanates from the nation’s capitol.
Is the Holder nomination in trouble? I don’t think so. In fact, just the opposite. The Republican decision to turn to a figure who is now the target of a criminal probe by the Justice Department to lead its opposition to Obama’s attorney general nomination is a demonstration of the fact that they’re rudderless; another tactical error. The Democrats should return fire, shine a bright spotlight on Rove’s role, and enjoy the process.
But more importantly, this points to the need for swift action in approving the incoming administration’s appointments at the Justice Department. For the last eight years, the nation’s law enforcement agency, once a bastion of integrity that resisted efforts to turn it to partisan use, was converted into center stage for Karl Rove’s efforts to politicize every phase of government. In important areas, such as voting rights and the formulation of policy relating to the war on terror, the Justice Department shifted from law enforcement to law evasion. Felonious schemes were hatched and empowered in its corridors. The strongest evidence of this comes in the scheme to introduce torture and a scheme of domestic surveillance which involved the conspiracy of top players in the department, including the attorney general, his deputy, the head of the criminal division, the new national security section and the Office of Legal Counsel. At one point the entire senior leadership of the department threatened to resign over these policies, forced through at the insistence of Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff.
The actors involved in these dealings have repeatedly “lost” documents and evidence relating to their dealings. For instance, a department ethics attorney who was fired for improper reasons sued the department and documents relating to her case mysteriously disappeared after they had been accessed by a person who went on to head the Criminal Division. In litigation in the Eastern District of Virginia, evidence related to two counterterrorism prosecutions similarly “disappeared.” In other counterterrorism cases, evidence connected with the treatment of detainees, including videotapes, regularly and completely improbably “disappeared.” And now, as the transition date draws near, the department refuses on the most preposterous grounds to share a full set of its secret torture opinions with the new president’s Justice transition team.
All of this suggests gross irregularities perpetrated by individuals who have every reason to be concerned about criminal investigations and prosecutions after they relinquish control of the department—and who today, prompted by disreputable considerations, resist efforts to protect records from spoliation in federal court litigation. It’s time to secure the crime scene.